We speak to Swedish football journalist Frida Fagerlund about Graham Potter’s time in charge of Ostersund, a tiny club that embarked on a meteoric rise under our new head coach’s guidance…
‘It’s like a different world up there. The people, the nature. It’s way colder than even Stockholm!’
Frida Fagerlund is talking about the small city of Ostersund in northern Sweden. It is closer to the Arctic Circle than the Swedish capital, with its 50,000 inhabitants much more likely to show interest in cross-country skiing than football.
In 2011, the local team Ostersunds FK were plying their trade in front of a couple of hundred people in one of six regionalised leagues in Division 2, the fourth tier of Swedish football. It was an unlikely setting for Graham Potter’s first significant foray into management, but encouraged by an owner with grand ideas, the 35-year-old Potter took the plunge.
Five seasons and three promotions later, there was no doubt his decision had been vindicated.
‘People started getting curious about him when Ostersund won promotion to AllsvenSkan [Sweden’s top flight],’ recalls Fagerlund.
‘The way Potter played was different. You could tell this was a team that, even though they weren’t favourites or a big club, they wanted to play proper football. They didn’t just defend in a low block or anything like that. It’s what we have seen at Swansea and Brighton since.
‘Ostersund were so flexible. They could change formation during the game. If you take AIK, who won the title in 2018, they were very much 3-5-2. They didn’t have any other way of playing.
‘Ostersund were very different. They could play 4-3-3, 3-5-2, 4-4-2. Potter would look at a squad, and look at the opponents, and then decide what he would do. He is so flexible, and I would say he changed the way football was played in Sweden.’
Fagerlund’s career in football journalism was just starting when Ostersund started to make waves in the AllsvenSkan. As a young reporter, she was tasked with making the long journey from Stockholm to Ostersund to cover the pinnacle of this fairytale rise.
‘It was a quirky story. The players and coaching staff did ballet and dancing and singing and theatre, to forge closer bonds and develop teamwork. They were things that maybe weren’t appreciated by the average football supporter in Sweden, but Ostersund really did their own thing throughout.
‘The locals loved it. If they had done the same thing in the south, people wouldn’t have been very keen! It helped everything was new. Even their fans behaved differently to other fans. They were more supportive and loving. It was almost like a cult!
‘Winning the Swedish Cup in 2017 was key. That meant they qualified for the Europa League, which nobody thought was possible. They beat some big teams, and that was when the Ostersund story really took off.’
Fagerlund was there to watch it play out. They stunned Galatasaray in the second qualifying round, winning 2-0 at home and drawing 1-1 away, before easing past Fola Esch of Luxembourg. Only PAOK, Europa League opponents of our own the following season, stood between Ostersund and a place in the group stage.
They were beaten 3-1 in Greece in ‘an aggressive, hostile atmosphere’, Fagerlund remembers, but Potter didn’t panic before the return leg.
‘He was so calm,’ she says. ‘He didn’t seem nervous at all. He was the exact same as he is today in press conferences. He never gets nervous.
‘The way he behaved helped the players stay calm. They realised that if they focused on themselves, it was going to go well. And it did. It was an incredible journey with some incredible games.’
Ostersund beat PAOK 2-0 on home, artificial turf. Saman Ghoddos, now at Brentford, netted both goals in the final 20 minutes, and Ostersund would go on to flourish in the group stages, beaten just once, and pipped to top spot by Athletic Bilbao only on head-to-head record. Arsenal did eventually get the better of them in the last 32, but not before Ostersund won at the Emirates.
‘He didn’t have a big squad when he did it,’ Fagerlund notes.
‘A few days after they played Galatasaray, they were playing Djurgarden, one of the biggest Swedish teams. He changed almost the whole starting XI to rest them before the second leg, and Ostersund won the game, 2-1.
‘Everyone was amazed but not surprised. He’s so good at creating a standard for the whole squad. It doesn’t matter what qualities they have, as long as they do the job, they get the results. He identified other players who could fill their shoes. He’s very good at details like that.
‘Most of the players he had at his disposal were rejects,’ continues Fagerlund.
‘Take Ghoddos, for example. He was rejected by Trelleborg, my team, who play in the Second Division. He had to work as a phone salesman before he got a contract with Ostersund. Under Potter he flourished, and became the best player in the Allsvenkan.’
It is getting the best out of what he has to work with that stands out to Fagerlund, who now covers the Premier League for Swedish television and a leading newspaper in her homeland, Sportbladet.
‘He is so good at reading people. He understands people. You can tell his players find him very genuine. They can see he is honest. There is nothing insincere with him. He is good at handling players, even ones who might be annoyed at not getting enough minutes.
‘I was at his last game in Ostersund before he moved to Swansea. The players were so down. They were saying it was all over, and that Graham Potter was irreplaceable. He was so vital to their success.
‘He’s very likeable. He’s so kind. He sees the person. Potter’s tactical mind is class, and the way he behaves with his players and the way he treats them is why they follow his instructions so well.
‘He has all the tools. There is no-one like Graham, he’s one of a kind. He goes his own way, as you can see by him taking such an usual move to go to Ostersund. He’s remarkable.’
Potter’s progress since his seven years in Sweden has been well-documented in England, and closely followed in the country that became a second home to him and his family. Fagerlund says Potter’s progress has imbued a pride in Swedish football similar to that felt when another English manager who made his name in Scandinavia, Roy Hodgson, started taking on big managerial jobs.
Over 500 kilometres from Stockholm and a million miles from Stamford Bridge, the fans of Ostersunds FK will be keeping a keener eye than any on how their greatest boss fares at Chelsea.