Graham Potter interview: Brighton boss on Swedish fourth tier, rap concerts and ballet

Brighton and Hove Albion boss Graham Potter explains how taking his players out of their comfort zones - including a rap concert - helped to forged his footballing beliefs; Watch Brighton vs Southampton on Monday Night Football from 7pm, kick-off at 8pm

Watch Brighton vs Southampton live on Sky Sports Premier League as part of Monday Night Football from 7pm; kick-off at 8pm
Image: Watch Brighton vs Southampton live on Sky Sports Premier League as part of Monday Night Football from 7pm; kick-off at 8pm

Ahead of facing Southampton on Monday Night Football this week, Brighton boss Graham Potter explains to Sky Sports his dream of getting the Seagulls in 'perfect alignment' and how Swan Lake, a rap concert and Swedish culture have shaped his management style.

Identity (noun).

The characteristics determining who, or what a person or thing is.

The word has become somewhat of a footballing cliché, a buzzword of questionable meaning. Often a banal explanation of something largely intangible and entirely subjective, be it a style of play or a focus on youth. When times are tough, the idea is normally cast aside regardless as results rapidly become a greater priority.

In Graham Potter's career, identity has meant a lot more than passing sequences, six-second transitions or academy graduates. That's not to say his Brighton side aren't built in his image; the stats don't lie about the expansive, easy-on-the-eye philosophy which has changed perceptions around the Amex Stadium in the past 18 months, with Southampton the next visitors on Monday Night Football from 7pm.

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Potter's beliefs are more holistic, something difficult to achieve in a world of directors of football, increasingly convoluted boardrooms and axe-swinging owners. His own philosophy has always been unorthodox, certainly open-minded, underpinned by an unwavering belief in the long game. Thankfully, it is a worldview his chairman shares.

Brighton sit 16th but have had more shots than leaders Tottenham and only Manchester City have faced fewer, while off the pitch, they are in better shape than ever under Dan Ashworth, the man credited with England's international success across a number of age groups in recent years.

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The Seagulls' position will not shake their manager, who tells Sky Sports the only way to improve results is to "keep doing what we're doing," borne from a steadfastness which stems back a long way.

Soon after retiring from playing, Potter coached Leeds Met and then Hull University sides while himself completing two degrees. They were times he admits were a "tough period" in his life after leaving the professional game, but ones he freely admits changed him for the better as he began to cement a faith in avoiding the shallowness of short-termism.

"It was a time where you could make mistakes, try again, fail," he tells Sky Sports. "Your job isn't under pressure in terms of being sacked, which is the reality of professional management.

"Being there five years gave me a chance to learn from the other sports, a lot of the Olympics sports were based at Leeds Met, and the university sides I was coaching were at a good level."

That freedom, without the managerial axe hovering over his head, allowed him to build his own identity, as well as a willingness to try new ideas. Those beliefs would follow him to his first senior job as manager of Swedish fourth-tier Ostersunds FK, a side few in Scandanavia, let alone England, had heard of at the time of his appointment in 2011.

Although results had become a necessity, flying under the radar allowed Potter to continue to pioneer a style which his sides have kept to this day while developing the club at the same time, as their rapid ascent to the Swedish top flight would attest.

"We needed something which differentiated ourselves from the conventional football in Sweden at the time; 4-4-2, lots of straight lines, long balls, crosses," he says. "It's about making a choice.

"We just thought if we competed on those terms, it would be very difficult for us. The technical players conventional football didn't appreciate so much, we were able to pick up and develop.

"We appeared to be more of a development club as well, and eventually if you can align a good recruitment process and identity with a good environment, you can gain belief and momentum and that's what happened with us."

Building that environment played as much of a role for Potter as any of his tactics sessions. While in charge, Ostersunds developed a 'culture academy' to bring players and staff out of their comfort zones and challenge them outside of football, under the eye of local artist Karin Wahlen, who became what may have been the world's first culture coach.

Their manager had proven himself open to new ideas, and now it was their turn.

Graham Potter led Ostersunds to become the first Swedish team to beat Arsenal in Europe with a Europa League win at the Emirates in 2018
Image: Graham Potter led Ostersunds to become the first Swedish team to beat Arsenal in Europe with a Europa League win at the Emirates in 2018

You could probably count on one hand - or none - the number of players across the English leagues who have taken part in a performance of the ballet Swan Lake, or put their art on display in an exhibition, but this soon became par for the course for Potter's squad.

"Scottish born in 1986, not from the streets but the Highland sticks, that's all I can say to the audience, hey, over and out from Kyle Macaulay," was the rap performance of one of his scouts during a concert held alongside one of Sweden's native tribes, in front of 1,600 of the club's fans, months before their famous Europa League win at Arsenal two years ago.

"The players hated it at first," Wahlen tells Sky Sports. "But we ended up having a lot of fun and life time memories. And it gave them courage, too. It's not always the one who is the bravest on the pitch that is bravest on stage.

"It was controversial having a football club in the Swedish top-flight working with culture. People assumed that men can't or won't have the possibility to think about anything besides football, or perhaps FIFA when they get home.

"There was something exciting about getting a group of men to do ballet. The risk is that if we assume that men don't have the capacity to do anything besides play football or video games, then it can becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Graham was a true inspiration to work with - and he always took a lead role, even if he thought it was scary."

The methods may not have followed Potter back to these shores - thankfully so, in the case of the raps - but the identity behind them certainly has.

"It was about being open to new things, stripping away the barriers which sometimes exist in a team, all the hierarchies, and developing players as people," Potter recalls. "You get to see people at a human level.

"It would be wrong for me to pick up that and copy and paste it here. I've kept the theoretical reasons why we would do that and tried to apply them in a different way.

"It's fundamentally about whether you can build an environment which is empathic, where players can appreciate the differences amongst us, sometimes we want everyone to think how we think. Teams and groups can be better when there's a difference.

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"We've got a multicultural environment here, which is a gift, something we should cherish and appreciate. Just because we see the world one way doesn't mean the guy sitting next to us does, and we talk about that a lot."

Perhaps Potter and Brighton are the ideal match. Leaving survival until the final day in Chris Hughton's final season played a part in his departure, but despite more than £50m of investment, safety was only assured one game earlier in 2019-20.

Owner Tony Bloom, who made his fortune in betting and poker, was the perfect man to see past the results, much like his manager, with Brighton's sea change on and off the pitch never an overnight job. Looking below the surface was the same thinking which brought Danny Welbeck, a man with 42 England caps but without a club after release by relegated Watford, to the Amex this summer.

"Injuries are part of football, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the end and Danny wanted to prove that, we want to help him," Potter says.

"He's trained really well with us, conducted himself fantastically, looks like he's enjoying playing with the team and the players, and he's got qualities. The past is the past, but he hasn't had the career he's had without the quality he brings."

Danny Welbeck has played all-but four minutes of Brighton's last three Premier League games, having started only eight times for Watford last season
Image: Danny Welbeck has played all-but four minutes of Brighton's last three Premier League games, having started only eight times for Watford last season

Tariq Lamptey's story chimes a similar note of thinking outside the box - the English youngster arrived from Chelsea last January with only three appearances to his name - but has already cemented his place in the Brighton ranks and has become an outside bet for next summer's European Championships squad.

Sooner rather than later, the results will have to tally up with the underlying groundwork, even if Brighton's transfer outlay has been rather more frugal this year. Will that dream of aligning recruitment, environment and, of course, identity come to fruition on the south coast?

"We know we have to get results, that's the business we're in," he admits. "I always think, though, that if people can recognise the team, what you're trying to do, people can recognise that clarity.

"You can't win all the time, but it's important people have a belief in what you're trying to do - and that's the ultimate challenge. Hopefully we can get to a point where there is a clarity, an identity, everything's aligned, there's belief among supporters and players, and then you can achieve.

"Of course, it sounds easier sitting here, but it's not so easy in the Premier League. That's why football's so great, it's the hardest game in the world."

Watch Brighton vs Southampton on Monday Night Football on Sky Sports Premier League from 7pm; Kick-off at 8pm.

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