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Are there lessons that Sunderland could learn from the innovative Graham Potter & Östersunds FK?

Could Sunderland learn a thing or two from Potter and Östersunds FK’s bizarre approach to football?

IFK Goteborg v Ostersunds FK - Allsvenskan Photo by Anders Ylander/Ombrello via Getty Images

Like every other football fan, I consume all sorts of footballing content over the course of a week. Podcasts, for example, are a god-send as I can’t stand the radio. I mean, you can listen to the radio for a couple of hours and the same song has been on two, maybe three times... perhaps I’m just morphing into a cantankerous old bastard, but I just can’t stand the monotonous repetition of it.

Social media (Twitter in particular) is also an absolute gold-mine in terms of turning up gems of footy-related literature. I love to read, it’s incredibly relaxing whilst also being intensely stimulating, and subsequently, every now and then an article pops up that genuinely fascinates me - though, if truth be told, that doesn’t take much.

This week’s treasure comes from The Coaches’ Voice - an absolutely brilliant website that examines the view of the coaches themselves, unsurprisingly.

Swedish football’s English success story, Graham Potter of Östersunds FK, is the focus of the article in particular that really captured my attention, and as I eagerly read the enthralling piece, I couldn’t help but feel that some of the Swedish side’s philosophies could certainly be practiced to good effect on Wearside... if someone was brave enough to try them out.

Ostersunds FK v Halmstad BK - Allsvenskan Photo by Johan Axelsson/Ombrello via Getty Images

So, Graham Potter, a former Southampton player who gained a Masters degree whilst coaching at Leeds Metropolitan University ended up becoming the manager of a fourth division Swedish side - it sounds like the plot of a particularly odd novel, yet this is fact not fiction.

Within five years the club were in Sweden’s top division, and within seven they had won their first major trophy, the Svenska Cupen. Next came Europe where Potter masterminded wins against Galatasaray, PAOK, Hertha Berlin, and Zoryha Luhansk as well as drawing at home against Athletic Bilbao - quite the maiden Europa League campaign that will see the side from central Sweden take on Arsenal in the knockout round of 32.

The first thing I noticed in the article was the manner in which Potter talked about the club’s Chairman, Daniel Kindberg:

There was a clarity about him. It struck me the first time we met. He had a clear idea of what he wanted from the football club, and an understanding that Östersund’s location meant he had to do something different to get it. And I could see he had the courage to do just that.

He was a visionary. Like I said, I was sold. On his vision of a football club that was different. A club that was looking to make a difference.

I honestly snorted with envious derision when reading that segment. Imagine a chairman with a plan for the future? A vision? Is that how they’re supposed to work? Do they not all bring in riddlers with the aim of curbing costs?

Imagine if we had a Chairman with a vision and the ability to inspire those around them? Confidence, and energy spent on enhancing the club rather than streamlining ahead of a potential sale - it’s a pipe dream.

However, dare to dream for just second and allow yourself to entertain that notion. Imagine having someone in charge with that much energy and desire to succeed? It would be a fantastic catalyst going forward, yet seems like an unreachable dream to many Sunderland fans right now.

New Sunderland Manager Chris Coleman Press Conference
De facto Chairman?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

But it wasn’t just the senior management that had me green with envy, it was also the way in which Potter spoke about being something new in the world of football, how he tried to get away from losing mentalities and sheer negativity:

In football, we focus on the mistake. We want to blame something, or someone. But in the military and the operating theatre – life-and-death situations – it’s the opposite. It’s about how you deal with the mistake. And creating an environment that allows you to learn from it.

In my first season at Östersunds, this was key.

Negative results would spiral into negative feelings. Negative attitudes. I had to get the players to enjoy their football. To come away from the traditional blame and fear culture. To understand that mistakes, failures, losses will happen – but that we have to try and respond in a good way.

As a Sunderland fan the last several years have felt like doom on loop as we’ve steadily regressed to the point where we’re sitting in the relegation zone of the Championship. To have someone able to reverse our failure-laden psyche would have been a real tonic.

Allardyce managed to find a way, and Coleman looks to be taking steps in the right direction, yet the damage wrought by David Moyes and to an extent several managers before him seems irreversible to most mere mortals, and thus we find ourselves praying for a miraculous escape from the drop once more.

Potter’s studies in psychology have encouraged him to try different approaches to man-management methods, and the proof seems to be in the pudding as Potter’s men have found flowing success since his appointment.

2018 EFL Championship Football Bristol City v Sunderland Feb 10th
Will he change our losing culture?
Photo by Nathan Munkley/Action Plus via Getty Images

It wasn’t just good training and man-management techniques, however, that helped Potter cultivate such an incredible team ethos, but rather he noted that:

I had to find a way to develop that side of the players. To develop the human being outside of the football pitch.

The chairman came up with an idea.

A ‘culture academy’, exposing players to aspects of life they wouldn’t normally experience. Every January, we announce a performance art project that everyone at the club – myself included – works on throughout the season, with scheduled rehearsals and workshops. Then, come November, we perform.

Would the likes of O’Shea and Oviedo be up for singing and dancing in front of an audience? Probably not, but to Potter this was so much more than a publicity stunt:

People ask what ballet or singing has to do with performing on a football pitch. It’s a hard thing to quantify. But you see individuals grow. And if you’re more confident, more self-aware, better at taking responsibility and at understanding the viewpoints of others, then I believe it enables you to carry out your football actions in a better, clearer way.

To Potter, these odd techniques are all key to cultivating a side capable of handling pressure and dealing with the unknown.

His words gave me an odd sense of optimism, because while Chris Coleman won’t have the lads singing and dancing in the Royalty anytime soon, he certainly seems like a man intent on breeding a sense of unity, spirit and determination into his side - perhaps with a dose of unconventional wisdom guiding his cause.

Saturday’s pulsating draw showed me that there is something in this group that wants to learn, that wants to fight, and wants to find a path to success, and that is down to Coleman alone.

2018 EFL Championship Football Bristol City v Sunderland Feb 10th
Photo by Nathan Munkley/Action Plus via Getty Images

And so, while Coleman and this club could certainly learn a little from Potter and Östersunds FK, perhaps the most important thing to note is the need for clarity, ambition and the will to succeed.

In Chris Coleman, Sunderland have those traits in abundance, but the big question that needs to be asked is whether those above Coleman reflect those same values?

Perhaps those in control of the club might do well to take a look in the mirror, and ask themselves whether some unconventional thought might just help remedy a troublesome situation. We’ve trodden the same path for quite some time now, and things just don’t seem to be improving as rapidly as need be - they need to ask themselves: could it really get any worse if they tried something different?

Graham Potter and Östersunds FK deserve all the success they can find for themselves; through ambition and unique approaches to running their club, they’ve found a situation that works for them. Hopefully, we’re next!

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