Swansea’s Graham Potter: ‘Pep’s been influenced by Cruyff. I had Brian Horton’

Before facing Manchester City in the FA Cup the manager discusses the job’s surprises and says he has been advised just to close his eyes

Graham Potter is shaking his head. The Swansea manager has just been told that if you type his name and Pep Guardiola’s into Google, the first story that appears is “Potter is just like Pep”. “Really?” says Potter, looking baffled. The headline came from an interview Bersant Celina gave at the start of the season, after swapping Manchester City for Swansea. Asked for his thoughts now he has the full picture, Potter breaks into laughter as he replies: “Sometimes players say some silly things.”

The conversation is not quite finished, however. A reference to Potter’s footballing beliefs prompts the 43-year-old to acknowledge, with a fair bit of encouragement, that there may be some “similar philosophical comparisons” to Guardiola. Any other parallels? “If you look at his career, he’s been influenced by Cruyff and played at Barcelona. I had Brian Horton and Macclesfield. It’s slightly different, no disrespect to Brian Horton,” Potter says, smiling.

He is talking at Swansea’s training ground, where he has the unenviable task of coming up with a plan to derail City’s pursuit of the quadruple. A handful of teams have beaten the Premier League champions this season, including Leicester, Newcastle and Crystal Palace, but Potter has no intention of looking elsewhere for inspiration. “I don’t want to copy anybody else and think: ‘They got a result doing this.’ I think we need to try as much as we can to be us.”

Following the crowd is not Potter’s style. This is a man who read classics on the team bus as a player, graduated with a master’s degree in leadership and emotional intelligence, and accepted a job “pretty much in the Arctic Circle” to get on the managerial ladder. Seven-and-a-half years, three promotions, a Swedish Cup and a place in the Europa League knockout stages later, Potter left Östersund and returned to English football to “come out of the comfort zone”. And, boy, has he done that over the past nine months.

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Whether dealing with the calamitous financial fallout from Premier League relegation and the “disaster” that was the summer transfer window (the January window was hardly any better), or trying to settle a young family into a new country and a different culture, when they were perfectly happy in Sweden, it has been quite a baptism. Yet despite all that and the prospect of more upheaval at Swansea this summer – there is still a sizeable financial hole to fill – Potter remains totally committed to the job.

“It was a huge move for me to leave Sweden, because I was really happy there. It was a club we thought we could carry on developing and try to win the league with. And my family were really settled. My eldest, Charlie, who is eight, is still pretty much every day saying: ‘Can we go back to Sweden?’ He misses his friends and his school. It’s different. In Sweden they don’t start school until they’re seven. Over here they’re doing tests.

“Regardless of that, the project is to help this club deal with coming out of the Premier League and trying to get back. Now that’s a really challenging job. It’s bigger than even I thought at the start. The challenge is huge, because you have to be competitive, try to win, put an identity together and at the same time face all the financial challenges that are going on, and the discontent of supporter frustration [in relation to off-field matters] … it’s not so easy.

“But I want to make a difference. With my last job I was there for seven-and-a-half years. I want to be here and do something. That takes time and you have to commit to that. You hope the feeling is mutual. I really like the area, the supporters have been great to me, there’s a good feel, there’s potential. But it’s quite a negative situation and it’s trying to get through that to the point where people can see progress.”

The negativity is largely down to the way Swansea’s American owners have run the club. Sixteen first-team players have departed since last summer and only five have arrived, leaving Potter with a callow, imbalanced squad. Did he know it was going to be like this when he accepted the job?

Graham Potter’s coaching skills have been tested by Swansea’s predicament. ‘It’s bigger than even I thought,’ he says of the challenge.
Graham Potter’s coaching skills have been tested by Swansea’s predicament. ‘It’s bigger than even I thought,’ he says of the challenge. Photograph: Athena Pictures/Getty Images

“I would say the answer would be no, because I don’t think I could have predicted when I was in Sweden: ‘This is how it’s going to go.’ But you know the club has a financial responsibility once it’s been relegated, an amount of money that has to be got back in. So you know it’s not going to be: ‘Here’s £40-50m, get us back into the Premier League.’ Because if that was the case, I don’t think I would have got the job.

“There were football assets that we had who you’re looking to move on and generate some money to be able to do things ourselves. Pretty quickly we realised that wasn’t going to be as easy as you thought. I think you’ve got a double whammy of players not wanting to play for us and the market knows your position, so it’s almost a bit of a perfect storm. Disaster, really.”

A fire sale followed and Potter was left with one senior central defender and one fit striker. How he handled that says much about him. “If I go out in the media and say, ‘We need players, we’re struggling’, essentially what you’re doing is saying ‘I don’t believe in these players that I’ve got’.

“I’m trying to tell them at a stage of their career when many of them have not really played: ‘You can play in the Championship, we believe in you.’ I understand exactly the supporters’ frustration. But my job is to help and I tried to do that as best I could.”

Potter had little option but to turn to youth. To provide a bit of context to Swansea’s season, Yeovil are the only EFL club to have given more minutes to players aged 23 and under. Potter talks with pride about the contributions Joe Rodon, Dan James, Matt Grimes, Connor Roberts and George Byers have made, not to mention a 22-year-old striker who has 18 goals to his name. “People said at the start of the season: ‘You need someone who can score 20 goals otherwise you’re dead.’ Literally, like that was a fact,” Potter says. “And I’m like: ‘OK, can we help Oli McBurnie be that guy?’”

Dan James, here scoring a spectacular Cup goal against Brentford, is among the young players whose performances have pleased Graham Potter.
Dan James, here scoring a spectacular Cup goal against Brentford, is among the young players whose performances have pleased Graham Potter. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Results have been inconsistent, which is hardly surprising, but there are encouraging signs too, especially when it comes to the playing style. “I think people turn up and go: ‘We know what we’re going to see.’ And whether it’s good or bad – we haven’t quite mastered the quality of it yet – but in terms of what we’re trying to do, I think there’s a movement towards [an identity],” Potter says.

“But this is the challenge, because we can talk about identity but if you’re losing 1-0 or 2-0 at home and you make a backwards pass [to invite the opposition press], because you want to play through teams, it’s not greeted with universal: ‘We’re working towards our identity here.’ ‘Identity’ and ‘philosophy’ are words that, if you’ve not won, there’s quite a lot of people that don’t care about that.

“And then you can start to see why you lose the identity in the Premier League and why coaches say: ‘It doesn’t matter. We just need to win.’ And in the most competitive league, if as a club you have that [mindset] and you’re Swansea City, I think you’re on the path to [gestures downward]. That’s what I hope the club has learned from the Premier League. As soon as it isn’t different, then all you are is another club in the Premier League.”

Manchester City are at the other end of the spectrum in that respect and the challenge for an inexperienced Swansea side is huge. Then again, Wigan knocked Guardiola’s team out of the FA Cup last season. “Funnily enough, I spoke to Paul Cook [Wigan’s manager],” Potter says. “Not about this game – it was talking generally. And he said: ‘Just close your eyes.’ So if you see me on the bench like that, you’ll know what’s happening.”