If you were to take Jose Mourinho, invert everything about him and form a new manager from the strange matter that Inverse Mourinho left behind, you’d probably end up with someone a lot like Brighton & Hove Albion’s Graham Potter. Calm, contemplative, introspective and scholarly, Potter comes across as the Yang to Mourinho’s Yin. That comparison seemingly applies to everything except, apparently, table position. We’ll get to that.
Pep Guardiola recently referred to Potter as “the best English football manager right now,” high praise for a 45 year old manager who only just guided Brighton to a place in the Premier League table that is safe from relegation. But to point that out would be a bit of a disservice. In an interview with Oliver Holt in the Daily Mail on Saturday, Potter touched on his philosophy of the game, one that extends beyond the Xs and Os on the pitch and encompasses a footballer’s whole person. It simply can’t be distilled down into snappy soundbites like gegenpress or tiki-taka.
I read the whole thing. And after 18 months watching and writing about an irascible, acrimonious Jose Mourinho, I absolutely, 100% without reservation, STAN.
“We have spoken about empathy [at Brighton] a lot, because regardless of where we have all come from and regardless of what our individual ambitions are, we are all pretty much the same: we have come from parents, we are going to suffer during our lives, we will all have experiences, nothing different to the next person.
“We have had players lose parents and part of what we have done well is that we have got a supportive environment that accepts that people will be vulnerable at times and will suffer and will be struggling. And that’s OK because the stereotypical environment in a football club is one where we don’t express our feelings, we don’t show vulnerability, we don’t show that we haven’t got all the answers.
“Historically, the coach will be this dominant guy, this alpha male figure that has all the answers and is strong and doesn’t show anything. That is not something I can do. I have to show my feelings and be as real as I can. Things are personal and you have to respect that but it is important that we articulate that, even as professional footballers, we can suffer as well.”
What do you think of when you consider the archetypal football coach? A motivator, yes. Maybe that coach barks orders, red-faced and angry on the touchline, or perhaps one who puts an arm around the shoulder to big up a player who is unmotivated or unconfident. Certainly there’s a hyper-masculine ethos that swirls around coaches in general, and not just football. It’s pervasive throughout sport.
Whatever it is you’re thinking of, it’s probably not what you just read. Suffering? Vulnerability? You mean MORE than what we experience as fans of the Sisyphus of Premier League football clubs? Can footallers even be vulnerable? Is that allowed?
Potter’s quotes come with the context that he was speaking tangentially about the recent loss of his father to cancer. He comes across in his conversation with Holt as erudite, yes. He has, after all, a master’s degree with a focus in emotional development, not exactly the usual path for a top flight English football manager. It’s the fusion of his advanced studies and the life experiences he has faced and continues to face that impact his approach to management. It’s a holistic path. Footballers are not commodities — they’re people first, and people are individuals who must be respected for who they are. Coach the person, and the football follows.
He expounded upon this to the BBC in 2018, just after he assumed the position of manager at Brighton.
“I was fairly rubbish as a player. I was never going to get these great jobs on the back of my glittering playing career. So then I needed to work out how to communicate, how to lead people, how to structure a programme and when you are working in an university, it seemed sensible to take advantage of the programmes that were there.
“The programme that I did I was with surgeons; I spent time with [people from] the military so you are starting to get an understanding of leadership from different contexts. It’s then about applying it to football. Ultimately you still have to try and get good players on the pitch and win football matches.
“You are dealing with people, you are dealing with stress, you are dealing with a loss of confidence, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships. To have an understanding like that is important. It’s not just about putting on a training session.”
Potter’s team bonding methods have been unorthodox, to say the least. Improvisational dance? Check. Dramatic acting? Check. Singing, in a context that is not “new guy at the club sings a song as a hazing ritual” but rather “full group musical theater scenes”? Check again. It’s weird. It shouldn’t work. So far, it has — he’s incredibly well respected by his players.
Maybe it’s because I’m still trying to mentally recover from the short Mourinho regime at Tottenham. Without being too hyperbolic, and with the understanding that trying to survive in a mental health damaging and socially isolationist pandemic over the past year-plus also undoubtedly factors in, the past 18 months have been traumatic. Even dismissing [gestures at everything], watching football has been hard this season. Watching Tottenham even more so. Can I be forgiven for reading about Graham Potter, knowing he is a candidate for Tottenham’s open managerial position, and having that stitch in my chest that has been there since last March loosen just a touch?
I’ve lived through the crabby manager with the negative tactics and severe personality flaws who nevertheless is supposed to just win because he’s a “winner”. It wasn’t very much fun. This feels completely different, and I like it. More than that, I want it.
“For me, it has to be about the process as much as the outcome. I don’t see any other way to look at it. Because the process is my life. It’s the journey. It’s what you do. It’s interactions you have every day.
“We all have to decide what is acceptable and what we focus on, but the process is your interactions with your players, how you are improving them, the decisions you make, the ups and downs of the journey, how you are improving yourself, how you are improving the team, the failure, the heartache, all that stuff. It has to be that.
“If I look back at my career over 15 years, by focusing on the process I have managed to get better. I am not here because of any special quality necessarily. I have just tried to improve and put myself in situations where I have had a chance to work with some fantastic people who have challenged me, who have made me question things and, by a process of getting up and succeeding and failing and going again, you eventually grow to be the person I am today and I am very, very grateful for that.
“I wouldn’t swap that for any outcome because it’s been my life. I’m not saying my way is the best way or the worst way. It’s just my life and I have a right to choose how I want to live it and I choose to live it that way. I know I am in a results business and I know I have to get certain results and if I don’t, I get criticised but I am all right with that as well.”
I’ve been a Tottenham Hotspur fan since 2007. My first full season was the two-points-in-eight-matches debacle that saw Juande Ramos fired and Harry Redknapp brought in as the relegation savior. I’ve lived through some rough times, but even in the last days of Andre Villas-Boas and the seemingly interminable Tim Sherwood era, I never got to the point where I disliked my club.
But I got there a few months ago, and while I never talked about it on the site, it became harder and harder for me to drag myself in front of the TV to watch, and even harder to plop in front of a keyboard to write about it on a daily basis. That pales in comparison to so many real-life difficulties faced by others, I know. But trauma is real. Just because it manifests itself in something as unequivocally silly as professional sports, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Tottenham has been a formative part of my life for the past 15 years. Watching the club transform into something dislikeable has been extremely painful
So can you blame me for wanting something different this time around?
“I want to look back on my life and think about the people I have helped, the relationships I have had, the difference I have made to people’s lives because that’s the beauty of coaching: you can have that possibility.
“The players want you to help them become a better footballer. The trick is to try to help them become a better person by being a bit more self-aware, taking a bit more responsibility, and that can help you be a better footballer as well as a better person.
“On the way, I understand, you have to win football matches because that’s part of the process, that’s what helps you, that’s the journey, the defeats, the success, but I’m still competitive. I’d rather win than lose, that’s for sure, but I know it is a process and it is wonderful that you can work with people.
“It’s a results business but it’s a people job. If you don’t manage the people, you are in trouble.”
I don’t know if Graham Potter is a manager who can take Tottenham Hotspur to a Premier League title. We’ve talked on several occasions on this website about his clubs’ almost baffling xG underperformance, and how the underlying metrics mean in a just world Brighton would be much higher up the table right now. Potter is currently at a club where his ethos fits in remarkably well. He is well loved by his club, the fans, and his players. It’s unknown whether Potter can translate these methods to a club that has been on the cusp of greatness for the better part of a decade, or whether those methods are sustainable over the long run.
Maybe, too, he doesn’t end up at Spurs. Daniel Levy hasn’t made an offer that we’re aware. Potter also seems like the kind of manager who is more interested in a place that offers a good fit, and is less concerned with relentlessly climbing the ladder towards better and better jobs. He has dismissed talk of the open Spurs position recently. Maybe he doesn’t even want the job.
These are good questions to ask. I don’t have the answers.
What I believe, however, is that regardless of whether he can “Pochettino” Tottenham to silverware, in the aftermath of one of the most caustic and divisive managers Spurs have appointed since George Graham, Potter is absolutely the manager that Spurs need right now. I want a club that I can love again, led by a genuinely good person who can inspire loyalty, even if the results don’t come, or don’t come straight away.
I won’t speak for others... but for me, in this moment, that’s enough.