An Englishman in Sweden: Graham Potter and the remarkable rise of Östersunds FK

Ostersunds FK

Ahead of their history-making Europa League qualifier against Galatasaray we look at the remarkable rise of provincial outfit Östersund FK’s to the top of Swedish football…

“I don’t think British managers can compete for the top jobs at the present moment because they haven’t got the experience of winning titles or playing in the Champions League. Why not go abroad?”

These were the words of ex England manager Steve McClaren over seven years ago, in 2010, but they still resonate today. Few managers seem willing or able to try their hand outside of the UK.

A small band of British managers though have grabbed their chance to learn more about the game outside of the British Isles and had success. You will often hear names like Terry Venables, Bobby Robson and John Toshack mentioned when these norm-breaking British managers are discussed. However, in recent years, a less heralded British manager has quietly been building something special in northern Sweden with Östersunds FK.

Graham Potter has taken the club, based almost 600km from the capital Stockholm, from the fourth tier up to Sweden’s highest division, the Allsvenskan. His hard work, coupled with their chairman’s vision, will culminate in Thursday’s Europa League tie with Turkish giants Galatasaray. It is a remarkable story for a club that was only formed in 1996 and has a number of twists and turns.

Östersunds FK (ÖFK) hold a slightly controversial place in Swedish football as they are such a new club and were formed by a cooperation between three clubs, IFK Östersund, Ope IF and Östersund FF.

The idea was to bring the city’s clubs together to create one regional super club that could eventually play in Sweden’s top tier. Östersund is by far the largest city in its region of Sweden, Jämtland. Over half of the region’s 112,000 people live in or around Östersund, giving the city a great deal of regional influence and importance.

In addition, the fact that Jämtland is quite an isolated region has made its residents fiercely proud of their area and deeply patriotic towards their little slice of Sweden. If you visit Jämtland you will not see many Swedish flags but you will see a swathe of flags bearing the blue, white and green colours of The Republic of Jämtland.

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In the 1960’s local actor and director Yngve Gamlin first proposed the idea of Jämtland’s independence. The move was admittedly half tongue in cheek, but shows the connection Jämtlanders feel towards their region.

There is an annual festival held there every year which celebrates, “the ancient can-do spirit of the people of Jämtland,” and aims to “show the rest of Sweden that although this region is sparsely populated its people have the zest, courage and knowledge to create a festival of international size and standard.”

This gets down to the heart of why having a strong and successful football team is so important to Östersund and the whole region of Jämtland. The region is desperate to prove its importance and that it is a significant and prominent part of Sweden. Consequently, many in the area were behind the idea of their clubs working together so they could have more national clout.

However not everyone inside and outside the region was happy – for many this collaboration would mean the death of three traditional clubs within Jämtland and would give the newly formed club an unfair advantage. IFK Östersund in particular are an old and traditional Swedish club formed in 1908 and many of its fans, as well as Swedish football traditionalists, worried about the impact cooperation would cause.

In practice this cooperation meant that the newly formed ÖFK took over the league place of Östersund FF and as both Ope IF and IFK Östersund had a historical rivalry they refused to merge, opting instead to work in parallel with the new club. It was decided then that ÖFK could have Östersund FF’s place and Östersund FF ceased to exist. The newly formed team began life in the Swedish third tier.

Tensions rose as the other clubs felt they were losing their autonomy and as ÖFK grew bigger the other clubs felt that their cooperation was becoming too much of a one-way street. In 2006 the partnerships ceased to exist and the clubs no longer shared any resources and their formal agreements were dissolved. Currently both IFK Östersund and Ope IF have fallen into the sixth tier of Swedish football and play in front of tiny crowds. Clearly the fears of their fans and others were realised.

ÖFK on the other hand have grown significantly and are clearly now the pre-eminent club within the region. However their ascent was not straightforward. After narrowly missing out on promotion in their second and third seasons they found themselves stuck in the third tier until 2010 when they were relegated down into the fourth tier. Far from giving Jämtland something to be proud of, they were seemingly in decline. The project was wobbling and clearly needed significant changes to get back on track.

During the mid-2000’s the club’s director of football, Daniel Kindberg, had managed to forge links with Swansea City (who even played ÖFK in the team’s inaugural game at their new stadium, Jämtkraft Arena, which the Swans won 6-0). The stadium was built to be used by a number of clubs in the region but the 8,466 capacity clear suggested the city was hoping ÖFK would grow big enough to regularly fill it.

Kindberg was friends with Roberto Martinez and his regular assistant manager Graeme Jones. This gave the club a slightly British tinge with a number of Swansea players coming over to play for ÖFK on loan with players such as Modou Barrow moving the other way. After their relegation ÖFK decided to look to the UK for a new coach and new sense of direction and this led to them approaching Graham Potter.

Graham Potter – Ostersund’s miracle man

Potter was a relatively good player, playing briefly in the Premier League for Southampton, but he spent much of his playing career in the lower leagues. After his career finished in 2005, he spent time in a variety of coaching roles including as assistant coach for the England Universities Squad. ÖFK gave him his first chance to be a number one and he grabbed it with both hands.

Potter and Kindberg formed a real bond and both tried to instigate a culture change at the club. Potter introduced more modern and professional training methods and instilled many of the values and skills he learnt playing professionally.

He proved himself immediately, taking the club back into the third tier after his first season in charge and then to the giddy heights of the second tier, the Superettan after winning back to back promotions.

For ÖFK this was a big step up. The Superettan is not a regional league, which meant a great deal of travelling for Potter’s men. It also meant playing far more developed clubs with big histories and strong squads. In their first season at that level they did relatively well finishing 10th but after rising so quickly they were hoping to reach the top tier sooner rather than later. In the 2014 season they showed progression, finishing fifth.

2015 was to be their year and remarkably, just four seasons after being in the fourth tier, Ostersunds finished 2nd in the Superettan to move into Allsvenskan for the first time in their history. Potter had assembled a strong squad that included English midfielder Jamie Hopcutt and Bosnian striker Dragan Kapčević who scored 25 goals between them.

Around this time, the Daily Mail noticed what Potter and Kindberg (who had by then become chairman) had built and went to talk to them. Both manager and chairman had decided than it was important to build the players off as well as on the pitch and had thus decided to introduce a scheme where Kindberg set the players a cultural challenge every year to expand their knowledge and skill base.

When the Mail visited northern Sweden it was to see the novel spectacle of the team putting on a modern dance to the music of Swan Lake, with both manager and chairman joining in.

They hoped this kind of thinking and their unique approach would make an impact on the Allsvenskan. It is relatively common for newly promoted teams to do fairly well in their first season in the Allsvenskan – fewer than half of clubs are relegated in their debut season. The fact this was Ostersunds’s first season ever at the highest level meant fans were braced for a tough season. They need not have worried.

With Potter’s management and eye for talented players, Ostersunds finished a very respectable eighth with new signing Saman Ghoddos playing particularly well, scoring 10 goals in 27 games. His form even saw him called up to Sweden’s national team in January this year.

It was an amazing season for one of Sweden’s newest clubs and seemingly vindicated the decision made in 1996. Kindberg however still wanted more.

Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet noted that in Sweden he is seen as ‘strong-man’ type of chairman who likes to rule over every aspect of the club and keep a tight grip on his position at the top. Ahead of the start of this season, Aftonbladet spoke to him to discuss the fact everyone was so impressed by their debut season in Allsvenskan. Kindberg responded to this praise saying, “Eighth? It is f***ing embarrassing to come eighth. We will win the Allsvenskan.”

Kindberg is clearly not the type to rest on his laurels.

Amazingly for ÖFK, things have become even better since the end of last season. The Swedish Cup is played almost in its entirety before the start of the new season, which this year began in April, with the cup starting in February. By the time the start of the 2017 season rolled around ÖFK had a cup final to look forward to.

They had beaten fellow Allsvenskan side BK Häcken in the semi-final in March and faced the 2015 Allsvenskan winners Norrköping in the final. The final was played at ÖFK’s stadium and they brushed Norrköping aside beating them 4-1 in the final, claiming their first ever piece of silverware.

Perhaps more importantly, winning the cup meant playing in this season’s Europa League, as they enter in the second qualifying round. This caps off a quite amazing period from 2010 to now which has seen them rise from the fourth tier to hosting European football in Jämtland. They won the cup in April and their fans have been dreaming about the draw since then, hoping for an exciting tie.

Ostersunds FK Svenska Cupen

Ostersunds FK – Swedish Cup winners 2017 (via ghanasoccernet)

Drawing Turkish giants Galatasaray has provoked slightly mixed feelings. It is an incredibly tough tie but the opportunity to see players like Wesley Sneijder and Bafétimbi Gomis as well as to travel to a 52,000-seater arena has fans and players alike excited, with Saman Ghoddos calling it a, “dream draw.” They might also take heart from Romanian side Astra Giurgiu who managed to knock West Ham out twice in a row in qualifying.

Whatever happens it will be a special night at the Jämtkraft Arena and will give the whole region something to cheer about. They are unlikely to defeat their illustrious opponents but with the strength and ability of Graham Potter coupled with the ambition and knowhow of Daniel Kindberg don’t be surprised if this is not their only crack at Europe.

In fact ÖFK are currently only out of the Allsvenskan’s European places on goal difference, with a 2nd or 3rd placed finish guaranteeing a place in Europa League qualifying. They sit eight points off first placed Malmo with 17 games left to play. Perhaps Kindberg’s assertion that they will win the Allsvenskan could come true after all. 

Words: Jozef Brodala | Main image credit: Fotbollskanalen

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