A friend of mine supports Brighton, and when he found out I was going to interview Graham Potter, he texted back with a question. Well, not so much a question as a plea. “Ask him about the morons that booed on Saturday night,” he says. “Does he realise that all sensible Brighton fans think he’s doing an incredible job and are very fond of him indeed?”
Last Saturday, Brighton played Leeds at the Amex Stadium. It was a 0-0 draw, and although Brighton were by far the better side there was still a smattering of boos at full-time. They are ninth in the Premier League playing bold passing football, despite a wage bill that should put them comfortably in the bottom six. Until 2011, they were playing in League One at Withdean, an athletics track where the away fans had to watch the game through a discus cage. It felt scarcely believable back then that Brighton would be getting booed off despite being a top-half Premier League side. But here we are.
“Well, it’s nice to hear,” Potter says when he learns of my friend’s encouragement. “And I’m not naive: I know you can’t please everybody. But the majority of people understand where the club’s come from. There’s a lot of good things happening here. But as we know in football, if the result doesn’t go the way you want, the emotion is raw.”
In many ways, managing expectations has been the theme of Potter’s career. When you have built your name on small, incremental improvement – taking Östersund from the Swedish fourth tier to the Europa League in seven years, stabilising Swansea City in the Championship, carefully establishing Brighton as a Premier League force – the bigger picture tends to get overlooked a little. By most measures, Brighton are furiously, miraculously defying gravity. But in extreme closeup, it looks an awful lot like stasis.
Potter is in his third season as a Premier League manager, and his success has seen him linked with all sorts of other jobs: Everton, Tottenham, even England. But listen to him speak about the “noise” and “nonsense” of Big Football, the eternal search for work-life balance, the importance of culture and happiness, and you don’t really get the impression of a guy aching to go 12 rounds with Daniel Levy any time soon. No quick fixes, no short cuts, a fierce intellect with a strong human touch: this is the Potter Principle, and you have to say it’s working out for him so far.
This much is apparent when I ask, with a certain bluntness, why Brighton didn’t just spend the Ben White money on a striker. White was sold to Arsenal for £50m in the summer and for a team consistently underperforming their xG (expected goals), which suggested an inability to put away the chances they were creating, it seemed like a no-brainer. Witness the draw with Leeds, in which first-choice forward Neal Maupay missed two golden chances.
“It sounds easy,” scoffs Potter. “But even if you had that money to spend, that type of transfer fee requires a certain salary, which then affects the whole of your football club. That’s one thing. Then there’s lots of £40m Premier League players that haven’t succeeded. It’s not a guarantee. And there’s a lot of good players in this league that haven’t scored as many as Neal. So it feels a bit simplistic.”
Does xG mean anything to him? “Not really. Well, yes and no. It’s a piece of performance data that can tell you something. But you have to be careful as well. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s not the truth. It’s just a piece of information.” And as if to prove the point, Maupay popped up on Wednesday night with a brilliant 88th-minute equaliser (xG of shot: 0.11) to rescue a point at West Ham.
The point is that anyone can mine the data and tell you a seductive story. But what Brighton are trying to do is more than a story: it’s a way of doing things, a way of playing football, a way of treating people. “You’ve always got to provide a reason why players would come and play for your football club,” Potter says. “And if it’s just finances, then we’ll hit our ceiling, because 95% of the league’s determined by finance.
“So you have to provide something else: an identity, a style that players can identify with. Tariq Lamptey, Rob Sánchez, Jakub Moder, Leo Trossard: they’re getting opportunities to develop their careers, improve their own situation. And then if we’re going to go down that path, we need our supporters to really be on board with that.”
From the outside Potter may cut an implacable, unflappable sort of figure. But as with everyone there are flaws in the edifice. He admits to feeling self-doubt at times. He wishes he read or meditated a little more, but 50 games a season and three young children have largely put a stop to that. What he does strive for is work-life balance. “We like to dehumanise footballers and coaches,” he says. “Culturally, the coach has to be the first in and last out, working long hours, and I understand where that comes from. But it’s about balance, being able to see the bubble for what it is. See the noise for what it is.”
So on Sunday, rather than sitting in a dark room watching tapes of the Leeds game, he took the day off and spent time with his family. He’s kept the same circle of friends from when he was growing up in Solihull. “They don’t care about the Premier League,” he says. “They don’t care about this nonsense.”
Hearing Potter speak like this, you wonder whether, for all the satisfaction and security football has given him, he occasionally wonders whether it is entirely worth it. It’s a question many of us grapple with on a philosophical level: when you think about the Qatar World Cup and climate change and the racism and the greed, is football still a force for good in the world? Was it ever? Can it be?
Potter gives the question some thought. “It’s a transient thing, isn’t it?” he eventually replies. “At any point in time, there’ll be things you can be really proud of. Positive emotions. The sense of connection and love that I think football still brings. And at the same time, there are challenges in football that we face in other areas of society and life. It’s never Shangri-la. But it’s not hell, either.
“When we were going through the breakaway [the European Super League], that felt a bit strange. And then you see the reception that Claudio Ranieri got at Leicester the other day, which was quite a heartwarming moment. I guess it’s like life, you know. That’s why I like football. It’s a lot like life. Sometimes you can’t see the next good thing, and something comes and lifts you up. And just when you think you’ve got it sorted, there’s a kick in the backside coming your way.”
Does he ever find the lack of control maddening? In this country at least, we still cling to the trope of the manager as a sort of all-powerful deity: the megalomaniacal obsessive who bends the game to his will. And yet to watch the Leeds game was to be reminded of all the things a manager does not control. The players, the bounce of the ball, the referee, the conditions, the finances. “It’s an interesting one,” he says. “Culturally, we think we should be able to control it. But the reality is there’s a million things that are uncontrollable.
“Because football fundamentally is a players’ game. It’s not a coaches’ game. You can’t stop every five minutes and make adjustments. You can do some stuff on the sideline, but that’s just for show, really. Mostly the players have to take responsibility.”
Perhaps, in a way, this is the underrated part of management. Because the point at which you recognise you can’t do it all, you also recognise that you need the input of others. Potter is often described as a “people person”, and Brighton are a club crafted largely in the same image: decent folk pulling in a common cause. “That’s one of the reasons I came to this football club,” Potter says. “Not accepting that 95% of the league is determined by finance. Aiming high. Creating an environment that’s special.
“It’s not about having a bunch of nice guys here. You want different people, different perspectives, different characters. But it’s about whether you can share some sort of common ground in terms of how to be, how to act, how to respect each other, how to communicate. How to deal with disappointment. How to deal with success.”
So far in 2021, Brighton have beaten Manchester City and Liverpool, beaten Tottenham and Leicester, drawn with Chelsea and Arsenal. Potter has gone from the coach at Leeds Metropolitan University to the top half of the Premier League in little more than a decade. Is it finally time for this most tactful and self-effacing of coaches to admit that he might actually, you know, be good?
“The logical part of my brain will,” he says. “There’s still a part of the brain where there’s always a little bit of doubt. ‘Are you good enough?’ That type of stuff. But less and less. As you gain more experience, more time in the job, you realise that there’s certain things you do that are … competent.”
Well, it’ll do for now.
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