Graham Potter is now a Premier League manager with Brighton after earning plaudits for his work in Sweden, so could this mark a turning point for those British coaches operating in the margins overseas? Adam Bate speaks to those who work out of sight and out of mind, to find out…
When talking to managers in the Football League, there is a sentiment that recurs perhaps more than any other once the subject turns to their own ambitions. It is the belief that no matter how impressive their work, the only way that they are going to be given the opportunity to manage in the Premier League is to take a team there themselves.
That is why it is so satisfying when the fortunate few complete that journey. For Aston Villa manager Dean Smith, it was an adventure that began eight years ago when he took charge of Walsall with the club bottom of League One. For Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder, his story started in the Northern Counties East Football League with Alfreton Town.
It is also what makes Brighton’s decision to appoint Graham Potter such an intriguing one.
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The Englishman had done well enough with Swansea, taking them to tenth in the Championship. But it is fair to say that when Brighton chairman Tony Bloom spoke of his “excellent record of developing teams with an attractive playing style, fierce determination and a strong collective spirit” he had more than this solitary season with Swansea in mind.
Instead, it was a recognition of his stunning achievements in Sweden with Ostersund. It was there that Potter lifted the modest club from the fourth tier to the top flight, going on to win the Swedish Cup in 2017. In February of last year, he even led Ostersund into the knockout stages of the Europa League where they recorded a win over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.
That is the true context of Brighton’s appointment. Potter’s relatively unremarkable stint at Swansea served its purpose. It demonstrated that coaching in the Championship is not so different. He could handle the media, the scrutiny, the style of football and the calibre of player. He could command respect. Brighton’s doubts were assuaged. He earned his chance.
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This development hasn’t gone unnoticed beyond these shores, for there exist others. Maybe not with records as astonishing as Potter’s in Sweden, but British coaches with stories of their own. And if Potter has been able to make the transition to life back home, it is only natural to wonder what it might mean for these others if the insular thinking is to come to an end.
There is Ian Burchnall, Potter’s successor at Ostersund, for starters, but look further afield and there are many more British coaches who are operating out of sight and out of mind.
Simon McMenemy is the current head coach of Indonesia after winning league titles both there and in the Philippines. Scott Cooper is the head coach of the latter country, Jamie Day leads Bangladesh and Louis Lancaster is in charge of Taiwan. Gary White had that job before Lancaster but is now with Tokyo Verdy, the seven-time Japanese champions.
In the autumn of 2017, Nigel Pearson joined these ranks of British coaches overseas when he took on a new challenge with OH Leuven in the Belgian second tier. Now back in England after 18 months in the job, he credits the experience with making him a better manager. But he is all too aware that his time on the continent did not necessarily resonate back home.
“In all honesty I think there will be a lot of people who didn’t even know I had been out in Belgium,” Pearson told Sky Sports. “You have to recognise that if you are out of people’s minds then that is going to have an influence on whether you get another job or not.”
Pearson is fortunate in that he has a well-earned reputation in England already having won two promotions with Leicester. Many of the others have not yet made their name in their homeland. For them, English football can feel like an even less hospitable place.
Stephen Constantine took India to the Asian Cup earlier this year but after two decades coaching abroad, opportunities back home are not what they might be. “We don’t even exist to them,” he once said of his own Football Association, but he is more sanguine than bitter during a conversation near Victoria Station on a rare trip home this summer.
“If there’s nothing available for you in England, you kind of have to go outside,” he told Sky Sports. “But if you were to ask these people, a lot of them would like to come back to England given the opportunity.” For now, Constantine can only wait, even launching his own website to showcase a record that is better known in continents far away from home.
The former Sudan and Rwanda coach doesn’t want favours, just awareness of what he can do. “How do you deal with that Rwandan striker who can’t necessarily speak English and isn’t happy? How do you get in his head and get him to produce results? Look, if I can get people who don’t speak English to work for me, imagine what I could do with English players.”
It is a sentiment echoed by White, the Southampton-born coach who has now led three different countries to their best ever FIFA ranking. He is matter of fact when explaining what makes him a better coach than the one who started out. “By working in different countries it puts you a step up in terms of how you communicate with people,” he told Sky Sports.
This is an important point. Potter’s time at Swansea showed that his skills were transferable but Brighton are getting more than that. They are getting a coach who has demonstrated that he can get the best from players from other cultures, a key quality in a Premier League manager and a trait that might not have been apparent had he never left these shores.
“When you go abroad you need to be a good coach because if you can’t challenge the player then they will be quick to think that this guy can’t help us,” Lancaster told Sky Sports. “In China, our record signing was a multi-million pound Brazilian called Biro Biro. If I didn’t know what I was doing, he would have seen through me and that would have been that.”
Lancaster is referring to his time as an assistant to White at Shanghai Shenxin. Still only 37, his career in England included coaching Jadon Sancho at Watford, but he has since committed himself to life abroad. He is loving the challenge but has a young family and while he is reluctant to talk of sacrifice, it is clear that it’s opportunity that has taken him from home.
“I would like to go back one day, of course I would, but Taiwan have given me this opportunity and I want to repay them,” he said. “All I can focus on is doing the right things now. If you look at Graham Potter, his success has spiralled from doing the right things when nobody was looking just because he wanted to look himself in the mirror and I am the same.”
Will they be seen as the same in boardrooms up and down England? Will they make that connection? Anthony Hudson, the former New Zealand head coach, has been mentioned in regard to the vacancy at Newcastle. Perhaps there is now an appetite to look beyond the usual suspects in search of British coaches with something a little different to offer.