If there is one quality that links Graham Potter, Dean Smith and Chris Wilder, it is a willingness to accept a tough challenge. They have made it to the top after coming from humble beginnings – Potter with Östersund in the fourth tier of Swedish football, Wilder at non-league Alfreton, Smith by falling into the Walsall job by accident – and this season they have a chance to alter perceptions about the worth of English managers.
It will not be easy for this trio of home-grown coaches, none of whom has managed in the Premier League. Potter faces a tough task to remodel Brighton’s style after replacing Chris Hughton, Smith’s Aston Villa must focus on survival after winning the Championship play-off final and Wilder needs to perform his latest miracle after taking Sheffield United from League One to the top flight.
Yet it is lazy to assume all three will fail because of an apparent lack of glamour. When Smith arrived at Villa Park last October some saw stints at Brentford and Walsall on his CV and doubted if he was the man to get Villa promoted. Yet Dan Mole, Walsall’s club secretary, knew better. “They’re going on the name, not the man,” he says. “He’s lived his life in football. He’s organised, disciplined and has a plan.”
Similarly Bobo Sollander, who played for Potter at Östersund and saw how he lifted an obscure club from the backwaters of Swedish football to the Europa League in the space of seven years, believes his old manager will be managing in the Champions League soon. “I don’t think his journey will be done with Brighton,” Sollander says. “He is going to be a top-four coach in a couple of years. He is that good.”
English managers have often been written off as long-ball dinosaurs in recent years and tearing off that label can be hard. Yet every aspiring coach needs a break and for Wilder an opportunity arrived when he was in the twilight of his playing career at Alfreton in 2001. “Chris’s enthusiasm was boundless,” Wayne Bradley, Alfreton’s chairman, says. “He had no experience but as much energy that you’d ever want to come across. He wanted to get involved in everything – from what kit we played in to how we prepared for games.”
Wilder, 51, has taken a winding path since winning the quadruple inside 27 weeks with Alfreton. He moved to Halifax in 2002, had a brief stint as No 2 to his current assistant Alan Knill at Bury, took Oxford into the Football League in 2010, won League Two with Northampton in 2016 and has had a stunning impact since moving to Bramall Lane.
There have also been hard times. He faced financial difficulties at Halifax and Northampton. Yet Joel Byrom, who played for Wilder at Northampton, remembers that spirits were always high. “If you produced for him at the weekend, he’d give you a day off,” he says. “We still have a group chat from that team. I still go away with some of the lads in the summer. You don’t have that normally.”
Astute man-management is crucial: it helped Potter settle when the 44-year-old joined Östersund in 2010. “It was the way he said his door would always be open for you,” Sollander says. “It always felt like if you needed to talk with him you could. He was easier to access than coaches I had before. When training was over they went home. Graham stayed and worked. There was always something new to think about.”
In Smith’s case he is remembered at Walsall as a studious coach and a man who commanded respect. The 48-year-old started as the club’s head of academy and has previously said he had no ambitions to become a manager. He fell into the job only when Walsall, battling against relegation from League One, sacked Chris Hutchings in January 2011.
It turned out to be an inspired appointment. Smith kept Walsall up and had developed a reputation as one of the Football League’s most progressive coaches by the time he joined Brentford in 2015.
“When Dean came in at the academy it did feel like that was where he’d see his short-term career,” Mole says. “But when we moved the manager on, Dean was probably the only one qualified to take the team. If it wasn’t Dean, it was either me or the chief executive. Somehow he managed the great escape. From there he helped build a structure which saw us pushing for promotion in the season he left.
“He has human qualities that sometimes get lost in football. Did I think he’d end up in the Premier League? It’s impossible to say. All I know is he is the best manager I have worked with. He’s true to his philosophy and gets a buy-in from every element of a club.”
There are hard sides to these coaches, though. Byrom says there is a ruthless edge to Wilder, recalling that he would refuse to speak to anyone in the days after a defeat, while Sollander makes it clear that Potter was never overly pally with his players.
Yet Sollander also points out that Potter, who has joined Brighton after a year stabilising Swansea, would never shout for no reason. “There was a meaning to it,” he says. “He makes you a smarter footballer. He challenged the way you thought about football. He gave you the belief that this is how we wanted to play – and we were going to think about it.
“He wanted to dominate the ball. We had a coach who talked a lot about playing positive football. But in games it was the opposite. He would shout: ‘Kick the ball, kick the ball.’ Graham never did that. Sometimes it is good to play long ball but you have to know when to do it. He showed when you should do it.”
Potter, Smith and Wilder want their teams to attack. Last season Wilder and Knill helped Sheffield United gain automatic promotion with a 3-5-2 system featuring overlapping centre-backs and Byrom tells a story from his Northampton days that deep tactical thinking is possible away from the Premier League.
“When we had the ball across the back four, Chris would tell the full-back to run up the pitch and as a midfielder I’d drop in to get the ball in so much space,” he says. “In League Two you don’t get a lot of time on the ball in midfield. But when you dropped into that area you never got marked.
“The first time he told me to do it we were doing a shape session in training and when the centre-back had the ball he told me to drop into left-back. The left-back just ran on. I didn’t know what was going on. But when I did it in a game I wasn’t getting marked. I’d never seen it before at that level. A lot of midfielders weren’t following me. People would be confused. They didn’t know what to do.”
Premier League sides should prepare themselves for more surprises this season.