Jhe first time Ian Burchnall and Graham Potter faced each other on the touchline was in a highly anticipated game between their respective teams at the University of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan University. Almost two decades later, the pair rekindle an old rivalry on Wednesday when Potter takes his Brighton side to Forest Green Rovers in the second round of the Carabao Cup.
“They’ve always been good games,” Burchnall said. “A lot of other students are moving around and it might get a bit hectic because they’ve all been to SU [student union] drinking bar. Every time we played at the Leeds Met we couldn’t take the ball away from them and it was Graham who coached a team twice a week. Even back then, you could see his identity.
Few people thought that such a period would revive their coaching career either. Burchnall was 22 and had just completed his degree in sports science, his Uefa B license and was juggling part-time roles coaching Leeds United under-nines with working on the club’s community programme, running sessions for disadvantaged children and achieving results in UK universities. First Division North.
“All I wanted was to be able to have one football coaching job rather than five trying to pay the bills,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be as a manager, but it just evolved.” That’s why getting asked for autographs and photos is so weird. “You think, ‘Oh my God, really? Are you sure?'”
The symmetry between Burchnall and Potter doesn’t stop at Leeds. They worked together on England’s college football program through which Burchnall met Kieran McKenna, whose Ipswich side he faced this month, and when Potter left Östersund for Swansea after an extraordinary seven years in Sweden, he recommended Burchnall to Daniel Kindberg, the former president of Östersund. .
Burchnall was seen as a natural successor and at Forest Green this summer the 39-year-old former Notts County manager was the only person to be interviewed after Rob Edwards left for Watford. Forest Green commissioned a data report that showed their teams’ xG and possession stats would suit their style. So how would Burchnall describe his relationship with Potter? “We’re friends. We don’t call each other every week but we text each other when things are going well. To be honest, I ask him for more advice than he asks me…I don’t think he need my advice.
“Graham and Billy Reid, his assistant, were great. I actually moved into Billy’s flat when I first moved to Östersund. I needed some advice on the washing machine and he left me a few cans of Irn-Bru,” he laughs. “For me, it was an impossible job to follow. It was impossible to improve it. It was about rebuilding and trying to keep the club safe in this top league and I did that.
By then Burchnall had five years in the Norwegian Premier League under his belt, first as Brian Deane’s assistant at Sarpsborg 08 and then as head coach at Viking FK. During an international break, Burchnall took Viking to Östersund for a friendly match. “We were down 1-0 at half time – and we were a decent team in Norway – and I just said to Graham: ‘Any chance to lend us the ball?’
“The style of play is one thing and the coaching is one thing, but Graham’s leadership is top notch and that’s why he will end up managing one of the top six or being England manager, at 100%.”
Burchnall recalls Ole Gunnar Solskjær playing his trump card when Molde visited Viking for a league game in 2017. [Erling] Haaland for the last 25 minutes and he scored the winner.
“I had seen him a lot at Bryne, where he distinguished himself. I was at the Viking in Stavanger and Bryne is just up the road, a rival club but a small club. We tried lots of times to get him but he wasn’t interested because he was playing at Bryne and he had his buddies there.
“His dad, Alfie, is a Bryne guy and I don’t think he wanted him to come to Viking because they’re rivals and there’s a bit of history there.
“I remember talking about him to scouts in England when he was 15, 16. He didn’t play the first time we played at Molde and I remember talking to Mark Dempsey. [Solskjær’s assistant at Molde and now Manchester United’s Under‑23s coach]. I said to him: ‘How is he?’ Demps had been at United for 15 years, working in the Under-21s and at the academy and he went: “The best No.9 I’ve ever seen, a mile away.” And then he scored the winner against us and I was like, ‘OK, he’s pretty good.’ »
Burchnall embraced Scandinavian culture – he had lessons in Norwegian and Swedish – and Östersund staff were contractually bound to star in an end-of-season production designed to get everyone out of their comfort zone. Potter sang Lapland’s national anthem a cappella and his players performed the Swan Lake ballet.
“There was a scene with Abba, so our guys are dressed as Benny and Björn,” Burchnall explains. “It’s something to get players who would be shaky and terrified to sing initiation songs by ending the year singing in front of 500 people in an auditorium.
“On one side, I was dressed as a Sex Pistols singer; I sang God Save the Queen with a wig and everything… I came to Forest Green and they explained some quirky cultural things to me and I was like, ‘That’s no problem.’
The climate in Nailsworth is not as harsh as in Östersund, where temperatures drop to -20°C. “The president was like, ‘We never cancel practice because of the weather, we go out in the snow, that’s character building.’
“I remember seeing a trainer come out with a pair of Ugg boots and I was like, ‘What are these?’ He says, “You need it to keep your feet dry.” I said, ‘Listen mate, I’m a football manager, I wear my Copa Mundials and I go out.’ After about two minutes, I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t feel my feet, my toes, this is torture.”
Burchnall and Potter exchanged messages during the draw and are looking forward to a long overdue catch-up. “To manage in Ligue 1 and have a cup game against a Premier League side, I feel like I’ve done a lot of work to get to this point and hopefully I can go even further,” said Burchnall. “It was probably the same for Graham.
“Some people think you came out of nowhere, but it’s been 17, 18 years of work. It’s nice to look back and it will be nice to compete again, even if it’s going to be a tough match, because they’re pretty good.
‘We’re still friends’: Forest Green’s Burchnall set for Potter reunion | Ben Fisher