It is a chilly Sunday evening in northern Sweden and Graham Potter and his players are preparing for one final performance.

The Solihull-born manager has recently celebrated winning his third promotion in five years with Östersunds FK, taking the team from the doldrums of Swedish football to the top flight for the first time in their history.

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Such is the buzz Potter and his club have created in Östersund — dubbed the Winter City by its 60,000 inhabitants — that hundreds trying to catch one last glimpse of their team this season are being turned away at the gates. The venue is not Östersunds' Jämtkraft Arena, however; it's a theatre. There, Potter and his promotion winning heroes are waiting in the wings to put on a production of modern dance, set to music from Swan Lake.

"If all we do is play football, it's something the players are comfortable doing," said Potter, the morning after receiving a standing ovation from a sold out, 428-strong auditorium. "If you want to develop them as people, you have to have those uncomfortable experiences.

"It's part of our values, trying to help them become better people — exposing them to things they haven't done before. As a team, if we all understand that, then we can help each other," Potter said. "On the pitch, you're not always confident but you have to get through the tough periods."

Football's culture club
Östersunds is football's culture club. Alongside training and matches, every season the club completes an artistic project chosen by chairman Daniel Lindberg. It could be performing a play, writing a book or holding an art exhibition. Coaches and choreographers are flown in to lead workshops. Everyone mucks in — from the chairman to the kitman — and on Sunday, both Kindberg and Potter performed dance solos followed by a rousing rendition of The Drifters' Saturday Night at the Movies by Scottish coach Billy Reid.

"The project gets announced in January and everybody thinks, 'Oh my god, what are we doing?’” said Potter, a former England Under 21 defender. "People get more and more into it and come the night of the show. It's always a great feeling. You have to pinch yourself. Last night we were dancing to Swan Lake."

Every project is different, Potter said. “Last year, everybody had to produce a piece of art. We did a video piece — an interpretation of 'something stupid.' It sounds daft, but we had one of the boys dressed up as a mummy, playing ball against me! (The previous year) everybody wrote a piece on their journey to the club, which was published.”

To make it all happen ...
Potter's own journey from running the football program at Leeds Metropolitan University to one of just seven English managers working in a European top division would fill a fair few pages. A right back with Stoke, Southampton and West Brom in the 1990s, he hung up his boots at age 30 in 2005 to move into higher education. While studying for a degree in leadership and emotional intelligence, Potter was put in touch with Östersunds by former teammate Graeme Jones (now assistant manager at Everton) and four years ago took the leap of faith in Scandinavia.

"When I look back, I almost think, 'What was I doing?'" said the 40-year-old Östersunds manager. “When I consider giving up my job, my wife's business and our family, it was bordering on insanity, I guess! But it was also believing in the project. To make it all happen has made me very proud.”

The odds were stacked against Potter succeeding in the Jämtland region of Sweden where skiing, not soccer, is the staple sport. Östersunds was only founded on October 31, 1996, five days after Potter was a substitute in Southampton's 6-3 victory over Manchester United; and when Potter arrived, the fourth division club was lucky to get crowds of 500. Situated some 347 miles north of Stockholm, it proved difficult to attract players, too.

"The challenge we have is location,” said Potter. “It is a plane ride up from the south. It's like we're up in Inverness! We have to be creative looking for players that maybe need to prove something.”

Like many small clubs, Östersunds funds itself, in part, by luring up-and-coming players to Jämtland and reaping the benefits of lucrative transfer fees. "We picked up Modou Barrow from Varbergs in our league and sold him to Swansea,” Potter said. “We've done a similar thing every year, getting players in and selling them to a higher level.” It is a formula which is working. Players have been sourced from Comoros, Nigeria and even England, with goals from former York trainee Jamie Hopcutt propelling Östersunds up the leagues.

Success helps ...
As well as throwing themselves into the cultural projects, the players hold book clubs, read to school children and play football with refugees. The town has taken the club to its heart, to the extent that players have been bought milkshakes in cafes. Its on-field success has also helped. Östersunds is in the middle of the Allsvenskan pack with 14 points from nine games.

“In the last few games, we've had 6,500 at the ground,” said Potter. “In terms of inspiring the youth it's massive, because all of a sudden there is a possibility to play football. They can watch Malmö, IFK Göteborg, AIK in their own town and it's really exciting.”

For Östersunds to be mentioned in the same breath as these clubs is testament to Sweden's latest English import, and Potter is already playing down comparisons with Roy Hodgson, who revolutionised Swedish football in the 1970s. "I'm just doing my little bit up here," Potter said. Given his astonishing career to date, there is no reason he cannot emulate the England manager in Sweden's top tier. After all, for Potter, no stage is too daunting.

By Chipp Reid