The unlikely Englishmen pioneering Östersunds’ unprecedented ascent

The unlikely Englishmen pioneering Östersunds’ unprecedented ascent

WHEN JAMIE HOPCUTT ACCEPTED AN EMAIL INVITATION to an open football trial in December 2011, not for one moment would he have entertained the results of the five-year-long domino effect his tentative attendance would set in motion had they have been put plainly to him on that day.

At the time, 20-year-old Hopcutt was on the books of Tadcaster Albion, plying his trade semi-professionally in the ninth tier of the English football pyramid. He had been with the Brewers for around 12 months, the same amount of time he’d spent with previous club Ossett Town whom he had joined following his release from boyhood club York City after almost a decade.

With little to lose, Hopcutt attended the open trial in Warwick. Buoyed by hope, his enthusiasm saw him stamp his mark upon the occasion in precisely the fashion he’d likely have dreamed about the night before; a hat-trick his parting gift. Suffice to say, the trial’s organiser, Graham Potter, scrambled to find Hopcutt’s number among the pile of hopefuls shortly after the day’s final ball had been kicked.

The reward for Hopcutt’s superb three-goal salvo was the offer of a three-month contract at Potter’s club of employment, Östersunds Fotbollsklubb, in the third tier of Swedish football. Potter himself had been there since 2010, joining the club as they languished in the fourth division and quickly overseeing their promotion back to the third tier.

However, Potter had drawn up a detailed set of plans aimed far higher than their current standing and wished for players of Hopcutt’s ilk – players with a point to prove – to join him on the journey. Hopcutt duly accepted and soon departed his home in the north of England en route for central Sweden.

Hopcutt made himself at home right away and his provisional three-month contract with ÖFK was soon extended to a year, which then became three. Evidently, Hopcutt had become fairly enamoured with his coach’s unique methods of management.

Largely responsible for moulding Potter into the type of manager he is today was the modest 13-year career he experienced in the English football leagues. From Birmingham to Boston, West Brom to Wycombe, Potter’s playing career saw him represent 10 clubs in total before embarking upon a coaching career.

In the twilight of his playing days, Potter studied with the Open University to attain a social sciences degree, with which he graduated in 2005, before gaining experience in a flurry of lesser-known managerial posts.

Over three years, Potter spent time as a football development manager for the University of Hull, an assistant coach for the England Universities Squad, as well as a technical director of Ghana’s women’s team at the 2007 World Cup in China, before joining Leeds Metropolitan University in a similar developmental role. There he was able to combine employment with education as he completed a master’s degree in leadership and emotional intelligence while maintaining his coaching position.

These eclectic endeavours provided an array of experience that would ready him for the rigours of management, though it is hard to imagine there was any particular preparation that could have braced Potter and his family for life in Östersund, also known as Vinterstaden or Winter City.

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Should Potter have been seeking out a city in which to hone his skiing skills then there are few places in the world more appropriate than Östersund. Instead, it was footballing fame he had emigrated to Sweden in search of and the similarities between the two disciplines remain scant to say the least. With no tangible football culture in which to immerse himself, and temperatures that routinely dip below -25°C, Potter’s welcome was harsh but one he was ready to endure.

Having dropped into the fourth tier of Swedish football for the first time in their still-short existence, ÖFK chairman Daniel Kindberg looked to Graham Potter for guidance. Something to the effect of “get us back into the third tier” would likely have been Kindberg’s concise mission statement.

Potter, ever the model employee, quickly exceeded expectations and soared above and beyond his initial call of duty, all the while employing a unique modus operandi in regards to squad management.

Noted for its diversity, the squad Potter inherited upon his arrival in Sweden boasted players hailing from Ghana, Nigeria, Comoros, South Korea, Mexico, the United States, Bosnia, Spain and his native England. As Louise Taylor wrote for The Guardian, “With Sweden’s immigration policy and the refugee crisis hot topics in Östersund … the club helps build bridges by involving refugees in community activities.”

In an effort to impart upon his truly heterogeneous cohort his own style of operation, Potter called upon some far from mundane methods of team bonding that would also ensure his players integrated themselves into their local community. What he created has since been called “a fascinating cultural scene”.

To date, Potter and his players have together written a book, staged an art exhibition, and acted in stage shows and dances, not least of which saw them come together to perform Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous ballet Swan Lake. Why, exactly? “We try to develop individuals as open-minded humans rather than just footballers,” Potter explained. “Educating players and being part of the community are very important. I want to take people out of their comfort zones and teach them to rely on their teammates.”

Potter’s efforts were undeniably bohemian but there was to be no arguing with their effectivity. At the first time of asking, in 2011, Potter steered Östersunds to promotion, back into the third tier, and, with the newly-acquired Hopcutt among his ranks, continued to aim skywards. The following season the club were promoted again, as champions once more, marching stoically into the Swedish second tier.

Sat closer to the icy summit of the Swedish football pyramid than ever before, Östersunds would almost certainly have been forgiven for consolidating their position and simply seeking to stay put – dig the pick in deep and hold their position. But that wasn’t Potter’s way.

Instead, the English manager set about devising a plan to crack the second tier and find a route to the very top. In 2015, his plan came to fruition. Finishing as the division’s runners-up, just a point behind top spot, Östersunds secured their promotion to the top tier for the first time in their history.

Unlike a great many rags-to-riches stories found throughout football, where the emphasis on riches have so often been those providing the foundation for teams’ not-so-miraculous ascents through the divisions, Östersunds’ trade secret is found not in a bottomless barrel of cash and no single player better represents the club’s inconceivable and inexpensive climb than Jamie Hopcutt.

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Not long after leaving behind England’s ninth tier to join Östersunds did Hopcutt become one of their most important players. Playing with an assured and mature creativity, far from being overawed by their rapid rise through the divisions, Hopcutt came into his own on Swedish soil and was never more effective than in his team’s promotion-winning season of 2015 when the club earned their place in the top league.

Scoring a career high of 15 goals in 24 games, the influential midfielder even began garnering the attention of those back home. A world away from the breed of club he had left behind, it was instead Premier League new boys Brighton keeping tabs on the Englishman abroad.

Brighton’s interest never formally materialised with a bid but, even so, Hopcutt made it clear he had wished to remain with Östersunds and play a starring role in the next exciting chapter of their unlikely tale. He’d endeavoured tirelessly to become an integral part of the club, helping them immeasurably in their quest to reach their country’s top division, and there was no way he was going to be left out now that they were there.

Sadly fate is often governed by forces we mere humans simply cannot control, and there was little Hopcutt could do to rage against it when an untimely on-field collision resulted in the double fracture of his tibia, ending his inaugural Allsvenskan season after just 24 minutes.

With his cruelly-timed injury to contend with, the consequences of relegation must surely have proved a daily source of agony, ricocheting around the inside of Hopcutt’s mind. Should his team finish in the bottom three, as many assumed they would given their relative size and inexperience, his chance of playing in Sweden’s top flight may well have vanished for good.

However, far from languishing near the league’s basement, Potter lead Östersunds to a remarkable eighth-place finish. Hopcutt would indeed have a second chance and another crack at the top flight the following season. Before their debut top flight season was up, though, in Sweden’s principal cup competition there was further history to be made for the minnows from Östersund. Potter had his eye on silverware.

Östersunds entered the 2016/17 Svenska Cupen in the second round and were tasked with travelling to their country’s capital to take on fourth-tier side Sollentuna. Avoiding any kind of upset, their routine 2-0 victory earned ÖFK a place in the cup’s group stage where they formed a vastly assorted Group 7, pitted against fellow top tier dwellers Hammarby, second-tier Varbergs BoIS and third-tier Nyköpings.

Potter’s squad proved too strong for each of their group stage opponents as they defeated Varbergs 2-1, Nyköpings 5-1 and Hammarby 1-0 to top their group and proceed into the knockout stage as the competition’s form team.

In the quarter-finals, Östersunds dispatched another unworthy opponent, winning 4-1 against Trelleborgs, before a 3-1 victory carried them beyond Häcken and into the first Svenska Cupen final of their young club’s exalted existence. There they would take on the might of Norrköping, who set about preparing for what was to be their 11th Swedish Cup final.

In the almost warm embrace of their home sweet home, at the newly-furnished Jämtkraft Arena – the purpose-built 8,000-seater stadium opened by and for the club in 2007 – Östersunds set about putting on a show for the home crowd, much to the despair of the travelling Norrköping faithful.

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Nine minutes was all it took for the lead to be nabbed by Östersunds. Defender Sam Mensiro headed home from a Ken Sema cross with aplomb to earn his side an early advantage. Another nine minutes later and their lead was doubled, Ken Sema again on hand to provide the cross that Hosam Aiesh would slam beyond the Norrköping goalkeeper. The pressure of the event’s prestige evidently brought them no trouble and Östersunds carried their two-goal lead into half-time.

Norrköping emerged into the second half with a point to prove and clawed a goal back when Linus Wahlqvist dispatched the rebound that followed his team’s saved penalty on 54 minutes. But Östersunds were unwilling to allow the dream of a first trophy to slip away and soon responded in style.

With a little over 82 minutes on the clock, the afternoon’s hosts extinguished any faint hopes of a stirring Norrköping comeback and put the result beyond all doubt with two goals in three minutes. Sema completed his hat-trick of assists by slipping in Alhaji Gero to score their team’s third goal before Saman Ghoddos nabbed his very own cup final souvenir with Östersunds’ fourth and final goal.

Before the referee’s whistle could let loose the curtain to fall upon the final, Hopcutt was given a belated cup final bow as Potter allowed for him to be substituted on in the game’s dying embers, afforded the most fleeting on-field taste of the occasion. Inevitably his brief appearance would provoke a mixture of feelings; frustration tempering his relief, disappointment underlining his joy.

Still, the despondency felt by Hopcutt having missed out on his team’s remarkable journey to the final and their historic capturing of the cup itself wasn’t to last long. His finest day in an Östersunds shirt was still to come, marked by their arrival in the competition that most effectively encapsulated their incredible rise to prominence.

Emerging victoriously from the Svenska Cupen meant Östersunds had earned entry into the second of four Europa League qualification rounds, where they were drawn to face Turkish giants Galatasaray.

Such was the gulf in size and stature of the two clubs, in every regard, the tussle was spoken about by those at Östersunds as though the fixture’s very existence was a bonus. It went without saying that Potter’s team would give their all in attempting to defeat their opponents but the fact they had reached such an improbable stage at all, so early into their journey, was a cause for celebration.

In the weeks leading up to the first leg of their momentous qualifier, Potter likened the game to a meeting of Biblical proportions, referring to the tie as “a real David and Goliath battle”. Perhaps intently, the Englishman’s words soon proved prophetic as, just as the original story goes, David struck the first telling blow.

With the score having remained locked at 0-0 for almost 68 minutes of the first leg, Östersunds attempted to plot another raid, attacking down the right-hand side of the park. While it was imperative they protect their clean sheet from any potentially fatal away goals, the home side knew a goal of their own would hand them a significant advantage going into the second leg, particularly if their defence was breached by Galatasaray late on.

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Sema charged down the wing before cutting inside and dinking a delicate chip into the path of Bachirou who had found space in the opponent’s box. Bachirou took one touch before squaring the ball to Ghoddos who trapped the ball, held off a desperate challenge from the defender attempting to shackle him, before sweeping the ball inside the near post.

The stadium erupted, as an elated cheer far exceeding the noise levels a crowd of 5,000 fans should be capable of reaching pummeled the bitter Swedish air. David’s stone had flung with purpose from his sling to connect with Goliath’s giant forehead. He wasn’t down yet, but before the game could meet its conclusion there was to be further punishment for the touring Turks.

In the 91st minute of the match, having been on the field for a little over 10 minutes, Hopcutt charged into the opposition half to receive an in-field pass from Ghoddos. The final component of a swift counter, Hopcutt had his route to goal blocked by just two bodies. The Englishman proceeded forward at pace, twisting and turning, left, right, left, then right again, in hope of outwitting the jockeying centre-back. As he breached the box, one final burst of speed and two quick touches took him away from the defenders before an inch-perfect side-footed finish squeezed the ball beyond the outstretched leg of Galatasaray goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, nestling neatly in the far bottom corner.

Neither set of fans could believe the scene that was playing out before them. The half-and-half scarves emblazoned with both team’s crests and colours, originally bought en masse by Östersunds’ fans to commemorate the occasion should it prove to be anomalous, were now being whipped joyously above their heads. The Swedish underdogs would carry a two-goal advantage with them to Istanbul.

Potter’s side travelled with spirits immeasurably high but they knew full well their task had only grown in size in the days since their famously unfancied victory. Their giant had been felled once, in the safety of their own home, but cast adrift in a toiling Turkish cauldron, they expected to be tested like never before.

Again the first half passed without either net being troubled. It would take until close to the hour mark before the game would explode into life. The touchpaper was eventually lit when Ghoddos hounded a defender following a hopeful punt forward. Hassled and harassed, the defender lost control of the ball allowing Ghoddos to steer into the area with purpose. Panicked, Muslera elected to bring him down. The referee responded by awarding the away side with a deserved penalty.

To an anthem of ear-piercing whistles, Östersunds’ Iraq international Brwa Nouri stepped up and silenced the partisan crowd. His shot from 12 yards fired beyond Muslera; Östersunds took the lead. As it stood, with Östersunds 3-0 up on aggregate, including their unmatched away goal, in response Galatasaray would require no fewer than four.

Turkish defender Ahmet Çalık atoned somewhat for the error that led to Ghoddos’ earning of the visitor’s vital penalty by scoring a few minutes later for Galatasaray, but his goal would provide little consolation. Östersunds won 3-1 on aggregate and proceeded onwards into the Europa League’s third round of qualifying, travelling triumphantly to Luxembourg where they would do battle with Sporting Circle Fola Esch.

For the second consecutive round Östersunds would win 3-1 on aggregate, a score comprised of a comfortable 1-0 win at home and a 2-1 victory in the Luxembourgian town of Esch-sur-Alzette. Their win meant just a further two games stood between them and an unprecedented entry into the Europa League proper. PAOK of Greece were their final opponents.

On 17 August 2017, Potter and his team travelled to Thessaloniki for the first leg of their final Europa League qualifier. A hostile Toumba Stadium crowd watched on as Östersunds snatched an unlikely lead through another coolly-dispatched Nouri penalty but the opening goal proved to be the final time the home fans were given cause for concern on the night.

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Over the subsequent hour of football, the Greek side made their home advantage pay on three separate occasions, with a pair of headers and a penalty of their own earning an emphatic 3-1 victory. It appeared as though Östersunds had allowed themselves the luxury of one dream too many. But, back in the familiar surroundings of the Jämtkraft Arena the following week, Potter’s men believed their pursuit of an unlikely European berth may yet have one final twist in the tale.

A familiar sight greeted those in attendance during the second leg – a goalless first half. Going into the break, the visiting Greeks still held their two-goal advantage and it remained that way until as late as the 70th minute.

Cut back to the edge of the opposition area, the ball arrived at the feet of Hopcutt’s only compatriot teammate Curtis Edwards – like Hopcutt, once of English ninth tier-fame, having begun his career with Darlington – who lashed a low shot towards the PAOK goal. Before it could reach the net, the ball was flicked on instinctively by the right boot of Ghoddos, whose telling touch sent the shot spinning beyond the goalkeeper.

Despite an immediate inquest from an angry horde of PAOK players and staff, remonstrating wildly in order to convince the officials of the goalscorer’s supposed offside position, the goal stood and Östersunds came to within a goal of the Europa League. Then, six minutes later, Ghoddos and Östersunds struck again.

This time, in far less dubious fashion, Ghoddos slammed the ball past PAOK number one Rodrigo Rey from the edge of the area, emphatically notching his side’s second of the night. Östersunds edged into the driving seat on account of their opponent’s lack of an away goal, and were left just 15 minutes away from an inaugural continental campaign.

Try as they might, PAOK could not navigate a clear path beyond the Östersunds blockade, resolutely camped across the perimeter of their area, determined to protect their clean sheet and with it their ticket to Europe. Then, in the 95th minute of the match, with just four having initially been added by the game’s officials, a searching, shallow free-kick was swung into the Östersunds box. Flicked on at the near-post, the ball sailed to the rear of the six-yard box and was met by a PAOK head, desperate to nod it into the goal. Though he appeared only inches from the goal itself, somehow, repelled by a combination of goalkeeper and goalpost, the ball stayed out.

As the swift headed rebound was sent over the bar and onto the roof of the net, the referee sounded his whistle. Like the Turkish and Luxembourgian competitors before them, PAOK of Greece had been conquered and Östersunds were through to the Europa League.

And so it would be on the 20th anniversary of the club’s founding, entering just their sixth year outside of the fourth tier of Swedish football, incredibly the duty of flying their nation’s flag across the continent would be bestowed to Östersunds Fotbollsklubb. Without a single fellow Swedish team in either principal European competition, Potter’s team would lead the charge on behalf of all their countrymen.

Where exactly Potter or his compatriot Hopcutt will find themselves in another five years is anybody’s guess. The fact they are where they are today, so far along a road founded on such unimaginable successes, means it could quite literally be anywhere.

Just how many more miracles Potter and his men can collaborate in producing in the meantime remains to be seen, though the very nature of their unprecedented ascent leads many to assume that even if the whole world believes the Europa League group stage to be one climb too many there’s not a chance anybody at Östersunds will agree.

As Potter put it himself, “It’s easy to just say: ‘They won’t be able to do that.’ It’s our job to prove such attitudes wrong. In football, you need stories like ours to show anything is possible.” Profoundly truthful though Potter’s words are, there are certainly few stories in football quite like his team’s.

By Will Sharp  

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