The first time Ian Burchnall and Graham Potter duelled on the touchline it was for a much-anticipated match between their respective Leeds University and Leeds Metropolitan University teams. Almost two decades on, the pair renew an old rivalry on Wednesday when Potter brings his Brighton side to Forest Green Rovers in the Carabao Cup second round.
“They were always good games,” Burchnall says. “A lot of the other students rock up and it could get a bit lively, because they’ve all been at the SU [student union] bar drinking. Whenever we played Leeds Met we couldn’t get the ball off them and that was Graham training a team twice a week. Even back then you could see his identity.”
Little did either think such a period would kickstart their careers in coaching. Burchnall was 22 and had just finished his sports science degree, his Uefa B licence and was juggling part-time roles coaching Leeds United’s under-nines with working on the club’s community programme, putting on sessions for disadvantaged children and getting results in the British Universities Premier Division North.
“All I wanted was to be able to have one job in football coaching rather than five to try and pay the bills,” he says. “I didn’t think that would be as a manager but it just evolved.” It is why being asked for autographs and photos feels so strange. “You’re thinking: ‘Oh my God, really? Are you sure?’”
The symmetry between Burchnall and Potter does not end in Leeds. They worked together on the England universities’ football programme 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 Östersund chairman.
Burchnall was viewed as a natural successor and at Forest Green this summer the 39-year-old former Notts County manager was the only person interviewed after Rob Edwards’s exit for Watford. Forest Green commissioned a data report that showed his teams’ xG and possession statistics would suit their style. So how would Burchnall describe his relationship with Potter? “We’re friends. We don’t ring each other every week but we’ll text each other when things are going well. To be honest, I ask him more for advice than he asks me … I don’t think he needs me for advice.
“Graham and Billy Reid, his assistant, have been great. I actually moved into Billy’s apartment when I first moved to Östersund. I needed some advice on the washing machine and he left a few cans of Irn-Bru for me,” he says, breaking into laughter. “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 that top league and I did that.”
By that point Burchnall had five years in Norway’s top division under his belt, initially as assistant to Brian Deane at Sarpsborg 08 then as head coach at Viking FK. During one international break Burchnall took Viking to Östersund for a friendly. “We were 1-0 down at half‑time – and we were a decent team in Norway – and I just said to Graham: ‘Any chance of lending us the ball?’
“Style of play is one thing and coaching is one thing, but Graham’s leadership is top‑class and that’s why he’ll end up managing one of the top six or be England manager, 100%.”
Burchnall recalls Ole Gunnar Solskjær playing his trump card when Molde visited Viking for a league game in 2017. “We were down to 10 men early, it was 2-2, we were playing a great game and then he brought [Erling] Haaland on for the last 25 minutes and he scored the winner.
“I’d seen him a lot at Bryne, where he came through. I was at Viking in Stavanger and Bryne is just up the road, a rival club but a small club. We tried loads of times to take him but he wasn’t interested to come to us because he was playing at Bryne and he had his mates 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 telling scouts in England about him when he was 15, 16. He didn’t play the first time we played Molde away and I remember speaking to Mark Dempsey [Solskjær’s assistant at Molde and now Manchester United’s Under‑23s coach]. I said to him: ‘How good is he?’ Demps had been at United for 15 years working in the Under-21s and academy and he went: ‘Best No 9 I’ve ever seen, by a mile.’ And then he scored the winner against us and I was like: ‘OK, he’s pretty good.’”
Burchnall embraced the culture in Scandinavia – he had Norwegian and Swedish lessons – and Östersund staff were contractually obliged to star in an end-of-season production designed to take everyone out of their comfort zone. Potter sang the Lapland national anthem a cappella and his players performed the ballet Swan Lake.
“There was one scene with Abba, so our lads are dressed as Benny and Björn,” Burchnall says. “It’s quite something to get some players who would be shaking and terrified singing initiation songs finishing the year singing in front of 500 people in an auditorium.
“For one part I was dressed as the lead singer of the Sex Pistols; I sang God Save the Queen with a wig and everything … I’ve come to Forest Green and they explained a few quirky, cultural things and I’m like: ‘That’s no problem.’”
The climate in Nailsworth is not as harsh as in Östersund, where temperatures drop to -20C. “The chairman was like: ‘We never cancel training for the weather, we go out in the snow, it’s character-building.’
“I remember seeing a coach going out with a pair of Ugg boots on and I’m going: ‘What are they?’ He’s saying: ‘You need these to keep your feet dry.’ I went: ‘Listen mate, I’m a football coach, I’m wearing my Copa Mundials and I’m going out.’ After about two minutes I remember thinking: ‘Oh my God, I cannot feel my feet, my toes, this is torture.’”
Burchnall and Potter exchanged messages when the draw was made and are looking forward to a long overdue catchup. “To be managing in League One and have a cup game against a Premier League team, it feels like I have done a lot of work to get to this point and hopefully I can still go on further,” Burchnall says. “It was probably the same for Graham.
“Some people think you’ve popped up out of nowhere but it has been 17, 18 years work. It is nice to look back on that and it will be nice to compete again, though it will be a tough game, because they’re pretty good.”