Hibs assistant boss John Potter looks back at first year at club
The window to the office at Hibs’ East Mains training centre slides open and laughter and heckling interrupts the interview.
It is no surprise that it is Martin Boyle, the renowned rascal, who is raining ridicule down on assistant manager John Potter. A few good-natured insults are exchanged between the pair and then the window slides closed again and the winger, like a magician vanishing in a puff smoke, disappears in a guffaw of giggles.
“He’s waiting for me to play Teqball,” says the Easter Road assistant manager. “It’s me and [goalkeeping coach] Craig Samson, against him and Jamie Gullan. I think we are leading at the moment and he wants his comeback! It’s important to spend time together away from the pitch and it’s a good way for us to get to know players.”
Those people skills are integral to his role at the club. Gaffer Jack Ross makes it clear that he is open to opinions from players and staff, and adopts a collaborative approach to management, “although, there’s no doubt that Jack is the manager and the final decision is his”, says his coaching sidekick.
“But a major part of my role is building relationships so there is that bit of trust that you need. I am here to help, not stitch anyone up. If you have that relationship then you can be brutally honest with them, you can tell them what you expect and that is a good starting point. There will always be disagreements and you will have different relationships with different people. Some are quieter and some are loud and lively, like Martin, but it takes all types to make a changing room.”
Ross has described Potter’s relationship with Boyle as a bromance and no-one around the training ground has disputed that. Not even Potter, who just chuckles.
“He is a great guy and I probably see wee bits of myself in him. At the level we are at there can be a lot of ups and downs within a season and it helps to have characters like that who can pick you up and have you smiling and laughing. You see a lot of young boys coming through who are quite robotic and they are good and dedicated to the game but you need different kinds of personalities in a changing room and Martin is definitely different!”
Potter started out in professional football, coming through the youth ranks at Celtic. He played U-18 and reserve team football but at a time when Celtic were trying to stop Rangers 10-in-a-row bid, there was no breaking into a first team squad that boasted Alan Stubbs, Marc Rieper, Morten Wieghorst, Johan Mjallby, et al.
“I just wasn’t good enough. I went when I was 15 or 16 and stayed for three or four seasons and loved it but there was no breaking through. Pretty much my whole youth team left Celtic at the same time and of those who did, within two years, I think I was the only one still playing at any level at all, which I find strange because I wasn’t the best player, far from it. I find that quite intriguing but maybe being let go or rejected by a club saw a lot of people throw the towel in. When you get that rejection, it can be tough. It is down to each individual to fight your way back in, find your level and start playing. I loved football and didn’t want to give up but it’s hard work.”
That work ethic and drive has never abandoned 40-year-old Potter, who, alongside Ross, will mark his first year at Hibs this weekend. Playing and coaching at various levels in the past aids his ability to identify with the players in his charge, while the respect the coaching duo have for each other allows Potter to grow. A vocal presence in training and on match days, the former centre-back is the one credited for the work with a defence that has improved significantly since last season, even if he applauds the players for those advances.
“We may not have the best team in the world but we have a really, really good bunch here who work hard every day and want to get better. It’s our job to make sure that happens,” he says.
Meeting Jack Ross
There have been good times but also challenges and he suffered more disappointment when, after signing for his boyhood club Dunfermline. At that time they were high finishers in the top flight and after injury sidelined him in his second season, he had to move on again. “Again, I just wasn’t good enough, he says, “and I went to Clyde, who were in the Championship at the time, and that was where I discovered my level.”
It is also where he met a lad called Jack Ross. Management wasn’t on their minds at that young stage but when paths crossed again a few years later, at St Mirren they would talk about plans for the future and did a couple of their coaching badges together.
If Celtic was an eye-opener, Dunfermline the realisation of a boyhood dream and Clyde the fresh start, St Mirren was the making of him.
He started helping out with the coaching of the U-17s and when he returned to Dunfermline for a second spell also took the U-20s before the departure of manager Jim Jefferies pitched him into the first team caretaker manager role.
“I wasn’t successful. It didn’t go the way I wanted it to go and it was a difficult time because I live in the area. We really should have got promoted out of the league and we didn’t, so that was tough.” He would never rule out a return to management but is enjoying his current role too much to think about that just now.
“I really like working with Jack. I think he is a very good manager and I am still learning from him and the experiences he has had as well.”
Learning the ropes
At Dunfermline and St Mirren, he also learned from two of the most respected assistant managers in the Scottish game, Jimmy Nicholl and Andy Millen.
“I worked under two of the best. Both had good standards, they were driven but could have a laugh and a joke. They both knew how to manage people. I try to do that.
“Jimmy was loud and lively and lifted the place. But he could be serious when he needed to be, but I had my most successful playing time at St Mirren, when Andy was the assistant manager there.
“He was a brilliant guy for me. He helped me out with information and gave me a kick up the arse when I needed it or a wee ‘well done’ when I had played well. If I had been dropped for a game or played badly, he would give me a wee phone call in the evening or find time for a wee quiet word. I learned a lot from the way he went about his business.”
A fan of the way the current Hibs boss goes about his business, there are big plans and big hopes, from European football, to domestic silverware and the while Potter is delighted to be part of that, he insists, he is just the support act. “It says it right there in the job title, my job is to assist Jack any way I can.”
Earlier in the chat, he conceded he was possibly the loud and lively Martin Boyle of the coaching team, but the longer he talks, doling out plaudits and respect to his boss and the players he works with, as well as those who helped shape him, rather than talk himself up, he reveals a team ethic, an honesty and a level of humility, which suggest there is definitely more than a flicker of someone like the self-deprecating Lewis Stevenson in there as well.
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