Wolves coach Ian Burchnall on his Graham Potter-endorsed journey to the Premier League

Imagine Pedro Neto playing Hamlet. Matheus Cunha in pantomime? Max Kilman performing Andrew Lloyd-Webber at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre?

No? Neither can Ian Burchnall. The Wolverhampton Wanderers first-team coach could not imagine himself on stage, either. But sometimes, life throws you a curveball.

Since he was a teenager, Ian Burchnall has loved a training session. A practice. A rehearsal, if you will.

Five years ago in the heart of northern Sweden, rehearsals took on a whole different meaning, thanks, in part, to Graham Potter.

“It was something Graham set up in Ostersunds together with the chairman,” says Burchnall, who took over from Potter at the quirky Swedish club. “It was like a culture project.

“It started with things like book readings, book clubs, chess and crazy stuff. But then it evolved into literally performing plays for the town, using the whole club.

“It was a cross between team building and what the chairman considered stressing your brain under extreme pressure.

“It was about being so far out of your comfort zone that this would be great training for them as human beings. When I went there, every player and staff had it written in their contract.

“So you can find clips online of Graham dancing Swan Lake. It’s mad, totally mad.”


From glorious European nights to a club in crisis – filling Graham Potter’s shoes has been tougher than anyone expected

Burchnall has never done football the conventional way. He found his way managing clubs in the Norwegian and Swedish top divisions and England’s EFL, and not, as most coaches do, via a playing career.

Instead, he began his coaching journey before the age of 20 at the Leeds United academy and the University of Leeds, put in hours ‘on the grass’ and ended up holding four manager roles by the age of 39.

Still, treading the boards for townsfolk in Scandinavia qualifies as a dramatic departure, even on Burchnall’s unique career path.

“They brought in a company to work with us through the year,” says Burchnall. “It’s totally crazy, but at the end of it, the players genuinely felt like they’d achieved something they never thought they would.

“It’s definitely not something I think is transferable. It was very unique to that football club.

“It’s a very small, winter town in the middle of the north of Sweden.

“During the year, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t stand this, this is horrendous to do’. But by the end of it, you managed to achieve it.

“The chairman had some really wild ideas there. I think he and Graham wanted people to engage on a higher level than football.

“I was on stage. Everybody had to be singing, dancing, mad stuff. The theatre in Ostersunds has 500 seats and they sold out three shows.

“We had to do three shows back to back. It’s the most crazy thing, but I think the process of taking people outside of their comfort zone, doing things you don’t think that you can do or achieve, going way out of your comfort zone, can be good.

“So I understood exactly why the chairman wanted to do it, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. It was a huge challenge and it was sometimes hard trying to explain it, especially when you’ve got players from all over the world, especially if you’ve lost a couple of games and then you’ve got to drag them in for a singing lesson.”

Burchnall at Ostersunds in 2018 (Nils Petter Nilsson/Getty Images)

That Burchnall should follow Potter to Ostersunds and onto the stage should have come as no surprise given their coaching careers often appeared inextricably linked.

Although Potter had spent more than a decade playing in the English Football League while Burchnall — eight years his junior – gave up on his own playing ambitions in his teens, they came together in Leeds during the early 2000s.

Burchnall led the football programme at the University of Leeds while Potter did the same job at Leeds Carnegie University. Alongside Kieran McKenna, the current Ipswich Town boss who was then in charge of football at Loughborough University, they worked together on the England University national programme.

Both men eventually made their way abroad.

For Burchnall, the journey began in Leicester, where he was born and grew up watching the Leicester City sides of Brian Little and Martin O’Neill while playing amateur football.

“I always played football as a kid but I was never good enough to be a professional,” admits Burchnall.

“I was probably aware at 16 or 17 that the bar was too high for me as a football player. I continued to play in minor leagues and enjoyed it.

“But I found that the process of coaching was far more enjoyable and I wanted to be involved in football every day.

“So the opportunity to do that was probably going to come from coaching rather than playing for me.”

Burchnall got a foot in the door at Leeds United and then Bradford City, where he coached in their community programmes and academies while devoting more of his time to masterminding the university’s football programme.

His work in academia brought him together with former Sheffield United and Leeds forward Brian Deane, who visited the university on a coaching placement while completing his coaching badges.

When Deane was offered the manager’s job at Sarpsborg in Norway, he invited Burchnall to join him as assistant boss. The move led to eight years in Scandinavia.

When Deane returned to England, Burchnall was offered the chance to coach at Viking Stavanger, one of the country’s biggest clubs.

Ian Burchnall with Viking FK in March 2017 (Trond Tandberg/Getty Images)

He became manager in 2016 and, following his sacking in 2018, Potter helped arrange for Burchnall to take the Ostersunds hot seat that he had vacated to join Swansea.

“It was unbelievable,” says Burchnall. “My two daughters were born in Norway and for the family, it was a remarkable experience.

“After I left Norway, I was offered a job at Ostersunds when Graham Potter left to go to Swansea and then did almost three years in Sweden.

“It was the best part of eight years away. The life experience and the coaching experience was absolutely fantastic.”

Burchnall’s first year at Ostersunds ended with the club just one point and one place short of their record-breaking achievements under Potter a year earlier.

The second year became a firefighting mission after chairman Daniel Kindberg, the man behind the club’s rise to European football — and the inspiration for the unconventional drama project — was forced to resign amid allegations of funnelling public money into the club.

Kindberg has subsequently been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

Burchnall was credited with keeping the club in the top flight — they have been relegated since his departure — but in 2020, he and his young family decided to return to England.

In 2021, he was offered the manager’s job at Notts County, who he led to the National League play-offs in successive seasons.

“If I’m totally honest, the National League felt like a difficult step having been in top leagues in Scandinavia, where the quality of football is good and is very tactical,” he says.

“It’s far less physical than the lower leagues of England. So it’s a big change to go to a league that’s probably quite a lot less tactical.

“But it felt like it was a good club and the owners were really good and supportive. I really enjoyed it.”

By May 2022, Burchnall was heading for the EFL with newly promoted League One side Forest Green, taking over from former Wolves defender Rob Edwards.

Burchnall’s time at Forest Green was a ‘bad experience’ (James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images)

It was while he was in Gloucestershire that Burchnall’s managerial career hit its biggest roadblock.

Four months after his appointment, director of football Richard Hughes departed. After just another four months, Burchnall was gone following a difficult string of results and a testing relationship with the club’s fans.

“On a personal level, it was a bad experience,” he admits. “It got to the point where it was really bad at the ground.

“My wife and family and the kids, they didn’t want to come.

“It was tough and I came away from it thinking I just wanted to do the bit that I love, which is what I started doing, the coaching.”

Anderlecht’s Scandinavian owners took Burchnall to Belgium last summer to join the club’s coaching staff but, with his family remaining in England, he had no hesitation in joining Wolves when he was recommended to boss Gary O’Neil earlier this season.

O’Neil had added Tim Jenkins and Shaun Derry to his coaching staff, but West Ham had headed off Wolves’ attempts to headhunt coach Mark Robson as the final member of the team.

That left a vacancy for Burchnall, who despite not having worked with any of his colleagues before, says he has fitted in seamlessly. O’Neil, and Wolves, have clearly made an impression.

“What stands out to you first of all is that the gaffer is just a great guy,” he says.

“Coming in every day to the office environment that we’ve got feels good and positive.

“He’s a really good human, then the depth of detail and intensity in his work is like nothing I’ve seen before and to work under that is challenging.

“It demands every day that you’re on it but I enjoy that. We’ll spend an evening together while we’re staying up here and that can easily reach 11pm.

“And then he’ll say, ‘Right, shall we watch another Fulham game?’. My eyes might be closing, but I’ll say, ‘OK, yeah!’.

“We’ll win a game and by midnight he might have sent out a text asking us to have a look at the build-up of whoever we’re playing next.”

For now, Burchnall is a key and content member of O’Neil’s new-look team and smiles when asked whether he has struggled to readjust to not being the man in charge.

“I came out of Forest Green thinking (that) I don’t know if that (management) is what I want to do.

“I wanted to get more energy into my work again. I didn’t have that at the end at Forest Green.

“This opportunity couldn’t have been better.

“When I speak to my wife now, she’s far happier that I’m not doing the head coach role and that she can sit back and I can be a little bit more in the background. That’s great.

“When I ended up leaving Forest Green, I felt relieved to be out of it. But at least it gave me a bit more clarity on what I hoped for from the next position and, without a doubt, I managed to get that here.”

(Top photo: Jack Thomas – WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images)

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