Did Darren Potter learn a few tricks when Mick magically turned into Merlin?

Darren Potter made his professional debut for Liverpool in the Champions League in the season they produced their most famous of comebacks in Istanbul to claim the trophy...writes Paul Berry.

The final appearance of his career came as a late substitute for Tranmere against AFC Wimbledon in the season Rovers were relegated from League One on a points-per-game basis due to the arrival of a global pandemic.

Talk about contrasts. There, in a nutshell, lie the fluctuating fortunes and emotions of a footballing journey spanning the levels, some 15 years apart.

What was it that Kipling wrote about treating the imposters of triumph and disaster just the same?

Potter made 67 appearances for Wolves in the mid to late 2000’s, including 44 during the season Mick McCarthy did indeed, despite his pre-season protestations, turn into Merlin the Magician.

He announced his retirement with an Instagram post last week, and former team-mates queued up to offer their congratulations and best wishes.

MK Dons, for whom Potter turned out on over 250 occasions, released a story on their website.

That apart, there was very little fanfare. No big public farewell, round of media interviews, highlight reels across social media.

As affable and down-to-earth as Potter is, he wouldn’t have expected any of that, nor craved it or necessarily relished it.

But any lack of a wider spotlight should not downplay the success of a career both launched and ended close to home in Merseyside, but taking in many different outposts in between.

Potter chalked up over 500 senior appearances, played in the Premier League and Champions League, represented three clubs currently occupying the top half of the Premier League, and was capped at senior level by the Republic of Ireland including lining up against a Brazil side for whom Robinho notched the winning goal.

An excellent career by any standards, and one which Potter feels very proud of.

“I think a few things all came together which prompted me to make the decision to retire,” he tells the Express and Star.

“I’m 35 now, I’d be 36 by the end of the season, and although I still feel good in myself and have never carried much weight, injury probably had a part to play.

Darren Potter takes on Preston.

“I ruptured my Achilles a couple of years ago at Rotherham and even though I got back for Tranmere, I never reached the level of performance which I wanted to.

“I’ve also got no shame in saying that my phone hasn’t exactly been ringing off the hook with clubs interested since I became available at the end of last season.

“There were a few factors which brought forward my decision and I just thought what was the point in waiting and hanging on.

“And when it comes to the announcement about retiring, I know I’m not a big enough player to have a big fanfare or give people something to hang onto.

“I think there are always levels of reaction when players retire aren’t there? I haven’t played 500 games in the Premier League or won 100 international caps.

“For me, I am happy enough in the knowledge of feeling I have enjoyed some good achievements, and have hopefully made my family proud.

“Just to get the adulation of my peers, the people I played with, family, hopefully supporters, that’s more than good enough for me.”

By the time Potter arrived at Molineux on a loan deal in the summer of 2006, he had already enjoyed a footballing education up there with the best at a Liverpool Academy famed for its production of a seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of young talent.

A boyhood Liverpool fan, Potter was actually on the books on the other side of Stanley Park with Everton as a youngster, before being released just prior to turning 16.

A well-established captain of the Liverpool city side, Potter wasn’t short of offers as he continued to pursue his footballing dream, spending a week on trial with Blackburn before the Reds came calling.

What a moment. The chance to join Liverpool’s Academy.

The young Potter, living with his parents just around the corner from Anfield, had landed his prized opportunity.

“It was incredible to get that upbringing at the academy which was second to none,” he recalls.

“The coaches there were superb, and I still speak to some of them to this day.

“I made friends for life, and that time at Liverpool gave me an introduction into what football was all about.

“Even talking to you now, I can still remember being on holiday with my friends one summer, and getting a call from my Mum and Dad to tell me that when I went back to Liverpool for the new season, I was moving from the academy to the training ground at Melwood to link up with the first team.

“Obviously they have just left Melwood a couple of weeks ago and the first team and academy are now operating on the same site but in those days it was different.

“It felt like a huge step, and a daunting one, but it was one we all wanted to make at that time.”

And that was where the hard work really began.

Steven Gerrard, Dietmar Hamann, Xabi Alonso. Good luck getting into that central midfield!

But Potter managed it, making 17 precious appearances, the majority in cup competitions but also the Premier League, and in the Champions League in that so-special season of 2004/05.

His debut came from the bench in the away leg of the qualifying round win at Austrian side Graz AK – he was a substitute alongside Michael Owen in what was Rafa Benitez’s first competitive game in charge – and he made his first start in the return in front of a packed Anfield a fortnight later.

And although not near the squad for the final, he got the chance to make the trip, watch from the stand, and enjoy the celebrations on the pitch and in the dressing room after the epic comeback and penalty shootout win against AC Milan. The stuff that dreams were made of.

“That debut was a special game, I got on for the last few minutes after Stevie Gerrard had typically scored two,” Potter recalls.

“Then I got a start in the second leg which I wasn’t expecting, and I played the full 90 minutes.

“We had won the first leg 2-0, but lost the second 1-0, so it shows the fine margins just to get through the qualifying round when we went all the way through the tournament and lifted the trophy.

“It was a great time for me, and looking back now I probably didn’t understand at the time just how difficult it was to get into that first team.

“I was coming up from the academy and those guys were world class central midfield players, and to learn from them day in day out in training was incredible.

“Steven Gerrard was captain of the club and would always help the young lads, while Dietmar Hamann was great for me as well, he took me under his wing and pushed me along.

“As much as they were superstars, at the end of the day they were normal human beings who had been in that situation themselves as young players - they knew what it was all about being at Liverpool and they wanted to help us.

“I suppose as a young player I was a local lad, on the crest of a wave not really thinking about it too much and just riding along on the journey.”

That journey however, would ultimately need to take a different step.

As a young player, faced with that level of competition, Potter needed more regular football, and that is how, having already had one Championship loan spell with Southampton, he checked in at Wolves in August, 2006, a month into McCarthy’s tenure.

Wolves at that time was of course a vastly different proposition to today’s model.

The parachute money had disappeared, along with a large majority of the playing talent, and McCarthy had barely enough players to put out a team when he arrived.

“MM stands for Mick McCarthy, not Merlin the Magician,” was the response at his introductory press conference to a suggestion from the media corps that Wolves could target the play-offs.

“I didn’t actually realise how decimated the squad actually was,” Potter explains.

“I wasn’t there right at the start when Mick arrived, it was a few weeks into the season.

“I didn’t know too much about Wolves but once I knew they were interested I remember watching a game against Preston on Sky on a Friday night.

“By the following weekend, I had joined on loan, and made my debut in a win at Burnley.

“To actually look back and realise how many players were there before Mick came in, the overhaul was massive wasn’t it? And without spending much money.

“He did an unbelievable job there to then create that team spirit.

“The lads in the dressing room were brilliant, the squad had just been put together but it genuinely felt like we had known each other for years and years.

“There were also some really talented players who came in, as well as being good lads and proper team players as well.”

Potter settled so well that when McCarthy moved to make his loan permanent in the January transfer window, he was delighted to accept, even with the obvious mixed feelings of bidding farewell to his boyhood club and several years of a priceless footballing upbringing.

Darren Potter passes the ball

“I was really enjoying it at Wolves, playing most weeks, and it gave me an opportunity to create my own path and put my own mark on things,” says Potter.

“You never really want to leave a club like Liverpool, of course you don’t, but in the position like I was, it becomes a question of when is the right time to do it, and get out and play more football.

“That was the right time for me, and I have never ever regretted the decision to join Wolves.”

That 2006/07 campaign proved to be quite something.

The squad that Mick built did indeed somehow reach the play-offs – magic wands at the ready – only to fall at the penultimate hurdle with defeat to the old enemy via two of an unprecedented five local derbies that season against West Bromwich Albion.

Then there was the small matter of losing 6-0 at home to Potter’s former temporary club Southampton – only to receive a standing ovation at the final whistle from a Molineux fanbase so emotionally and passionately invested in the ‘young and hungry’ rebuild.

“It was a special time and maybe when you consider everything we did over-achieve to reach the play-offs,” Potter recalls.

“But we did feel we had a really good team, and had every right to be there.

“It was a joy to be involved in that season, although a bit of a bitter one to take with the way it finished, against that opposition as well!

“They became our nemesis that season, they had such a good experienced team with the likes of Phillips and Kamara up front, but I will always remember the one game of the five when we beat them at Molineux.

“We’d already lost 3-0 twice to them so that was quite a day!

“That Southampton one was another one which was tough to take.

“I’m not sure how many times I have come off the pitch with such a hefty defeat, especially at home, but then the fans clapped us off.

“It was a strange afternoon and a strange game and not one I would look back on with any great memories, apart from that reception at the end!”

Potter was a reasonably regular feature of the following campaign, when Wolves narrowly missed out on again reaching the play-offs, but by the time of the Championship-winning season of 2008/09, he had moved down the pecking order and would go on to join Sheffield Wednesday, firstly on loan, and then permanently.

“I still enjoyed that second season, maybe not playing quite as much as the one before, but I had started featuring for the Republic of Ireland as well, so there was a lot going on,” he says.

“Mick then had a conversation with me at the end of that season when he was bringing in David Jones, and told me that my game time was going to be reduced, and that I could move on if something came up.

“Mick was always very open and honest, and at the time I told him I wanted to stay and fight for my place, because I was really enjoying it.

“I still wanted to play more, and I knocked Mick’s door a few times as I felt I was training well, but at the same time now I understand that managers pick teams for a reason.

“Wolves went on to get promoted, and it was disappointing not to be a part of it, but another door opened for me at Sheffield Wednesday.

“And I will always look back on my time at Wolves with really fond memories.

“From being a young lad at Liverpool, I then went into playing 40 games a season in the Championship which was a real eye-opener and a learning curve, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

“Me and Mick have spoken many times over the years since, and I have played against his teams, and I would never hold it against him that I didn’t get more games.

“He’s a great fella and I will always be really grateful for the opportunity he gave me by taking me to Wolves.”

After his spell at Hillsborough, it was with MK Dons where Potter spent the longest time of his career, and ultimately the most enjoyable.

Moving into the zone of becoming more an experienced member of the squad than a young and developing one, he was a calming influence and presence in a team which brought through such talent as Dele Alli, Patrick Bamford and – no stranger to the Wolves fans – Benik Afobe.

Among his extensive array of appearances for MK there were again many highlights.

Darren Potter vs Derby 2006

Thumping Manchester United at home in the League Cup, scoring against Chelsea in the FA Cup, achieving promotion to the Championship, a winning return to Molineux.

Potter also got to witness - albeit he was injured - the memorable afternoon for Wolves when almost 10,000 fans travelled to Stadium MK in the League One title-winning season and savoured a narrow victory thanks to Liam McAlinden’s late header.

“Although MK Dons as a club are relatively small in comparison to the likes of Liverpool and Wolves, they had big ambitions and wanted to grow and improve,” says Potter.

“That matched the manager in situ at the time in Karl Robinson, who was equally ambitious, and created a style of play which really suited me and I enjoyed being a part of.

“I remember going back to Wolves and the stadium had changed a fair bit but the result that day was a huge win for us.

“I missed out on the home game when they brought all the fans, but that was something MK did a few times with big away sides, and it didn’t half make a difference.

“Yes it gave the away team a boost because it felt like a home game for them but we enjoyed it as well.

“You always want to play in front of full stadiums, with great atmospheres, and, especially now when there are no fans being allowed to games, as players it just shows how much the supporters play a part."

Having left MK Dons, it was spells at Rotherham and Tranmere that brought the curtain down on Potter’s playing career, finishing with that late substitute appearance and a 1-0 win against Wimbledon last December.

But already he was looking ahead, and a desire to stay in the game had seen him kick off his coaching qualifications – completing the UEFA ‘B’ Licence five years ago and now working on the ‘A’ – as well as grasping the opportunity to now be in charge of the Port Vale Academy Under-11 team.

“Coaching is something I have always wanted to get involved in and the Achilles injury got in the way of my ‘A’ licence for a bit but I am almost halfway through it now,” says Potter.

“Taking the team at Port Vale is a great opportunity as it allows me to get out there with a group of young players, put sessions on and be comfortable in that environment.

“It has been a really good start and I have loved every minute so far.

“Long-term the aim is definitely to work at first team level in the future, and I am open to anything whether coaching or managing.

“Obviously for many people the natural step is to pick up coaching experience and then maybe move into management and while I know there is a very long way to go, that would be the ambition.

“For the moment it is about learning as much as I can, more as a coach now than a player, working out how to study an opposition team and what to do when coming up against different tactics.

“I am just happy to be involved at such a good club like Port Vale and to keep learning and developing for what I hope will be the chance to step up my coaching career in the future.”

Potter remains in touch with one or two former Wolves team-mates, including former room-mate Neill Collins and Kevin Foley, who are a bit further down the coaching track with the success they are enjoying at Tampa Bay Rowdies.

He is also making the most of what he hopes will only be a temporary hiatus between playing and full-time coaching career, to enjoy a spot more family time with his wife and four children.

And he will no doubt be casting a keen eye over Wolves’ trip to Anfield to face Liverpool currently scheduled for a week on Saturday.

But if we return to where we started, or indeed where Potter ended, what is his overall assessment of a playing career which stretched to a decade and a half?

“I probably wouldn’t change a lot, or change many of my decisions,” he reflects.

“Ask any player and I reckon they would always say they wanted more – more top flight appearances, more medals, more international caps – but then again if I’d had them I would probably have wanted even more than that!

“Taking stock of everything that went on, I am fairly happy with how things went, and I feel I can be proud of what I achieved.”

Thinking back to that memorable night Potter made his debut, away at Graz AK, the game was played in a stadium named after a famous Austrian-American actor turned politician.

The Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium. Having finished one career as a player, and now aiming to return as a coach or manager, you can probably complete the punchline yourself!

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