Thirty-year-old Will Still has said he had to pinch himself when he first managed Stade de Reims against Paris Saint-Germain earlier this season. Three months on and he has yet to lose a Ligue 1 Uber Eats game as his side prepare to face the champions again.
With coach Óscar García back in his native Spain for personal reasons, Still stepped up from his role as assistant and oversaw an impressive 0-0 draw with the reigning champions in early October. It takes a big effort to stop the capital club and their all-star attack from scoring, and Still’s performance on the touchline made a big impression on the Reims directors.
A few days later he was named head coach on an interim basis to replace García, the appointment coming in the week he celebrated his 30th birthday. After five more games without losing, he was confirmed as coach permanently during the break for the World Cup. And the unbeaten run has continued since the campaign restarted, with Still already enjoying the most successful start for any Reims coach in France’s top flight.
In the family
It has been a remarkable performance from the Belgian-born Tintin lookalike. But Still is no footballing novice, far from it. He and his brothers are all precocious coaching talents – elder brother Edward, 32, is in charge at Eupen in the Belgian Pro League, where Nicolas, the youngest of the siblings, is his assistant. Born to English parents, Will left Belgium to study at a college near Preston in north-west England and from there went on to become coach of the local club Preston North End’s Under-14 side.
The journey into professional football had started for someone who played Football Manager obsessively while growing up. At 24 he was named caretaker coach at Lierse in the Belgian second tier, and at 28 he was put in charge of Beerschot. Reims were soon knocking at his door.
“I could barely believe it,” he recently told the Coaches’ Voice website. “It felt totally surreal that Reims knew who I was, let alone that they had been tracking my progress as a coach.”
He returned to Belgium after a first, short spell as an assistant coach in Champagne country, but came back to the Stade Auguste-Delaune ahead of this season, before soon becoming the number one. “Pinch-me moments don’t get much more dramatic than that,” he said of leading the side out against PSG’s stars.
Including a 2-2 draw away to regional rivals ESTAC Troyes just before that solid defensive display against PSG, Reims are unbeaten in 11 Ligue 1 Uber Eats outings. They have kept six clean sheets in their last 10, including a 0-0 draw last weekend with an OGC Nice side who had scored six a few days earlier. Still’s impact on the team is in no doubt.
“He will probably become a really great coach,” Reims president Jean-Pierre Caillot told sports daily L’Equipe.
Football Manager to football manager
Still himself admits that the cult game Football Manager gave him a solid grounding in what being in charge of a real football team was all about. “I’d been obsessed with it growing up. Me and my brother would play it relentlessly - we weren’t allowed a PlayStation, so we played Football Manager on the family computer,” he told the Coaches’ Voice.
The West Ham United fan is not only very young for a coach at the highest level. He is also in charge of the squad with the youngest average age in Ligue 1 – the only member of the Reims team older than the coach is Yunis Abdelhamid, the 35-year-old defender and captain.
Reims are young. They are also cosmopolitan. A club with a Belgian-born English coach has a wide array of different nationalities in the squad. Among them is Folarin Balogun, the 21-year-old, New York-born England Under-21 international hitman who has already netted 10 goals on loan from Arsenal.
Balogun’s impact has made up for the departure of last season’s revelation Hugo Ekitiké, who is now on loan at PSG ahead of a permanent move there this coming summer. The two-time former European Cup finalists sit safely in mid-table at the season’s halfway stage. Whatever happens when they take on PSG once more on January 29, the outlook is positive for the remainder of the campaign under Still.
“The team is finally playing football that is in keeping with the quality of the squad. They are enjoying themselves and that makes them a pleasure to watch. The players are adhering to the style of football that he wants to play, and to the club’s overall project,” Caillot, the long-serving president, told L’Union.