In a side room at the training base of Stade de Reims, there is a seat reserved for the boss. A red leather racing chair. It is rather flash; near the headrest, a crown sits atop Reims’ club crest.
Not really Will Still’s flavour but last month these flatlands in France’s north east became his domain. Now his inbox is brimming with messages of reverence. His trips to the supermarket are interrupted by well-wishers.
Recently, people began making a fuss on the pitch too. ‘We beat Rennes 3-1, I shook the ref’s hand at the end of the game,’ Still begins. ‘He was like: ‘What you’re doing is unbelievable, mate.’
Lille manager Paulo Fonseca said similar. ‘You get a little tingle,’ Still admits. ‘I’d rather people just consider me normal.’ He pauses. ‘But I do realise that it can come across as completely stupid.
Englishman Will Still has opened up on his time so far in charge of Ligue 1 side Reims
Born in Belgium to English parents, the 30-year-old is the youngest manager in Europe’s major leagues
‘Totally bonkers. This 30-year-old Englishman – who grew up in Belgium, who learnt to love coaching through Football Manager, who became a head coach at 24 – is now the youngest manager in Europe’s major leagues. ‘Ridiculous really,’ Still says.
Still (left) is still studying for his UEFA Pro Licence
During those long nights at the computer, Still cut his teeth alongside brother Ed – now 32, now a head coach himself in Belgium’s top flight. In December 2021, years after sparking the same dream, they sat in opposite dugouts.
Since Will took temporary charge of struggling Reims in October, Europe’s youngest team are 11 matches unbeaten – including Wednesday night’s 1-0 win away at AC Ajaccio. Still now has the job full time – at some expense, too.
While the 30-year-old studies for his UEFA Pro Licence – a job requirement in Ligue 1 – Reims pay a €25,000 fine every match. Is that taken from his wage? ‘Well, it’s been, sort of, negotiated,’ Still laughs.
‘The club said: we’re ready to invest in your career and your future.’ With terms and conditions. ‘Just as long as you keep winning games!
‘That could prove tricky. Reims visit Paris Saint-Germain later this month for another date with Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Co.
Still posted a ‘how it started, how it’s going’ picture on Instagram that shows him as a budding footballer at the age of 10 and then him winning the Belgian second-tier title in 2019-20 season
‘You reflect on it and think: ‘Why the hell am I doing this? How am I in the position to be coaching against these guys?’ Still says. But he has already frustrated them once this season.
In October, with boss Oscar Garcia missing, Still took charge as Reims stopped PSG scoring for the only time this season. He replaced Garcia a few days after that 0-0 draw.
‘I think we irritated them to a boiling point,’ Still remembers. Their blueprint? ‘Press them, foul them, go and grab them by the scuff of the neck, basically,’ he explains.
‘Don’t let them play out, don’t give Mbappe the space he wants… as soon as there’s a little foul, just run at the referee and make it as loud as possible. Just annoy them as much as we could.
Still (left) took charge of the team on an interim basis in October before being handed the role full-time
Reims frustrated PSG earlier in the campaign and became the only team to stop them scoring this season
Still revealed Reims game-plan against PSG was to be skilled in the art of irritation
‘Will that be the plan this time round, too? ‘Err, along those lines, yeah,’ Still smirks. These days, his philosophy relies on players being ‘proactive’. The art of irritation, however, is something he mastered growing up in Belgium.
‘I was a holding midfielder… I wasn’t the quickest – I can run the 100m in about 10 days,’ he says. ‘(But) I’d never stop running… I think people absolutely hated playing against me because I was the biggest See You Next Tuesday.’
A towering talent of the dark arts. ‘I’d just walk on someone’s foot or, first ball, smash them in the back of neck or something. I’m not like that in day-to-day life.’ Not at all. ‘But once I got on the pitch I was the dirtiest bugger ever,’ he jokes. ‘My mum was always embarrassed to watch me.
Still will be aiming to stop Neymar, Mbappe and Messi and Co when Reims play PSG again
Still admitted he practiced his managerial craft playing popular video game Football Manager
REIMS INCREDIBLE RUN SINCE LOSING 3-0 TO MONACO
*All results are in Ligue 1 unless stated
Troyes 2-2 Reims – October 2
Reims 0-0 PSG – October 8
Lorient 0-0 Reims – October 15
Reims 2-1 Auxerre – October 23
Brest 0-0 Reims – October 30
Reims 1-0 Nantes – November 6
Montpellier 1-1 Reims – November 13
Reims 3-1 Rennes – December 29
Lille 1-1 Reims – January 2
Loon-Plage 0-7 Reims – Coupe de France – January 8
AC Ajaccio 0-1 Reims – January 11
‘Those skills might have been enough to play in Belgium’s lower leagues. Fortunately he was already prepared for a career change.’ I was just like a normal kid playing Football Manager,’ Still begins.
No matter than his parents had banned video games. ‘I spent nights where you get to 10 o’clock in the evening, thinking: ‘Ok one more game.’ And then you end up at 4 o’clock in the morning: ‘Oh, I’m still at it.’ ‘But what I realise now, the crazy thing is it’s actually so realistic.’
Still, a West Ham fan through his father, would always begin the game in charge at Upton Park. Serious, real-life coaching began further north, at Preston’s Myerscough College.
As part of his studies, Still would coach North End’s Under-14s. And after returning home, he contacted anyone and everyone in Belgian football in search of opportunities. He met only dead ends until the final coach – at former club Sint-Truiden – offered him work in opposition analysis.
By 2017, Still had hopped between various roles at Standard Liege and second-tier outfit, Lierse. Then Lierse’s president promoted him to the top job. ‘That is ridiculous, I’m only 24,’ Still told him. His tenure proved short-lived – the club soon went bankrupt.
His first job in the Belgian top flight, with Beerschot, proved another false dawn. By now, though, Still was a wanted man. Anderlecht approached him about working under Vincent Kompany.
Still had previously hopped between roles at professional clubs in his homeland of Belgium
Instead he returned to Liege. While assistant coach, he faced Ed’s former side, Charleroi. They are ‘two completely opposite characters.’ You walk into his house, it’s like a museum,’ Still jokes.
‘If you walk with your shoes on, he’ll be brooming up behind you.’ Two different coaches, too. ‘Ed is very structured… everyone knows exactly what they’re doing,’ Still adds.
‘I’m not like that at all. If you want to dribble past six players and stick it in the top corner, do that. ‘The lines separating Still’s real and virtual careers are more blurred.
While working at Sint-Truiden, he was coaching them on Football Manager, too. Still has used the game’s database for scouting, and to pass time on long away days. But reality has taken over now. The days of fun experiments have passed.
The Reims coach was full of praise for Reims’ on-loan Arsenal striker Folarin Balogun
Balogun has shined under Still’s management and is behind only Kylian Mbappe and Neymar in the Ligue 1 scoring charts this season
‘I’d have a go at everyone when we just won a game,’ Still recalls. Or shuffle players around. ‘If I played a striker in goal here, I’d get fired. ‘There is, of course, one crucial tenet of coaching that can’t be recreated: managing people and their foibles.
Still cites striker Folarin Balogun, who is shining on loan from Arsenal. ‘In the game, he’s just a player you buy… here you have the whole human aspect: how is Balo, an Englishman with that English culture going to fit into a French culture and quite an international team? Who is he going to talk to? What environment am I going to put him into at training so that he feels comfortable and can be himself?
‘Fortunately, this has become among Still’s favourite parts of the job. Even the smallest details – what someone eats for breakfast, who they talk to – give him ‘a better understanding of who people are and what they need to be able to perform’.
Reims have gone nine games unbeaten since Still took charge of the side in October
The youthful Reims coach has been able to get the best out of the league’s youngest side
Reims kept him on, in part, because of how the mood here had shifted. ‘I get the feeling that this generation just wants to have a bit of fun and the more you encourage them to be themselves and express themselves, the more banter and energy comes out,’ Still says.
Among his key weapons? Ultra-competitive training. ‘In any game we play, there are points,’ Still says. At the end of every month, whoever sits bottom of the squad’s league table must buy everyone a meal. Here is where Still sees youth as his advantage. He has grown up in the same world as his players.
Still (left) revealed ultra-competitive training has been key to success
‘It’s just the words,’ he says. ‘I’m Will, not coach, not gaffer… I just want everyone to be themselves and I’ll be myself first .’Still adds: ‘They put music on that I listen to. They’re talking about things I’ve probably watched on tele or done with my mates. I’m not going to dive into the conversation because that’s their life. But I understand it.
‘And if I have to tell a player to come off the bench and do this for us, it’s just what words I am going to use so that he knows I understand what he’s feeling.’ Whereas, he suggests, experienced coaches might be more formal and struggle to strike the same emotional chords.
‘Balogun is among those shining under Still’s guidance. Only Neymar and Mbappe have scored more Ligue 1 goals than the 21-year-old. ‘He’s unbelievable, he has real talent but he is also just a top person,’ the manager says. ‘He’s trying to learn the language – we have a bit of banter because his French is terrible (but) I think he realises: being good here will allow him to get the spotlight and attention he needs.
‘The same goes for Still: some at Reims consider it only a matter of time before he joins a huge club.’If the opportunity comes up to go back to England, then that’s obviously a dream,’ he says. ‘If it doesn’t, there will be something else, somewhere else.’
Balogun has shined on loan at Arsenal with Still earmarking the striker for future success
Still cited legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson as someone he looks up to in coaching
Still adds: ‘I never had a career plan or objectives I have to meet before a certain age…I’ve no idea what I’m going to eat tonight.’
This 30-year-old, who spoke English at home, French at school and Flemish on the football pitch, isn’t even sure where he fits in. ‘If I’m in Belgium, I’ll feel English.
And if I’m in England, I’d probably feel half-Belgian. So I am somewhere lost in the Channel. ‘His only goal? Never stop evolving. ‘Sir Alex Ferguson is one you look up to and think: how the hell did he do that for so long? And how the hell were they so good at the end of it? ‘He will only be the future once, after all.
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