Will Still: ‘I’m managing a Ligue 1 club at 30 and couldn’t be happier’ | Ligue 1

INt basically any point in my life, if someone had told me I’d be the head coach of a Ligue 1 side at 30, I’d have told them to punch me in the face. It would have been a totally ridiculous suggestion. The idea that, at 30, I’d be managing a team against Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Sergio Ramos and Marco Verratti, and in the opposition dugout to Christophe Galtier, was equally mad.

Life can be crazy, though. I’ve never set any boundaries or limits on what I might achieve, but I’ve also never set any specific goals. When I went into coaching, I didn’t set out to make it to the top tier in France by a specific age. Not at all. I’m just not like that as a person. The key thing for me is just to enjoy what I’m doing now.

I make sure I stay in the present. I guess that means I’m never really thinking about what’s coming up, so specific moments or achievements can surprise me. I’ve had a fair few pinch-yourself moments over the course of my career.

One came when Stade de Reims first phoned me. “We’ve just appointed Óscar García as head coach, and we’ve been tracking you for a while,” the general director told me. “Do you want to come down for a chat?”

I could barely believe it. It felt totally surreal that Reims knew who I was, let alone that they had been tracking my progress as a coach. I wasn’t a known name – at least, I didn’t think I was – outside of Belgium, where I was born and raised, and where my whole career had been spent up until that point. Belgium feels very small and self-contained when you’re there.

I went along to Reims and they offered me the opportunity to be Oscar’s assistant. They told me they liked my sessions. They’d come to watch a few of my sessions without me knowing, and they liked how much energy I put in and how much I got from the players. They said they had other assistants who were good with video analysis and match preparation, and they needed someone to help on the grass.

I didn’t think twice about taking them up on their offer. Just like that, I was assistant head coach in Ligue 1 at 28, in a league where you get to face some of the best teams in the world. I was going to be on a coaching staff going up against PSG, Marseille, Lyon and so many other teams. Unbelievable teams. I’d come a long way from realizing I was never going to make it as a player as a teenager in Belgium.

I’m English – both of my parents are English – but I’ve spent most of my life in Belgium. I took up the chance to go to college and spend some time in England at 18. That was when I realized there was so much more to football than just playing. There was coaching, analysis, scouting, physiotherapy, physical preparation. Coaching seemed like the next best thing. That was the closest I was going to get to the adrenaline buzz of playing.

My first coaching experience was with the Preston North End academy. Being involved in that was fantastic. I’d done some coaching before, with my brother back in Belgium, but nothing at this level. “These kids are actually good!” I thought. After that, I knew that coaching was what I wanted to do. When I got back to Belgium after finishing at college, I set out to get some experience in the professional game. I went knocking on doors. I found the address of anyone I could in Belgian football and went to see them.

“I’m young and I’m no one,” I’d say. “But I’ve got experience at Preston, and I’ve got expertise from college. Can I, in any way, shape or form, be of any help?” It was no after no after no. Door after door shut in my face. Some people said they would call me in two weeks, but I never heard back from them. I was starting to lose hope.

And then, the last coach I tried kept his door open for me. It was Yannick Ferrera, a young Belgian coach who was in charge at Sint-Truiden in the second tier. I’d played for them in the youth academy and I’d made them the last club on my list because I didn’t really want to go back to somewhere I’d already been. But now I wanted a chance anywhere I could get one.

“Can you film a game?” Yannick asked me. Yeah, I can do that. “Can you cut the video?” Yeah, I can cut video. “Our first opponent in the league is playing tomorrow. Go and watch them, film it, clip it, and give me some feedback in two days’ time.”

So, off I went. I wanted to prove myself so much. I couldn’t tell you how many times I watched the game back after filming it. I just wanted to show Yannick I could see what was happening on this pitch that I’d gone to in the middle of nowhere. I took what I’d put together back to Yannick. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “You’ve done far too much!” He obviously liked what he saw and he offered me an unpaid apprenticeship at Sint-Truiden.

I was doing video analysis at first, but as time went on I spent more and more time on the grass. Without anything official being said, I ended up becoming something like an assistant to him. First it was organizing set-pieces, then I’d be doing a rondo, then suddenly I’d be doing a passing practice. I was getting more and more involved in training.

That’s all thanks to Yannick and it’s thanks to him that I got my next opportunity. I moved on to be an assistant at Lierse in the same division, and when I was 24 – about three years after getting my first job under Yannick – the manager was sacked. The owner phoned me up almost immediately after sacking the manager.

“You’re doing it,” he said. “What?” I replied. “As from tomorrow, you’re head coach. You’re doing it.” I told him, with all due respect, that there were a few other coaches there with far more experience than me who he should turn to. It was: “Thank you, but no thank you.”

“No, no,” he said. “I don’t care about the others. I like you. You’ve got loads of good ideas. You’re doing it.” I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. So, at 24 years of age I was manager – albeit caretaker manager – at a Belgian second division club.

I was absolutely bricking it. But we did really well when I was in charge. We’d been second-bottom of the league when I took over in October, but we managed to turn things around and get us up the table. What was crazy was how much my world was flipped upside down. I went from being a complete nobody to someone who was known – locally, at least. Suddenly, I was getting stopped in the shops and seeing myself in the news and on the telly.

Still watches on as Reims beat Ajaccio in Ligue 1. Photograph: Pascal Pochard-Casabianca/AFP/Getty Images

Although I was the head coach of a professional team, I was also still trying things out in Football Manager as well. I’d never considered that Football Manager had an influence on my real-life career but, thinking about it now, it definitely did. I got fixated on it as a kid, and playing the game probably ignited the fire in me that I have now as a coach on the touchline.

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.

We got into building a squad, picking a team, organizing training, making sure the team was going in the right direction – all of the details. There was nothing better than that, even if it was virtual! And then here I was, doing it for real. I remember, when I was at Sint-Truiden, I was trying to win the league with them in the game as well!

As my career has progressed, though, I haven’t had the time to get stuck into the game like I used to. Things started to get really busy for me at Reims. Being Oscar’s assistant was incredible. After half a season I had to go back to Belgium to complete my coaching badges. Once I’d got them out of the way, Reims asked me to come back again.

Then, the almost unthinkable happened. My phone rang. It was the owners. “Óscar is leaving,” they told me. “These are the terms of your contract, so you can’t leave. We want you to take over.” I didn’t have much choice or time to mull it over.

I’d had a brief spell in charge of Beerschot in the Belgian first division in 2021, after three years as an assistant there, and I’d done pretty well. We finished the season in mid-table, but they decided to bring in a new manager during the off-season. I’d forged a certain type of relationship with the players, so I decided that going back to being the assistant wouldn’t have been a good idea. That’s when I decided to leave and from there I ended up going to Reims.

Just like the bug you get on Football Manager, I wanted to get another opportunity as a head coach. But just like at every other stage in my career, I hadn’t planned it. I didn’t think at any point that I would be Stade de Reims’ head coach. Especially not yet. This was October 2022, and they initially gave me the job until the World Cup in Qatar. That meant six games to get as many points as possible. Then, they said, we would reassess the situation.

It was another pinch-me moment. But things moved so fast, and there were so many jobs to get on with, that I didn’t really have any time to think about it or reflect on the fact that I was now a Ligue 1 head coach – albeit a caretaker at that point. Three days later, I was standing in the dugout having prepared the Reims squad for their Ligue 1 fixture against Paris Saint-Germain. It doesn’t get more dramatic than walking past Mbappé, Verratti, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Marquinhos, Ramos, Danilo and the rest of their players in the tunnel. Just crazy.

Still coaches Reims against PSG.
Still coaches Reims against PSG. Photograph: John Berry/Getty Images

Don’t get me wrong, though. I wasn’t just in awe. I’d had a really stressful week in the lead-up to the game. My main thought was: “I just hope we don’t get smashed 6-0.” That was always a possibility against a team like PSG.

The closer we got to the game, I started to become more relaxed. And once the players are out for their warm-up, something just happens to you as a head coach. I don’t know how to explain it, but all nerves went out the window and my mind was incredibly focused. It was game time and I had a job to do.

Lionel Messi had picked up an injury in the Champions League in midweek, so he was out, and Galtier was giving Neymar and Achraf Hakimi a rest, so they were on the bench. Obviously, it was still a ludicrously strong team, but it gave us a bigger glimmer of hope.

My players carried out my gameplan brilliantly and we got a goalless draw. Neymar and Hakimi came on, but they still couldn’t score. It was the first time in the season that PSG had failed to score. This was October, and nobody had kept a clean sheet against them since March. It was an incredible feeling to do that in my first game in charge.

The atmosphere started to change at the club and we went on a better run of form. When I’d taken over, we had one win and four defeats from nine games. We’d been in the relegation zone. Then, in my six games before the break for the World Cup, we went unbeaten, winning twice and moving up to 11th in the table. The board were so happy with how things had gone and – crucially – how the mood around the club had been lifted, that I was given the job on a permanent basis.

So, at 30 years old, here I am, in charge of a Ligue 1 club. I couldn’t be happier.

This article was published first by The Coaches’ Voice
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