William Still honed his tactical skills on Football Manager as a youngster, but is now a full-time coach – and he even came face-to-face with Lionel Messi on the touchline
Image: John Berry)
Let’s be honest; at one point or another we’ve all fancied ourselves as a bit of a coach after doing the business on Football Manager, haven’t we?
Social media is often awash with stories about the addictive simulation game. Whether it’s taking Woking from non-league to the Champions League in just six seasons or a 10-year dynasty at Stevenage, we all have our own Football Manager fairytale.
But have you heard the one about the 29-year-old who obsessed over the game and then went on to coach Preston’s U14 team before taking charge of a team against Lionel Messi just a decade later? That’s the remarkable true story of William Still, the man who was in charge of Stade de Reims when Messi made his bow for Paris Saint-Germain last year.
Still and his older brother, Edward, grew up honing their tactics on F.A. Premier League Football Manager 2001. They spent so long on the game that their parents actually banned them from continually ‘messing around’ on the computer, but the game has helped both brothers carve out a career in the professional game.
Still’s family moved to Belgium in his youth and he even played in the fourth tier of Belgian football, but Still made the decision to return to England at the age of 17 in order to pursue his dream of making it in football. By pursuing a degree at Preston’s Myerscough College, Still was given the chance to work with Preston’s youngsters due to a link between the club and the college.
Still told SportBible: “You were just so involved in it. You spent time at college during the day and in the evening, you went to coach at PNE. I just absolutely loved it. And it got to a stage where I realised there were better players around me on the pitch. I wasn’t going to make it as a professional.”
“Football Manager gave me that impetus to want to set up a team,” he says. “I wanted to be able to talk to players. I wanted to have that relationship. I mean, I was alright at football but FM allowed me to have that glimpse of what it actually was like to manage a team.
“I actually think people that play Football Manager understand the game a bit more. You’ve got to go into a lot of detail to actually win things and be successful in the game, especially nowadays with it becoming more and more complicated. I appreciate people that are so passionate and so submerged in the game.
“If you play Football Manager the easy way; just setting your team up and making sure your transfers are sorted, then you won’t learn much. But the more detail you go into, the more real it actually becomes. I think Football Manager has helped me become a better coach.”
After finishing his course, Still returned to Belgium to reunite with his family – and that’s when his coaching career really took. After spending a spell watching Belgian second-tier side Sint-Truiden train, Still was given the chance to film and provide analysis for the club. Shortly after, the club’s head coach, Yannick Ferrera, was plucked away by top Belgian side Standard Liege – but remarkably, Ferrera took Still with him.
After winning the Belgian cup, Ferrera was dismissed and Still was picked up by second-tier side Lierse. After assisting with manager with analysis and coaching, Still was given the shock of his life when the club sacked their manager – and placed him in charge.
“It was the beginning of October, he fired the manager and said, ‘right, Will, you are taking over.’ I was like, mate, that is f***ing ridiculous. I’m only 24. He said, ‘No, no, no. I’m not bothered. You are good. Your training sessions are good and you know how to deal with things.'”
After becoming the youngest manager in Belgian history at 24, Still went on to finish in the top three but was forced out after the club went bust. But he was then handed the opportunity to manage in the first division at Beerschot – where he was plying his trade as an assistant – when their manager was lured away. Still guided the Belgian side to a ninth-placed finish but walked away at the end of the season as the club wanted to place a more experienced man in charge.
“We had to renew the squad and training facilities,” he continued. “I’d set up the whole thing and said, right, this is how much it’s going to cost. This is the plan moving forward. This is where I think the team has got to go. They said they didn’t have the finances to do that but what I suggested cost absolutely nothing.
“They also mentioned second season syndrome and didn’t want to drop straight back down. So they hired an experienced coach who had been in the division for years. He was in his 50’s. They wanted me to stay on as an assistant but I didn’t accept.”
Still then enjoyed a stint with Stade de Reims as Oscar Garcia’s right-hand man – but he ended up taking charge of the side for Messi’s Ligue 1 debut as Garcia was suspended. Still recalls: “I was just thinking, ‘I’m going to be standing next to Di Maria, Neymar and Mbappe soon. And as we moved closer to the game, it became clear that Messi was going to make his debut or at least be in the squad.”
His stint in France was short-lived as he was still studying for the UEFA Pro License back in Belgium, but he received coaching offers from around Europe; including a proposal to assist Manchester City legend Vincent Kompany at Anderlecht. But Still snubbed that in order to return to Standard Liege – a club that the former Football Manager addict still has ‘unfinished business’ with.
“I felt like I had unfinished business there,” he says. “I’m sure I would have learned a huge amount from Kompany but I just it just felt like Standard was the place I had to go to. So I made that decision and now I’m an assistant coach at Liege.
“Long term, I want to manage in the Champions League and in an ideal world, manage in the Premier League. I know how far away and how stupid that sounds now, but I think I’m the proof that anything can happen if you really have a go at it. Let’s see where time and a bit of luck takes me.”