Will Still’s time in Reims started with a draw against PSG. The manager, who was born in Belgium to British parents, faces the club for the third time on Saturday. He has come a long way since his beginnings as a manager, transcending the image that was created of him when he was given the job and returning the champagne ball to the district.
A former video analyst, Still arrived from Belgium as an unknown quantity. However, he quickly found fame during a 17-match unbeaten run – the longest in Ligue 1 last season. At the time, the focus was as much on how he had taken Reims out of the relegation zone and into European contention as it was on his performances, or lack thereof, and his management style. With each passing week, as Reims won more games, the story about the “geek” Football Manager who did not have a coaching license grew and grew.
It was a quirk that Namanje, at least initially, was willing to accept. “I was just a kid who used to play FIFA and Football Manager for hours,” said Still, who admitted that he was “obsessed” with the manager’s game. His back story, along with the €25,000-a-week fine Reims received for his presence on the phone due to his lack of a Uefa Pro License at the time, provided a smokescreen that overshadowed Still’s impressive career.
Still raised expectations at Reims. He took de-facto charge while former manager Óscar García was still at the club, overseeing a hard-fought game against PSG. García was fired a few days later and Still was installed as interim and permanent manager. He was accused by the management of Reims for taking the team out of the field. With four teams relegated last season, the threat of returning to Ligue 2 for the first time since 2018 was very real. It did not remain a threat for long; a 17-game unbeaten run allowed them to look at the table instead of over their shoulder.
Still the frustration after their defeat to Rennes, the team that finally qualified for the Europa League, was an example of the improved things expected. “There are borders, so we will not think about Europe or any nonsense like that because we have seen today that it is useless,” he said. His reaction to the defeat showed that ideas of European superiority remained in the back of his mind, at least for a while.
Reims ended up finishing in 11th place, but results so far this season have proved that last year’s run was no fluke. Last year, the hope that Reims would climb Ligue 1 was unthinkable. However, when Monaco visited last month it was a real possibility. “Actually, it’s not a big deal. We hold our heads. It doesn’t mean much to me,” said Small, playing down what could have been a successful young coaching career.
A win would have taken Reims to the top but, in the end, they lost to the league leaders. The only difference was efficiency. We created chances, but wasted them. If we had Balo (Folarin Balogun) on our side, it’s not the same game,” was Still’s analysis after the game. Balogun, who flourished under Still’s tutelage, scored on his return to the club he spent last season on loan.
It was feared that Balogun’s departure would mean a big drop this season. The former Arsenal player scored 21 goals for the club in Ligue 1 last season. To change that level of output for a club like Reims is an impossible task, but it has increased the talents of the players at the club to improve the standards. “Since I took my role, I have realized that I have asked a lot of my players and my staff,” he said. “I am sure that two or three of them went back to their girlfriends or wives and told them that the coach has a broken heart.”
Despite his fear, his players respond to his requests and improve themselves. Junya Ito, who scored the winning goal against Nantes last weekend, is going from strength to strength; Amir Richardson’s form this season has earned him a place in the Morocco squad; and Teddy Teuma, a former journeyman in the French lower division, has four goals and two assists in 10 Ligue 1 games this season.
Manchester City’s decision to send Josh Wilson-Esbrand to Reims is also telling. The European champions do not trust all clubs with the development of their brightest prospects. The young Englishman, 20, has started brightly and is playing brightly. Wilson-Esbrand was part of an extensive and ambitious summer recruitment drive at Reims with the likes of Keito Nakamura and Mohamed Daramy making notable big-money arrivals to add to an already young and promising squad.
It is still in the face of the club, but its impressive signings also reflect well on the people working behind the scenes. Reims is unique in not having a recruiting department, or scouts, but their system works. Their desire is not only to prosper in Ligue 1, but “to enter Europe every three or four years”. This could be one of those years. They are in fourth place as they have scored more goals than the leading Nice.
They moved up the table by following a possession-based style of play that is almost standard in European football, but by taking a more pragmatic, high-pressure, high-level approach. “We are not afraid of anyone,” said Still after his side’s 2-1 win over Lille in September. “We know we can do great things.”
Reims’ return to prominence has been accompanied by a decline from other European regulars. Marseille are enduring a turbulent season and the arrival of Gennaro Gattuso is yet to have the desired effect; Lens showed glimpses of last year’s form but lacked the defensive tenacity and consistency that defined last season’s title challenge; The Rennes are not living up to their billing, despite another summer of significant investment; and Lyon are too preoccupied with the prospect of relegation to retain any lofty ambitions.
Despite Reims’ undeniable progress since Still’s arrival – including two draws against PSG – they are unlikely to win on Saturday. However, Still’s side are expected to compete and that is where his success lies: not only has he changed the way Reims is perceived, but he has also established himself as one of the game’s most promising managers.
“I’m not just a criminal who has played Football Manager. “I didn’t just get to Reims from behind my computer,” said Still. He surpassed that feat with hard work, results and putting Reims – the club that competed in the first European final in 1956 – back on the football map. “The team trusted me and gave me a chance. I want to give something back to Stade de Reims,” he said. He still did that. European football next season will be a huge gift and he is showing that he can deliver it.