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On the evening of August 29, 2021, a record-breaking number of people in France sat down to watch Lionel Messi's long-awaited debut for Paris Saint-Germain. It was, according to figures, the most-viewed Ligue 1 fixture in history.
Fascinated by the thought of Barcelona's golden boy wearing a shirt that wasn't associated with his boyhood club, data suggests over 10 million French viewers cleared their diaries to witness the soon-to-be momentous occasion, and another two million from Spain.
Finally, after hours of pre-match coverage, PSG's new number 30 walked out of the Stade Auguste Delaune tunnel to rapturous applause. A few hundred Stade de Reims fans chanted his name as he waved to the 21,000 capacity crowd – an unusual sight in any stadium, even for Messi's standards.
The 34-year-old, looking typically unfazed by the historic event unfolding before his eyes, would eventually walk past William Still and take his seat in the dugout.
A week before Messi's debut, it was confirmed that Stade de Reims manager Oscar Garcia would be suspended for the PSG clash after he was sent to the stands during a league game against Metz. Two days later, Reims officials approached his assistant.
Still, who joined the French club in June after a stint as manager of Belgian first division side Beerschot, knew he would need to step up and take responsibility in Garcia's absence but it didn't really sink in until that moment.
"I was just thinking, 'I'm going to be standing next to Di Maria, Neymar and Mbappe soon'," the 29-year-old tells SPORTbible. "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."
Messi would spend an hour watching the action unfold from the bench before being told to warm up. After a few minutes of stretching, the footballing world held its breath in anticipation as he ran up the touchline - and so did the man standing several feet away.
If you look back at 'Messi Cam' on YouTube [a video dedicated to following his every move], you can see Still brushing shoulders with the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner. He barely flinched as one of the greatest of all time jogged towards the third official, but what was really going through his head?
"He warmed up beside me and I thought, 'shit, that is Lionel Messi... this is actually ridiculous'."
As predicted, a full strength Paris Saint-Germain side left the Stade Auguste Delaune with all three points thanks to a brace from the clinical Kylian Mbappe, but it was Messi's debut appearance that would grab the headlines.
After the full-time whistle, Still was walking back to the dressing room when he bumped into the Argentine.
"I just shook his hand and he said all the best," the Belgium-born coach says. "And he actually replied to me in English. I didn't actually think he spoke English, so it was a surprise. He was really down to earth and didn't seem bothered by the occasion at all."
For a man that has achieved so much in the game, this was just another day in the life of Lionel Messi.
But for interim head coach Still, this was another reminder of how far he had come in such a short amount of time. Ten years ago, he was coaching Preston North End U14s on a bobbly pitch in Lancashire. And ten years before that, he spent his evenings playing Football Manager.
William Still and his older brother, Edward, spent thousands of hours on the family computer growing up.
In the eyes of their mum and dad, who placed a ban on video games, William and Edward were just ‘messing around’ when they arrived home from school. In reality, the Still brothers were tinkering with tactics on F.A. Premier League Football Manager 2001.
It was, according to William, the closest thing that existed to playing FIFA with their mates. "We smashed that CD out of the disk tray," Still remembers. "We played it for so many hours. And we never bought the new version. We played that disk until it couldn't read anymore."
When that battered disk eventually ran its course, the brothers moved on to Championship Manager and naturally, late nights with Tonton Zola Moukoko, Taribo West and Anatoli Todorov became a regular trend.
"The worst phase came when I was about 14 or 15," Will remembers.
"You would look at the clock and it was 10pm and you'd say, 'oh I'll go to bed at midnight.' Then the next thing you know it's like half four in the morning. And then you wake up thinking, 'why the hell did I do that?' But yeah, there was a point where it became a bit over the top."
As well as spending a few too many hours watching dots knock the ball around on a 2D match engine, the teenager was also playing football at a decent level. His mum and dad left England in the early 90's and moved to Belgium, where football was just as popular.
After spending time at a youth academy growing up, Still was playing in the Belgian fourth tier after leaving school. He had a big decision to make.
"I was 17-years-old at the time and I asked myself, 'where am I going with this? Am I going to become a pro and push to take that step up? Is there anything else available in football?' I decided to look at studying because I had just finished school. That's when I moved to England."
Still was fascinated by the coaching side of the game. Belgium's fourth division offered a decent level of competition and a steady starting point to make it professionally but the opportunity to earn a degree at Preston's Myerscough College was too good to turn down.
Even with hundreds of virtual hours on Championship Manager under his managerial belt, this was a chance to learn something relatively new. And as part of the course that touched on applied football coaching, youth development and video analysis, the college had a direct link with Championship side Preston North End.
On a weekly basis, the teenager would coach the club's U14’s team as part of his degree. Still had found his calling.
"You were just so involved in it," he says. "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."
Looking back, Still knows how important those early interactions with the virtual world were in his journey to date.
"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.
"It definitely opens your eyes to how big of a scale being a manager actually is,” adds Still. “A big part of what happens in the video game is actually what happens in real life, and when you do it day in and day out, you do realise how similar it actually is.
"It sounds stupid saying this but, there were so many aspects of it that came back and made sense. For example, when you make a transfer; you have the initial offer, then a counter offer... then you have a player who doesn't agree with his wages.
"There's also general player conversations, setting up training regimes, fitness groups and training programmes; both collectively and individually. And the more you go into the detail of the game, the more you understand how it happens in real life.
"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."
Still finished the course at Myerscough College and decided to go back and live with his parents in Belgium.
To try and improve his overall knowledge of the game, he would regularly watch Belgian second division side Sint-Truiden in action. One day, during a pre-season training session, he plucked up the courage to go and speak to Yannick Ferrera, who was the club's first-team manager at the time.
Now in his early 20's, Still wasn't interested in the money side of things. He was just eager to learn and pick up some valuable experience along the way; so as the former Anderlecht youth coach walked off the pitch, the once-prolific Championship Manager player asked if he could grab Ferrera for a quick chat.
It was a sliding doors moment.
"I asked if there was any way I could be useful to you. I didn't want any money. I didn't want a contract or anything. I just wanted to help," Still says. "He looked at me and said, 'Can you film a game?' I said yeah, I can film a game. 'Can you cut video?' I said yeah, I can do that."
Sint-Truiden's first league game of the season was against R.E. Virton, so Still travelled hundreds of miles across Belgium and Holland to film all three of their remaining friendly games. His task was to not only record those games but to give his analysis and opinion on the team.
With a basic report in hand that detailed the identity and playing style of their upcoming opponents, Still handed it over to Ferrera. A couple of days later, Sint-Truiden would record a 3-0 win against Virton; several months later, they won promotion to the first division. "I was unbelievably lucky to get that sort of opportunity," Still says.
He was now a video analyst for a top Belgian first division club, but it wasn't Sint-Truiden. Yannick Ferrera moved to one of the biggest clubs in the country, Standard Liege, and Still joined him as they lifted the Belgian Cup. Weeks later, Ferrera was sacked after a year in charge and Still moved on to pastures new.
A position at second division side Lierse presented itself to Still, who was now in his mid 20’s. The job combined video analysis and helping manager Frederik Vanderbiest in his everyday duties. It was a perfect mix that allowed Still to pick up some valuable coaching experience from the dugout.
Vanderbiest's reign as first team manager was cut short in 2017 and days later, a conversation with the club's Egyptian president, Maged Samy, would turn out to be a life-changing one for Still, who was taken aback by an offer he simply could not refuse.
"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*cking ridiculous. I'm only 24. He said, 'No, no, no. I'm not bothered. You are good. You're training sessions are good and you know how to deal with things.'
"I was 24. It was just completely ridiculous," he added. "I was managing players who were in their mid 30's. Luckily enough, I was given the chance to be out there on the pitch and giving sessions as the assistant. And I was doing all the analysis anyway.
"I was heavily involved with it, but going from being an assistant to actually doing the real thing was different. I said to him about ten times... 'I don't think you get it. I'm only 24. This doesn't happen.' But he said it was fine. From that day on, I was the head coach of a Belgian second division team, living the dream basically.
"All I wanted to be was a professional coach and there I was, at 24, making it up as I went along, to be honest with you."
He may have been making it up as he went along but with the help of their new manager, Lierse finished in the top three that season. Despite their success on the pitch, however, the club would eventually go bust in 2018 because the owner failed to agree on terms for a possible acquisition.
His time as first team manager was over when it felt like it was only just beginning.
Still had no other option but to leave Lierse after they filed for bankruptcy.
His dream of establishing himself as a head coach was then put on hold when Antwerp-based Beerschot came knocking with an offer to become the club's assistant manager. In his own words, it was a "step down" for the ambitious coach but it was another valuable opportunity to learn and improve.
Hernan Losada, who spent three spells with the Belgian club during a 15-year career as a midfielder, would take over in 2019 before masterminding a promotion run into the first division with assistant Still by his side. Then, in January 2021, Losada became Major League Soccer's youngest ever head coach when he joined DC United at 38.
It was a big moment in Still's fledging career.
"Hernan said I was more than welcome to come and be his assistant at DC," still says. "Beerschot then turned around and said if I didn't want to go to the MLS, then you can become head coach here at Beerschot. I loved my time at Lierse, so to get the opportunity to be a head coach in the Belgian first division was something I couldn't turn down."
At the age of 28, a man who helped West Ham to several league title wins on Football Manager would become the Belgian first division’s youngest ever head coach.
“We are proud that Will decided to stay at our club after Hernan’s departure,” Beerschot’s technical manager Sander Van Praet said after Still signed a contract until the end of the season. “He has always played a major role in Beerschot’s coaching staff since his arrival here and has potential to make it as head coach as well.”
After spending the final three months of the season as head coach at the Olympisch Stadion, the club would finish ninth in the league. He had loved every single minute but at the end of the campaign, top officials approached Still to discuss his long term future.
"They told me the second season is always the most difficult," Will remembers. "They asked me how I felt about it. I said it was fine but there were certain things that had to be changed.
"We had to renew the squad and training facilities. 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."
It was another blow in his young career but once again, Still was a wanted man. French club Stade de Reims offered him the chance to become the assistant to former Watford and RB Salzburg manager Oscar Garcia and he accepted, although his four months with the Ligue 1 side was, at times, difficult considering the circumstances.
"I was the assistant but I was still on my UEFA pro licence here in Belgium," Still explains. "Every three days, I had to come back up to Belgium to be on the course and drive back down to Reims. That was really time consuming and almost impossible to manage."
After a few months in France, Still received two more job offers from back home in Belgium. He was approached by Anderlecht to become Vincent Kompany's assistant but eventually, he made the bold decision to join former club Standard Liege.
"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."
Five years after leaving Liege for the first time, Still is back at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne and enjoying life in the Belgian first division. In fact, back in March, he shared the same touchline as his brother, Edward, who is currently the head coach at Charleroi.
In the space of 20 years, the pair have gone from playing F.A. Premier League Football Manager 2001 on their family computer for hours on end, to spending time with real life players as real life coaches in a real life league.
William is keen on following in the footsteps of his older brother, and dreams of one day reaching the very top.
"I want to become a head coach again,” he tells us. “I want to be making the decisions, and doing things the way I want to do but the right opportunity hasn't come up yet. I need to find the right club and the right environment. It's just a question of finding that opportunity now.
"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."
Featured Image Credit: Alamy - wrstill/Instagram
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