FEATURE | Will Still and Reims from European hopes to an early divorce

It was announced today that Will Still has left Stade de Reims with immediate effect. The Anglo-Belgian manager was expected to last until the end of the season at the Champagne club, but recent results and growing tensions have left last season’s darling of French football out in the cold. 

The breaking point appears to have happened over the weekend when the club fell to a 4-1 defeat to bottom-placed Clermont Foot, with the manager stating after the game, “I feel like such an idiot, it’s the worst day of my career, the hardest and most difficult to accept.” The problem for Still was that the result was not all that surprising. 

Ahead of Ligue 1’s winter break, Reims were in eighth place and only two points away from a Champions League place. Since January their results have fallen off a cliff, with the club having only picked up 14 points, a tally which has seen their lofty European ambitions come crashing down to Earth. And with three defeats in a row each coming against teams in the bottom half of the table there was the sense that the club had lost sight of what had made them such an exciting force. 

The ambitious conflict at the heart of Will Still and Reims 

Still will likely blame this unfortunate second half of the season on Reims’ decisions during the winter transfer window. He had been clear that he felt the squad was not strong enough to maintain its European push without reinforcements. He was also concerned about how the Africa Cup of Nations and the AFC Asian Cup would deplete his resources with six of his players competing. 

It was a fear that the Reims hierarchy did not share with their manager, as Still relayed, “The management was clear on the fact that there would be no recruitment this winter.” It was probably therefore surprising to Still when the hierarchy not only ignored his suggestions but arguably weakened their squad by sanctioning the transfer of Azor Matusiwa to Stade Rennais. 

The midfielder had been an essential cog in Still’s plans and to lose him to a European rival was particularly galling for the young manager. In an interview with The Athletic, Still stated, “The club tried to explain that it was an opportunity and we had to do it… But I wanted to be really ambitious and challenge myself and the team right to the end. And it’s like, right, we won’t get the chance to do that.”

Loose Lips and wandering eyes

This interview did not ingratiate Still with a hierarchy that was showing signs of growing tired of his statements and demands. Especially when the manager in the same interview provided a very unsubtle come-and-get-me plea to any English club listening, “I’ve been abroad all my life, and I’ve been working in an environment that isn’t quite… And I just want to come home.”

The club had already been left annoyed by Still’s contact with Sunderland in December, with the manager reportedly forced to explain himself in front of the Reims board of directors. The club are used to being a stepping stone in a player’s career trajectory. They have embraced that fact as part of their business model, and under Still it had become a very profitable model with the team making €75.5 million in sales. 

However, it was always going to feel different when their manager was quite openly thinking about his next steps, as he was meant to be the figurehead of the project. There had to be the public veneer that he was committed in the long term even if it was an open secret that he was going to leave at the end of the season. It appears as if a mix of poor results and discontent with Still’s wandering eyes and loose lips was enough for the club to pull the cord with only three games of the season left to play. 

GFFN | Nick Hartland

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