Meet the young coach who one day could be considered for the role of Sheffield United manager
It’s unlikely to be this time around. Although admittedly he only has seven months or so less experience of coaching a team than Alexander Blessin, who until post-Brexit legislation and Slavisa Jokanovic got in the way, appeared odds on to take charge of Sheffield United.
But when Bramall Lane’s hierarchy begin searching for a new manager again, assuming Chris Wilder’s successor isn’t sacked before he unpacks his belongings, it would be a major surprise if they don’t begin casting flirtatious glances in the direction of Will Still - currently making headlines with United’s sister club Beerschot.
Aged 28, Still became the youngest person to hold the position in one of Europe’s top-flight divisions when he replaced his mentor, Hernan Losada, at the helm of the Antwerp based outfit in January.
Although that on its own was enough to attract the attention of the media - one of football’s leading magazines recently profiling his career - Still has been making waves thanks to his performances in the role too after proving a more than capable replacement for the Argentine following his move to the MLS.
Jan van Winckel, United’s de facto director of football and owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s most influential sporting advisor, clearly views the Jupiler Pro League as a rich source of talent having also reportedly touted Club Brugge’s Philippe Clement as a potential replacement for Wilder after Blessin’s coronation became entangled in red tape.
Also an influential figure at the Olympisch Stadion, following Beerschot’s absorption into the United World project, the former University of Leuven graduate is almost certain to have approved Still’s appointment. And, given that Prince Abdullah views UW as being as much of a talent factory as a business venture, if he continues to impress and develop as expected then Still could soon find himself being linked with a switch to South Yorkshire.
“We were aware of his qualities,” Beerschot’s chairman Francis Vranken said, when asked to explain why Still was hired ahead of more experienced candidates. “He was very important in our development up until now. Our choice to upgrade him was logical. People who work hard for our club get rewarded for that.”
Still, whose parents are both English despite being born in Belgium, first entered football at Preston North End; combining his work with their under-14 and under-18 sides with his studies at Myerscough College.
“My dream was always to become a professional but, at 19, I realised I wouldn’t make it,” he later admitted.
Having returned to his homeland, first as a video analyst with Standard Liege, he then joined Lierse’s backroom staff before taking charge of the second division team.
“The age does bring attention but I want to be as good as I possibly can be,” Still told World Soccer earlier this month. “I was 24 when I coached there. Julian Nagelsmann was 28 when he began in the Bundesliga, so all is possible.”
“They (Beerschot) say if it goes well then we’ll take it further,” Still continued. “If not, then maybe I’ll work under a new coach. I felt they trusted me and what did I have to lose?
“This is not going to make or break me. If it doesn’t go well then it’s not the end of my career. I am living my ambition. But I have worked hard to get here.”
Stressing “my dreams aren’t ending at 28”, Still clearly has ambitions to progress his career and embellished his reputation by taking most of Beerschot’s training sessions under Losada. His academic background will also endear him to van Winckel, whose preference for strategic thinkers is responsible for caretaker Paul Heckingbottom shoehorning his way onto the five strong shortlist of names vying to lead United next season.
Previously of Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian, Heckingbottom has spoken both eloquently and in detail about the steps they must take in order to recover from being relegated from the Premier League, while Clement is also used to working within a strict recruitment framework. Intriguingly, perhaps significantly, Jokanovic is also now in the frame following Saturday’s abject performance against Crystal Palace and crucially has a reputation for nurturing young talent.
Still, who joined Beerschot when Lierse were declared bankrupt, has already benefited from his employers’ association with United. Ismaila Coulibaly, previously of Sarpsborg, is on loan at Beerschot after being signed by them last summer while George Broadbent, a graduate of United’s Steelphalt Academy youth programme, also joined them on a temporary basis soon after Losada’s switch to Washington. Although injury has limited Broadbent’s opportunities, both Heckingbottom, previously in charge of United’s under-23’s, and his boss Jack Lester expect him to return a more mature and knowledgeable midfielder.
“George had a few options but chose to go and challenge himself in Belgium’s top league,” Lester, United’s academy director, said when the switch was first announced. “It’s great that he relished that challenge.
“There are several of our young players loaned out at different clubs and at different levels. It’s great that people want them and that they will benefit from being involved in their first teams.”
Clearly, in order to work in England, Still must fulfil the criteria Blessin, now of Oostende, can not at present. But should he either remain at Beerschot or be lured elsewhere, he should become eligible to work in this country next summer.
“I don’t do anything to show or say ‘I’m the boss.’ I don’t walk around like Napoleon,” Still said, explaining how he handles the fact that many of those under his command are either the same age as him or older. “I try to win respect with the standard of my training and analysis.
“The players understand that I’m here to help and not create a circus.”