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We are so often transfixed by the story of the dilettante sports coach.

Mike Bassett, England manager, Ted Lasso, Gordon Bombay – all fictional characters whose unlikely rise to prominence chimes with us because it often seems that the only chance of such flawed individuals succeeding in the real world is in the colourful imagination of a movie script writer.

But it's not as far-fetched as it seems. A look back at the earliest sports coaches demonstrates a distinct lack of a conventional pathway into a chosen sport. Vince Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers coach, started out his professional life as a debt collector before enrolling in law school where he dropped out after one semester.

Bill Belichick, that other NFL great, did not play the sport past college level, while Arrigo Sacchi, the mastermind behind the immortal AC Milan team of the 80s and 90s was a failed lowly amateur player who once infamously quipped “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”

Of course, the most well-known Scot to have traversed an unlikely route into professional sport was Bill Struth, the legendary Rangers manager, who had been a stonemason then a middle-distance runner of some renown before securing jobs as the trainer at Clyde and then Hearts. He joined Rangers in 1914 as assistant to William Wilton and when he died in a boating accident Struth assumed the top job going on to lead the Ibrox club to a formidable run of success winning 18 titles, 10 Scottish Cups and two League Cups during a 34-year spell in charge.

In the modern era, Andre Villas-Boas secured his pathway into football by slipping scouting reports under the door of manager Bobby Robson, who lived in the same apartment block as the then Porto manager.

Meanwhile, the story of Reims manager Will Still has generated plenty of attention in recent weeks not least because of his Football Manager connections. The 30-year-old Belgian-Englishman admits that his love for the computer game helped shape his entry into the world of coaching. Still, who took over at Reims following the sacking of Spanish manager Oscar Garcia in October, had ambitions for a playing career before the football management simulation convinced him that he might be better switching his attention elsewhere. He began his career during an internship as the coach of Preston North End's Under-14s while studying at Myerscough College. From there, he followed an itinerant route into the game. He became videographer at Belgian side Sint-Truiden where he worked under Yannick Ferrera, and when the former professional footballer was named the new manager of Standard Liege, Still followed him. Later he wound up at Lierse where he was given his first taste as an interim manager following the sacking of Frederik Vanderbiest. He presided over a seven-game winning run before his lack of a UEFA Pro Licence meant that he had to stand aside. 

And so to his latest spell in France – which came via a period at Beerschot. Still has proved to be something of a sensation during his time in charge having overseen an unbeaten 15-game run at the French club. Reims have had to fork out £22,000 for each match that Still has taken charge of since Garcia's departure because he is yet to secure his Pro Licence but it is a price the northern club are happy to pay having risen to 10th under his guidance.

Folarin Balogun had long been a striker of immense promise at Arsenal but he had singularly failed to fulfil it. Still, though, has cajoled a number of superb performances from the on-loan 22-year-old, who is the leading scorer in Ligue 1 with 15 ahead of luminaries such as Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar.

“He is a super complete striker, he is able to play with his back to goal, in depth. It is technically very clean. He scores, he is decisive,” says Still of a player Reims tried to sign permanently in January.

However, it is not all praise from Still for his revitalised striker. In recent footage from the Reims training ground he jokes with Balogun “Your French is absolutely shocking, absolutely terrible."


The same footage shows Still playfully bumping into his players and generally giving a glimpse of his larger-than-life character which hints at what makes him a success in the role: the secret to good football management is not necessarily about having a distinguished playing career. Instead, it is about exhibiting the same traits that are effective in the real world: connecting with people, making them feel special and, above all, about remaining relevant in an ever-changing landscape. And so it comes as little surprise to learn who Still's inspiration as a manager is.

“I think the one that has hit me the most over the last few years was Sir Alex [Ferguson], how good he was at Manchester United. He was always able to renew himself and renew cycles of players and teams and I think to stay the length of time he did it was pretty stupid, so I look up to him because I want to know how he stayed so up to date with everything.”