Brothers in an Italian restaurant in the French city of Reims are gathering for a rare meeting. Finding time these days is not easy. Not in their line of work. But this is the best place to meet, at least this middle brother Will has become a family name.
Last season, aged just 30, he took over as interim manager of Stade de Reims, one of France’s most successful clubs in history. He became the youngest coach in Europe’s top five divisions. He was fined €25,000 (£22,000) for every match his club took charge of as he did not yet qualify for a UEFA Pro licence.
But it was worth it.
The Rams returned to Stole on an impressive 19-game unbeaten run looking to avoid relegation. This year, while still in the permanent post, his Reims side are enjoying their best start to a season since 1974.
His interest grew when he was captivated by the tale of a young English-speaking coach who went from playing a video game football manager to the real thing.
He still laughs. “He was smarter than me – I just followed him,” he nodded at his brother Edward, who sat opposite. “He was on Football Manager the whole time. We weren’t allowed PlayStation but when that changed I was more FIFA.
But it was football, and whatever football is, we tried.
The Christmas brothers’ love of football paid off big.
Will’s older brother Edward, 32, is a football manager. He has served as head coach of Belgian top-flight sides Charleroi, Eupen and Kortrijk, as well as holding backroom roles at Club Brugge, Royal Antwerp and Shanghai Port. Sitting next to him is Nicolas, the youngest of the three at 26, who joined Will as assistant coach at Reims in the summer, having previously worked with Edward.
Their CVs are impressive, especially considering one has never played football at a professional level. So how did these Anglo-Belgian West Ham fans turn their football obsession into coaching in the top men’s game?
The Athletic joined them with a rare goal to find out. Here are some highlights of the discussion…
Stiles was raised in Graz-de-deux, southeast of Brussels, to English parents Julian and Jane. He was the third of five siblings with two older sisters, Felicity and Elspeth. The family moved to Belgium in 1989 for his father’s work. They spend their holidays in Nottingham, where their mother’s parents live, and visit their father’s parents’ home in Canterbury, Kent.
Will: It was always English at home. French at school. And football was half time in the Netherlands. I feel British when I’m Belgian. When I’m England I feel Belgium. And when I’m in France I feel lost somewhere in the channel.
Edward: We had a beautiful childhood. We had a big garden. Football loads. Everything you could ask for. Dad always talks to us about sports. We both are and then Nico comes along. It’s a five-a-side in the garden every weekend. From September to May it’s football, watching Match of the Day, listening to BBC Radio Five live. Then comes May and we all start playing cricket. It’s golf on holiday. Soccer Manager and FIFA Hours.
Will: There was no pressure on us. But IIf you are going to do something, you have to do it completely. We should have been more than we could have been.
Nicholas: There were standards.
Ed: We may be stupid, but rude and determined!
After Will joined their academy at the age of 12, the family bought season tickets at Sint-Truiden, known as STVV. He was a centre-half and very close to working professionally, and was also a good fast bowler in cricket. Edward was a midfielder and Nicholas was a goalkeeper.
Will: Ed was a random walking artist in the center circle. Nico wanted to look good.
Edward: Tape on his fingers…
Permission: … Over the knee socks.
Edward: White boots. The ball goes in and he…
Permission: … checking his hair or something.
Nicholas: If you can’t attend, you should watch it!
Will: We went to see Sint-Truiden and just kept going. Dad loved it.
Nicholas: We used to go to a football game once every two weeks on Saturday night. WThey were very lucky to be able to do this.
Will: They were our club. It was football, football, football. It was not consciousness. It’s just what we did. When our parents divorced, Ed got his driver’s license and we lived at home and it was the three of us in the world.
Edward: That changed the dynamic. Our mother had to go back to work. She hasn’t worked in almost 20 years. That created a strong bond between the three of us. We 18, 16 and 11 our sisters went to university.
Will: After that we’ve got season tickets at Standard Liege and we’re going to Anderlecht too, as they’re closer to home. They didn’t always play on the same day. We went to every game we could. Ed would drive, Nico would have a song and we’d sit there trying to watch. When Ed started coaching, we looked at games differently.
Edward: I had notebooks. Piles of them. Writing down all the lineups, changes, systems, patterns, why they win games. I’ve been writing everything since I was 17. I still got them.
Will: I was useless. If I read a page, I read halfway through and stop. Ed is the total opposite. Right thinking.
Edward: I’m built like cardboard – I’m always hurt. I was lucky because one of the coaches had to come and help the kids (Racing Jet Wavre now Wavre Sport FC). It was Nico’s age group. I’ve coached the B team since I was 15. I had a season with Nico at Under 17. I was 22 years old and in university. It was really cool.
Nicolas: We won a lot – league and cup.
Edward: I find it special to build a team and watching young players improve is a special feeling.
Will: I didn’t enjoy coaching youth. When I was 17, I coached the under-12 team for a year. I didn’t resent the one-on-one thing, but in an arrogant way, I resented them for not being as good as me.
Nicholas: It’s very special when the kid you coached 10 years ago sends you a message. You don’t get that by playing.
Careers in football were not yet on the cards. Edward studied International Relations at Loughborough for a year before returning to Belgium to study Political Science and Management Sciences. But Will explored further. He went on to study at Myerscough College in Lancashire. As part of the course he trained at EFL club Preston North End. He gave him direction.
Will: I studied physiotherapy before I went to college and I was absolutely rubbish. He hated it. I got a 1.7 out of 20 on the January test, probably because I put my name down.
Ed is smart, smart, can do many things. Without football I would be living under a bridge. I am very happy to have discussed this with my father once more. Go and do it. So I went to college, I found everything possible in football: coaching, sports science, sports psychology, video analysis. It was then that I enjoyed coaching at Preston. The academy guys were great. You ask them to do something and they do it.
We realized that Belgium were a million years behind everyone in analysis, tactics and video. I came home from college and we knocked on doors, went to training sessions and sent emails. We were lucky to know a psychologist working for Sint-Truiden. He allowed me a word with the manager.
Edward: He was targeted because the head coach, Yannick Ferreira, was a former video analyst. He knew the value of video analysis.
Will: I felt stupid. But I told Yannick, “This is what I learned to do in college. Can I be of any use? “
“Can you film a game?”
“We are playing Excelsior Virton in the first game of the season two months later. Go record their game tomorrow. Come back with something.”
That’s really the beginning.
Nicholas helped 22-year-old Will design the game. Three days later he returned and offered Ferrer the job. He was impressed and Will stayed for an internship. Changed to first contract.
Sint-Truiden were promoted to the Belgian top flight after their first season (2014–15). Ferreira is then rescued by Standard Lige and takes Will with him. Chris O’Loughlin, now The sporting director of Union Saint-Guillois has been appointed head coach at Sint-Truiden.
Will: Chris said: You need to help me find a replacement. I didn’t know who worked in football, So I said, “Ed is great.
Edward: I was building a portfolio at university, on Brendan Rodgers’ 3-4-3 at Liverpool, stuff like that. It had four or five groups with proper analysis in it.
Will: So Ed fills in and does a lot because Chris can’t speak French.
Edward: I finished university in October and was doing an internship in Canada. So when I finished my studies, Will went to Standard and I sent my application to Sint-Truiden. It fits perfectly. Pure luck. If it was still in Sint-Truiden when I came back, I had to find a job somewhere else.
Eduard joined Sint-Truden in 2015 and stayed for two years. After the first year, O’Loughlin was dismissed and replaced by Ivan Leko. When Leko joined Bruges in 2017, Edward went with him. Again, that was left open by Sint-Truiden.
Nicholas: “Well, there’s a third brother, so let’s give him a shot!”, after Will and Ed. They thought. I never thought of doing like them. I can see how hard it is for Will.
I didn’t know what to do after I left school. I tried two things. Marketing, Economics. I tried uni. But then this opportunity came – then move on. I played a couple of games, analyzed keynotes and stuff. Then he finished his work. I was 19 years old.
Nicolas later joins Leko and Edward as a video analyst in Bruges. During that time, Will joined Liers SK in the Belgian second division. He won the Belgian Cup with Ferreira at Standard Liège, but they parted ways in September 2016.
Often the brothers are thrown into the deep end. After a poor start to the 2017-18 season, Lier manager Frederik Vanderbeest was sacked and got his first taste of management. The club president called Will to coach the team.
License: “Right, training tomorrow – you do. And the team on Saturday.”
“What? I’m 24, what about the others? Next to me is Nico van Kerkhoven, who has over 40 caps for Belgium, and Patrick Nice, who has played hundreds of games for Belgian football.
“No, no. I don’t want them – I want you to. I believe you have good ideas. “
“I don’t have a choice, do I?”
I shook my head. I called Ed and said, “What should I do?” I told him.
“Back to basics: 4-4-2, low block, wait,” Ed said. Reject and you have a point. The first match ended in a 1-1 draw against AFC Tubize. great. The president is about to appoint a new manager. I will be fine. rather than…
“Great game Will much better. Good team performance. What are you doing next week? “
I called Ed and he said, “Do it again.”
I’m 24 years old, I was a baby. I had players in their 30s. It all made no sense. The second game was played away to Union Saint-Guillois. Ed was with my dad. We were 3-0 down at half time. I’m standing in the national stadium where Union played their game: “What am I doing?” I don’t know what to do, what to say.” I looked over to the stands and Dad and Ed were cheering.
I went into the changing rooms and just had a moment when it came out. “We’re worthless, we’re absolute s****. Either we do something or we die in a little ball. We lost 3-2 in the end, but since then we’ve gone on a run – 10 games unbeaten, winning seven of them. I don’t know how.
Despite going from Preston under-14s to Kylian Mbappe and co under-10s, he downplays his success.
Will: Someone recently asked, “What makes you unique?” he asked me. nothing! I’m Will, I’m big, I’m ginger. Nothing makes me special.
But throughout his fledgling career, he has made an impression with his resilience when faced with sink or swim situations. What do his brothers think of him?
Nicholas: There’s a simplicity about it. Still, he sticks to who he is and what he does. The players relate to this. They feel comfortable.
Edward: Will has an amazing ability to connect with people emotionally. Especially in the dressing room. He’s a different person with the players than he is here. He gets players. Will can take a group to a special place. Only because of his energy and communication can he get more from the team. When you build an emotional connection, it is stronger than anything else.
One of its greatest strengths is that it allows everyone – staff and players – to do their jobs. This is where the players take their faith. It creates something very strong. When you put simplicity, that emotional power and knowledge — “This is me, I don’t know everything, you’re just doing your thing” — becomes ideal and practical.
Will: I don’t like controlling people. If I give a person the freedom to do whatever he wants, he will come up with his own version. I’m not saying everything in his version is wrong or right, but I take what I need from there and find the best.
When Will first moved to Preston to coach elite football, he described the feeling of meeting other English boys as “adapt or die”. It is a phrase that applies to his early life and his brothers. Will was appointed head coach at Berchtesgaard in 2021, becoming the youngest player in post-war Belgian football (age 28). In 2021 (age 30), Eduard was appointed head coach for the first time at Charleroi.
But Will and Edward are different characters with different styles.
License: Ed is configured. He was disciplined. Everyone knows exactly what to do and when to do it. Every detail is covered.
Edward: When we watched games together, we realized that we instinctively see different things. Will was very good at watching individual players. He feels about the player…
Will: … what you can do, what you can’t do. Where were the best on the field? How you understand or understand the game. Ed is more general, common…
Edward: …how was that group moving compared to the other group. What patterns were occurring. Even now I have a hard time watching a single player. We learned from each other.
Nicholas is learning from both.
Nicholas: I approach Ed in terms of the event. It’s really detailed. I used to play devil’s advocate when we worked together. You push someone to make sure you cover everything and now I’m doing the opposite with Will.
It’s good to be their brother. It gives you some advantages that you don’t get when working alone. I’ve worked with other coaches and you’d think. ‘Ah, I can’t say what I want here.’
Eduard: In his second job at Upen (last season) when we were fighting relegation (Nico) he was more helpful. We had to be careful. We looked like the same person!
Will: He gave a session at Reims at the beginning of the season and I thought: “F***! That sounds like me, energy, strength.
Nicholas: That’s one thing about working with your brothers. It’s different. You have to adapt. But also for the players and other coaches around you.
Already the brothers have experienced contrasting highs and lows. Will was with Liers in the Second Division while Edward and Nicholas were with Burgess in the Champions League. Edouard Charleroi, assisted by Nicolas, finished sixth, while Will had a difficult season in Standard and finished 14th.
These days, Will is flying in Reims with the help of Nicola, and Edward is off duty, leaving the fighters Kortrijk.
Edward: It can be hard. When we were both sitting next to the plane going to the Champions League game, walking on that field, Dortmund, the day before…
Will: … I was wandering around in the second division.
Edward: I wanted Will to do well. He wanted us to do well. But you are respectful of what the other is going through. At Charleroi, everything we touched worked in the first season. Will had the worst season (by standards). Finally I remember your emotional state… He was on the verge of depression.
Will: I didn’t know where I was going. “My job is f***.”
Edward: Eighteen months later, the tables have turned. Everything Nico and Will do in Reims is turning to gold. I lost my job.
Will: Nico was always sitting in a pool of gold!
Edward: I know you really respect my position these days. I want them to qualify for Europe next season.
Will: I felt horrible last year. We went on that undefeated run. The whole world is talking about it. Meanwhile, Upen were fighting relegation. I was really happy for myself. But I just felt wrong. I felt guilty.
Nicholas: When Ed was at Courtrick earlier this season, Will and I used to watch his games all the time. You put yourself in his position by knowing how he feels.
Edward: I text before and after every game. But of course you know I can’t help them. And vice versa.
After eclipsing his two brothers, can Nicholas one day strike out on his own and become the third-highest flight attendant in the family?
Nicholas: My analysis is good. I can do my job accordingly. If it means I can improve my coaching as an assistant, that’s the benefit of being their brother. But I’m in no rush.
Will: He’s only going to a Premier League or Champions League club.
Edward: If it looks good…
Licensing: Or if it’s sponsored by Adidas or Nike…
Edward: “I want a hair gel deal, a nice car, but big cars, a sports car…”
Will: And he needs a hairdresser every Thursday!
The renaissance of Reims: the true story of Will Steele and the Ligue 1 side
(Top photo: Peter Rutzler/The Athletic)