Union Saint-Gilloise will top the table in Belgium this Christmas. The newly-promoted club are back in the top division for the first time in 48 years but this is an against-the-odds tale with a twist. They are also Belgian football’s third most successful club.
The last of their 11 league titles came in 1935 but Union Saint-Gilloise are thriving once more with an English owner Tony Bloom and an Irish-born sporting director in Chris O’Loughlin. It is a story that has captured the imagination in Belgium and beyond.
There is Dante Vanzeir, the young winger from Genk who has broken into Roberto Martinez’s national team. There is Christian Burgess, the former Portsmouth defender who is enjoying the adventure of a lifetime. Both scored in a 2-0 away win last week.
Union are steeped in tradition, from the stained-glass window at their 102-year-old stadium to the fact that it was the venue for Spain’s first ever match. “The stadium is a protected building and we love playing there because it is magical,” O’Loughlin tells Sky Sports.
But this is a modern success story too, with recruitment under chairman Alex Muzio now the envy of Belgium. Shrewd decision-making has taken this club back to the top.
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This rise was not inevitable. Union did not have the biggest budget in the second division last season let alone the funds to outmuscle Anderlecht and Club Brugge. Nor has it been straightforward. O’Loughlin still remembers his first week in the job in 2019.
“I finished my coaching job on the Wednesday and started here as the new sporting director on the Thursday,” he recalls. “The coach came in and we had a meeting in the morning. That evening he knocked on my door and went to join Amiens in France.
“Welcome to being a sporting director.
“I was planning to focus on recruitment and creating a culture, now I found myself looking for a new coach and having to take some of the training sessions. It was pretty difficult because there was no coaching staff. They had all left for France as well.”
Union Saint-Gilloise sporting director Chris O'Loughlin has had an unusual path to the job
It was a steep learning curve for a man whose own journey is just as remarkable as that of his club. Born in Limerick to a family from Belfast, O’Loughlin moved to South Africa as a young boy, often being found watching Western Province play cricket at Newlands.
His eclectic CV includes coaching roles with Orlando Pirates in Johannesburg, Melbourne Victory in Australia and Charlton Athletic in England, either side of stints in Belgium. He did his UEFA Pro Licence with the Northern Irish FA.
But his earliest coaching experiences came in the townships.
“People think my first job was with Orlando Pirates but it was before that, coaching for free. You could call it grassroots but there was no grass on those pitches in the townships.”
Bonds were forged, particularly with Thabo Mokgothu, the friend who introduced this white guy to the young hopefuls of Daveyton. “Whatever experiences I had in the past could not have prepared me for this current job,” he says. But that is not entirely true.
“I think a lot of my love for the game comes from the townships and seeing that passion.”
When tasked with establishing the new cultural values at Union, passion remained non-negotiable. The squad is a mix of ages and backgrounds but all have something to prove. Data is used but there is an emphasis on qualities not seen on the spreadsheet.
“We have a value system here. It is not just made up. We put a lot of work into it, myself, the chief executive and the president. We met with specialists who helped us formulate our way of thinking, what we were looking for. You can see a lot of things in players.
“I spoke to a player recently who had really come through the divisions. I mean the fifth division of his country and this is not like England with a professional pyramid system all the way down. In some countries, the fourth division is semi-professional.
“When a player does that, you can already see examples of our value system because that takes courage, commitment and passion. You can start to define them. I might speak to a player and I find that when he was 19 he suffered an ACL and was out for a whole season.
“Not only does he come back but he comes back stronger in a certain timeframe. Another example might be that we do our research and find out that a player has a foundation but he does not put it out there on social media. You start to build pictures about a guy.
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“We are not looking for angels. We want different personalities, the loud one, the quiet one, the joker. It is important to have a dynamic. You can have different goals but there has to be something that binds everyone together. We believe our value system helps that.
“Think about it logically. We all come from different backgrounds, and we suddenly all come together and spend an average of 250 training sessions a season with a common goal. You can be different personalities but you do need something common to every player.
“I think the success at the moment is a product of the work in that first season. There was a big transition. That is when clear assessments were made. That is when we identified what players we wanted at the club, what kind of human beings we wanted in the building.”
Dante Vanzeir of Union Saint-Gilloise has been called up to the Belgium national team
When Vanzeir received his Belgium call-up, the whole squad celebrated. He was picked up from Genk but as O’Loughlin glances up at the player board in his office, he cites two other examples of players who were allowed to leave big clubs in Belgium to find success here.
Siebe van der Heyden is a left-footed defender who had been a prominent figure in Anderlecht’s academy, tipped for big things before finding himself in the Dutch second division. “I can imagine it would be easy for him to feel lost,” says O’Loughlin.
Senne Lynen is a midfielder who opted to leave Club Brugge to play first-team football in the Netherlands but was played out of position at right-back. He took time to readjust in Belgium but played a key role in Union’s electric start to the season prior to an injury.
“They are two nice stories of players who had been at elite clubs in Belgium in their youth, Anderlecht and Club Brugge. They were top talents but football is littered with guys who were captains of youth teams at big clubs and their careers suddenly disappear.
“One of our values here is courage and one of the ways we define an example of courage is being able to respond well to adversity. Football is full of adversity, even for those players at the highest level. Even the best have difficult moments. These guys came through that.”
The man who has pulled it all together, turning this disparate group of talents into a team, is 55-year-old Felice Mazzu. Like so many of his players, he had something to put right after lasting only a matter of months before being sacked by reigning champions Genk in 2019.
His arrival at Union brought promotion and now this.
“He is a special kind of coach,” says O’Loughlin. “He knows how to motivate a group. He knows how to push a winning mentality. He has got this idea into the players that they must win every training session. Most importantly, he has embraced the club’s values.”
Players of Belgian club Union Saint-Gilloise celebrate their promotion last season
If Mazzu could deliver the title at Union it would surely be the most remarkable title win in Europe this season. A dramatic victory over Cercle Brugge on Saturday, coming from two goals down to win late on, saw them extend their lead at the top to six points.
There is unease at title talk. Nothing is close to decided. But there is an acknowledgement that whatever happens now, in another sense, Union have already won. They have shaken up Belgian football and restored one of its most famous names to the top table.
O’Loughlin is becoming more used to the media duties. It is the agents calling him now. “Some doors are slightly easier to open. Some people are suddenly hearing about a club they didn’t know before. It was more difficult to get people to listen before.”
There is a determination to make the opportunity count. “Sustainability is a part of our future. There is a lot of work going on in the background.” But there is an awareness too that they must not lose what makes the Union Saint-Gilloise story so special.
“There are plans to grow commercially, while maintaining that special element. We want to retain the uniqueness. It is very easy to fall in love with this club.”
Belgian football is discovering that all over again.
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