July 19, 2024

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Destination: Champions League. Christian Burgess’ journey from League One to European Football Fame

11 min read
Christian Burgess Checkatrade Trophy Final Wembley

When Christian Burgess made the move from Fratton Park to Royale Union Saint Gilloise in the summer of 2020, he put the decision down to the desire of a new challenge, and seeking an experience outside of his comfort zone. Now, almost two years on, Christian is on the brink of becoming the first English footballer to win the Belgian First Division since the 19th century. What stands between him and such an achievement? Eight games of top-flight, Belgian football. 

It was the evening of February 11th, 2021. Royale Union Saint Gilloise were already storming the Belgian Second Division, burning through several league records, and losing only two games all season. Almost dismissing it as a competition in its own right. But that winter night in the domestic cup shone a light down a different avenue entirely.  Burgess, the towering 6”5 centre-back recalls Union’s 5-0 knockout stage defeat to local rivals Anderlecht. A difficult game, always on the back foot. Lack of experience causing heads to drop. Is this what our life in the top division is going to be like? – Burgess asked himself. Facing far better opponents on a weekly basis. Better players. It’s going to be nothing like the second division. Fast forward to March of 2022, this plucky little football team from the outskirts of Brussels have a very real chance to shock all of Europe by lifting the Belgian First Division trophy for the first time in 87 years.

Christian took a plunge into the unexpected when he departed Portsmouth Football Club and headed for Belgium, and subsequently dubbed it a “new challenge”. At the time, in the second division, Royale Union Saint Gilloise’s ambition was promotion into Jupiler Pro League – Belgium’s top football league. Whilst Union are not a club known to most on a European scale, it’s actually the third most successful in Belgium, with eleven championships to their name. So, has Christian risen to his new continental challenge he assigned himself in the mid-pandemic summer of 2020? In his words, “it couldn’t have gone any better”. Being the team to beat is a challenge in itself, and Burgess & co. made it look easy when they achieved their goal of promotion into the top division on March 13th 2021. At the time, the club harboured hopes of playing in European competitions a few years down the line. The first and most important factor was to stay up in the first season back, and with ambition finish in the top 8. 

So, with the second division league title wrapped up by mid-March, and promotion guaranteed, it was time to prepare for the toughest of new challenges. The Jupiler Pro League. Home to respectable and successful European sides like Club Brugge and the aforementioned Anderlecht, both of whom regularly frequent spots in the Champions and Europa League, taking on the continent’s elite. What magnitude of targets and expectations does a club like RUSG set itself, entering the toughest league in their country for the first time in almost six decades? Christian recounted a team meeting where season targets and bonuses were discussed, and confessed his expectations were far more pessimistic than the rest of the group. I suppose that five years of sluggish, long-ball scrap-fed hoofball at Portsmouth will do that to a man… 

Christian described the chances of getting into the top 4 wildly out of the team’s range of possibility at the beginning of the season. Now, with just two games to go, they are guaranteed a top 3 finish heading into the champions playoffs, and battling for a very probable spot in the Champions League. Looking back on this achievement, you can forgive Christian for questioning whether the club’s expectations were too low, as they are currently punching way above their weight class.

Looking back on their season, Union were handed a testing start to life in the top division. Playing the most successful team in the country on your return into the elite league surely is one way to stamp your authority and cement your intentions early. Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht certainly felt so, when Burgess’ Union kicked off the campaign with a 3-1 victory over the biggest team in Belgium. Club Brugge completed Union’s baptism of fire by visiting the Joseph Marien stadium in matchweek 2. The highs of the opening day victory over Anderlecht however were not enough to overcome the reigning champions from Brugge, and Union tasted their first top-flight defeat since 1963. Regardless, Union flirted with the top of the table over the course of the following 2 months, and finally cemented their position at the helm of the league in late October, instigating fear in their rivals. KV Oostende particularly, felt the full reign of the unlikely challengers, when they became victims of a 7-1 home defeat to Union late in 2021. Jumping to the present day, Union need just one more win to guarantee a top-spot finish in the regular season.

What Union are on the brink of achieving can be compared to Leicester City’s title winning season of 2015/16, when the Foxes defied 5000/1 odds of winning the Premier League. Leicester’s success was partially attributed to their team spirit and togetherness. Like a group of mates having a kick-about whilst having a blast. Burgess reflects on this also being the case with his teammates. Hearing Christian speak highly of their team spirit, it’s clear to see that the continuity of the team had created a sense of camaraderie where the players really understood each other’s game. Having a mostly unchanged squad from the Division 2 winning season instilled a sense of togetherness in the squad. “The bond between the players, it’s quite a tight-knit group. It’s got a great atmosphere”, Burgess summarises. 

The recruitment process of the players has also played a big part in the surprising success this season. Union, as a club, recruits players based on character. Burgess compares this to the All-Black’s no d*ckhead policy – where all pieces of the puzzle must gel where no ego is bigger than another. It would seem that Chris O’Loughlin, Union’s Director of Football, has succeeded in doing so. Again, comparing this to Leicester in 2016, Riyad Mahrez referred to this as “the revenge of the barefooted men”, where he describes the team’s togetherness being born out of rejection. Christian expresses that Union favour signing players who have come through tough challenges, faced rejections, and have shown fight. Good people. Extinguishing any unnecessarily big egos amongst the group, and instead betting on hard-working individuals. “That’s probably the best thing about us – the work ethic. I don’t think any club this year has outrun us”

Nobody expected the mostly-forgotten Belgian side to storm the second division, breaking 10 league records in the process. Nobody expected them to then be right up there amongst the elite the year after. Most of European football has been surprised about the level of Union’s game, Burgess confesses. But what has surprised Christian, about Belgium? “The style of football here. It’s quite different to England in the lower divisions”. The playing style in Belgium is described to have more emphasis on open-play football, and be very attack-minded. Teams push and try to make a difference even when they’re out of favour on the scoreboard, rather than a good old English classic park-the-bus to keep the loss to a minimum. Christian admits that he didn’t enjoy his football for the last couple of seasons back in England. 

“So many 0-0 and 1-0’s. Crap games that are slogged out. It’s like a fight and there’s no real space, a lot of long stuff and playing off scraps. That summed up my time under Kenny [Jackett], his whole philosophy was playing off scraps and I just did not enjoy it.”

As a Pompey fan myself, I know exactly what he means…

You would think that such a drastic change of playing styles would cause a player to take a while to adapt. Several high-profile cases have been documented in the past to take a while to accustom to a new playing style arriving from overseas – Timo Werner, Jadon Sancho or Pepe, to name a few. Christian acknowledges that build-up play from the back suits his game more, rather than the former hoofball philosophy so many English managers live by.

Since Christian’s Middlesbrough and Hartlepool days in 2013/14, his ability to play the ball out from the back was the reason he was given a chance at professional football in the first place. Touring through the lower English divisions however, that tactic slowly gets knocked out of you by certain traditional managers, who as Christian describes it “don’t want to live with the risk”, that is playing out from the back. A big emphasis is put on goalkeepers in that scenario, most of which are not comfortable with the ball at their feet. Not Luxembourg’s Anthony Moris, however. Christian’s teammate between the sticks who he describes to have a “wand” of a left foot.

Christian’s fulfilment in Belgium isn’t limited to the football pitch, however. At the end of the day, swapping playing styles is not the only new challenge the Brit has encountered by moving to continental Europe. What’s more difficult than moving abroad to a foreign country with a foreign language? Moving to a foreign country with two foreign languages, I suppose. Royale Union Saint-Gilloise is a french-speaking club, as is most of Brussels. The club however don’t train in the centre of the capital, but rather on the outskirts of Antwerp, the largest city in Belgium, and the Flemish end of the country. This is also where Christian lives, in order to reduce the daily commute. Enjoying his journey to learning the French language, Christian describes it as “difficult but fun”. “I’m on the 5th level but I shouldn’t really be, I keep passing the end of semester exams so they keep putting me forward” says Burgess who confesses that he is in fact out of his depth. Nevertheless, he is enjoying the challenge of trying to learn a new language. It’s all fun and games until he’s asked to take up a Flemish class, too.

Being a man who enjoys culture, Christian wasted no time embedding himself into the lifestyle of the continental people. After a typical day of training, Christian frequents local coffee shops, and is reminiscent of a big cafe culture. The love for eating and drinking outdoors is not something that we are too familiar with in the UK, but the folk of continental Europe practice on a daily basis. “There’s tables inside but everyone is wrapped up in scarfs, hats and coats outside, I don’t really get it”. I can confirm that doing so at Christian’s former footballing home of Portsmouth would make you extremely popular amongst seagulls, so it must be a pleasant change. Regardless, for Christian, time to relax in Belgium means jumping on his bike, taking a book and enjoying a coffee amongst the pleasant atmosphere of the Belgian people. Sometimes even venturing out of the cities, and into nature. “The Ardennes in the south of the country is a beautiful national park stretching through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France.”

Christian has really fallen in love with Belgian culture, people and language over the last 18 months, and thoroughly enjoyed the social lifestyle of the country, and being a vegan, he particularly appreciates the variety of available products which is far greater than that of the UK. He explains that “Brussel’s has a great vegan scene, sometimes if we train at the stadium I try to stay in Brussels for the day and explore”. 

The language challenge has also been taken-on head first by the centre-half. Often when in Brussels (a predominantly French-speaking city), Christian builds up the courage to order a coffee or lunch in French. All is well and good until the waiter comes back at you with a follow-up question, going completely over his head. It sounds like you need to pay more attention in French class, Christian…But it’s not all doom and gloom, Christian’s French-speaking friends are always on hand to lighten the mood and watch him struggle ordering lunch in his second language. 

That language barrier however, doesn’t stop Christian from recognising cultural differences in football between the two countries. During his spell at my beloved Pompey, Christian became a fan favourite for his on-field performances. It was however countless involvements with Pompey in the Community (Portsmouth’s football charity) which led him to become the south-coast fan-favourite he remains to this day. Whilst English football integrates community into the football world seamlessly, the bridge between the two in Belgium is much smaller, and less needed, explains the former Blue’s man. “It’s [football in Belgium] about atmosphere and party, it’s entertainment. In England, it’s more like life and death”. It’s true. Walk out into the centre of any major football city in England – Portsmouth, Newcastle, Liverpool. There will be hardcore fans living and breathing the values of their club outside of matchdays. In Belgian football culture, footballers tend to play a far lesser part in fan’s lives. 

“I was in an outdoor market…there was a Union fan on the table opposite with a Union hoodie. He didn’t have a clue who I was, didn’t notice me and was not bothered”

We, as English football fans, may think of it as strange. If a football club in England doesn’t integrate into the community of its city or town, they would be condemned online. The vast majority of professional clubs in the UK are heavily committed to making good things happen in the community, just as Christian did via Portsmouth Football Club and the Pompey ITC foundation. In Belgium, that correlation between the people of the community and the people of the pitch representing them is just not there. It seems as though a home football game in Belgium is an excuse to pitch up street-food stands, blast some music, and have a good old party. In England, it’s an overpriced pie and a host of middle-aged uncles fighting for who bleeds the colours of their club crest the most. 

As a parting question in the interview, I asked Christian what he misses the most from back home, aside from family and friends, of course. “A good pint of Guinness! I love Guinness, I never have it anymore. They have it in Irish bars here but it’s never as good. It’s always the further from Ireland you are the worse it is! Whenever I go home and I meet friends and family, I make sure the pub has Guinness on tap!

Christian has played a vital role in this unpredicted success of a season for Union, with 26 appearances and 4 goals at the time of writing. His value according to Transfermarkt has risen to £1.08m from £270k just 18 months ago, and if Union were to go ahead and do the unthinkable, Christian would become the first English player to win the Belgian Top Division since Charles Atkinson won it with Racing Club de Bruxelles in 1900 – 122 years ago. Just for context, Burgess’ Union Saint-Gilloise were just 2 years old when that happened. And yes, it did take me a while to find that stat…

So, getting out of the comfort zone has definitely spawned a hell of a journey over the last 18 months, and one that Christian himself would not have predicted. From English to French, from Hoofball to Football, from good Guinness to bad Guinness – Europe, watch out…because Union are coming for the Champions League place. Meanwhile, I’m off to source a totally legal stream of Union’s next game…

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