Although it may have escaped your attention, the most remarkable of fairytales has been brewing in a small corner of Brussels over the past few months.
But they’ve been upstaged this term by one of European football’s most unique and awe-inspiring revival stories involving Royale Union Saint-Gilloise.
Although they had been consigned to the doldrums of the second tier for almost half a decade, only Anderlecht and Club Brugge can boast a more decorated history than Union in the Belgian game after a period of dominance in the early 1900s.
And they’ve more than made up for lost time over the past year-and-a-half.
First, Union surged to the First Division B title last season to end an agonising 48-year exile from the top-flight – breaking a host of records on their way.
And despite stepping up to resume their battle with the super-heavyweights of Belgian football, their powers of recovery have shown no signs of waning over the past six months.
Union are currently flying high at the top of the Jupiler Pro League table with a nine-point lead over second-placed Club Brugge – leaving them on course for a 12th Belgian title.
It’s a remarkable story – and English defender Christian Burgess is right at the heart of it.
After spending the majority of his career in League One with Portsmouth, via brief stints at Hartlepool and Peterborough, Burgess has been an integral ingredient in the success story that Union have cooked up over the past 18 months.
He’s gone from battling for a spot in the Championship for an adventure that has taken him to the cusp of the Champions League – and unsurprisingly, he confesses that the position he now finds himself in is beyond his wildest expectations.
“The first year I was here, it was expected; so it was about meeting expectations. But the last sort of six months has been a little bit unbelievable,” Burgess tells Mirror Football.
“I remember thinking at the start of the season thinking we’re going to struggle a little bit more here.
“I was thinking about how the boys are going to react to losing games because we’ve been so used to winning after storming the league in the second division.
“But we haven’t lost many this year. We’ve had some fantastic results against rivals and some big comebacks.”
Burgess isn’t kidding when he says that, either.
The fact that it’s practically impossible to pinpoint one result to define Union’s season shows just how remarkable the latest chapter in their spellbinding story has been.
“There’s been a few ridiculous games,” Burgess adds. “We were playing Genk away, it was pretty early on actually, and we went one nil down with 10 men. We equalised in the last minute, which was a massive, massive point.
“We came back from two nil down at half time to win 4-2, with 10 men, against RFC Seraing. That was an unbelievable result – we were sitting in the changing room at half time with 10 men thinking ‘we just need to avoid a pile-on here’. So to go out and score four goals was ridiculous.
“Another one was recently we were losing two nil at home to Circle Brugge. I was watching the game because I was suspended, and you just felt that it could have been the moment where we let things slip and then the guys come back and win 3-2 in the last minute.
“There’s been so many of them. Belgian football’s a bit crazy; it’s so open. I even watch games and I’m like ’what is going?’ It’s just nuts. There’s a lot of red cards as well.”
Joris Verwijst/BSR Agency)
Unsurprisingly, Union’s remarkable rise has drawn comparisons to Leicester’s iconic title win back in 2016 – just 12 months after they were promoted back to the Premier League.
However, as Burgess points out, there are striking differences between the two stories. In a way, both are fully deserving of their own thunder, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons.
Union are bidding to go one better than Leicester by claiming the domestic crown in their very first season back in the top-flight.
With Burgess at the heart of the defence, Union currently boast the leanest defensive record in the league after shipping just 22 goals in 28 games.
Although there are only six games of the season left, Belgium’s top league operates a play-off format, where the top four teams in the league have their points halved and play each other home and away before a champion is crowned.
Despite the odds being piled against them, Union are still at the summit of league, alive and kicking, with a healthy advantage with time running out for their rivals to gun them down.
In a way, Burgess’ story is every bit as unique as Union’s.
A keen cricketer who played at county level in his youth, Burgess himself admits that his route into football was left-field.
From there, he was whisked to Middlesbrough for a trial before the Teessiders snapped him up on a two-year deal.
But that quirky backstory pales in comparison the story of how he was headhunted by Union – something that Burgess concedes he thought was initially a wind-up after he received a message on Instagram.
After doing some research, via LinkedIn, Burgess passed the interest on to his agents as the foundations of a stunning switch overseas was sketched out. He admits he knew little about the club, but he was soon bought up to speed by Union’s influential sporting director, Chris O’Loughlin.
“In terms of mindset, I was open to anything I guess. Then it was really about evaluating the best choice for me looking at the ambition that the club had and the sort of picture that they painted or where they wanted to go. I thought it sounded pretty good.
“I think I had to put a lot of trust in them, though – that they were telling me the truth and not giving me a load of b******t, for lack of a better term. It’s worked out quite well. But it was a tough one to leave Pompey; I’d been there five years.”
Joris Verwijst/BSR Agency)
Even though the interest was legitimate and the project interesting enough, the move still wasn’t straightforward. Burgess went out to Brussels to visit the club and met the ambitious people driving Union’s project forward.
“That reassured me that a little bit more, but still I remember having loads of nights thinking about it and speaking to the people I trusted. Really it was a little bit of a punt.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Burgess’ decision was far more bold than he gives himself credit for – but equally, the rewards have been just as rich over the course of an unbelievable few months.
It’s hard to think of any story in Europe this season that can hold a candle to Union’s remarkable resurgence.
And for Burgess, the decision has paid dividends away from the football too, as he lifts the lid on how he’s embraced adapting to a new way of life in the Flanders region.
“It’s a different culture. It’s a different way of playing football; the training’s very different, the group mentality is quite different, just like the individual characters. But I enjoy it – it’s better in a good way.”
For any player who jets off to a new country, there’s always the prospect of negotiating a language barrier. But in this instance, Burgess has had to contend with more than most.
“I’m learning French at the University of Antwerp, but I’m living in a Dutch-speaking city – so it’s a little bit frustrating I guess! I feel bad because everyone here speaks Dutch but then I have a good reason because the club and the fans and the history is all French.
“I don’t hear much of the news over here because all of the channels are either French or Dutch on my TV. I watch football games on mute because I can’t listen to the Dutch commentary. So I watch all the games on mute and I put some music on in the background.
“You have a little bit more of an ignorant life I guess.”
Nico Vereecken / Photo News)
Ignorance is perhaps something that a few individuals at neighbouring clubs could be accused of back at the start of the current Jupiler Pro campaign.
Union set the tone by thrashing Belgian’s biggest club, Anderlecht, in their own backyard on the opening day of the campaign.
Burgess was on the bench for that match, but he was soon in the limelight himself. His first start of the season coincided with Union’s emphatic 4-0 home win over Standard Liege just a month later.
It’s a trend that has continued ever since. Of the big-hitters in Belgium, only Club Brugge have managed to get the best of Union during their first year back in the big-time.
Burgess concedes that the club were faced with a gruelling run of fixtures at the end of January which saw them face the other teams in the play-off spots and Genk. Remarkably, Union didn’t falter and instead picked up 10 points from a possible 12 to give them a boost ahead of the crunch run-in.
But can their success on the pitch against the league’s juggernauts, regardless of how the season concludes, be the catalyst for Union to reclaim their own spot amongst of the powerhouses of Belgian football?
“It’s definitely got the potential. I think it’s been outside of the top division for 48 years.
“Obviously things have scaled down a little bit. They have a brilliant, loyal fanbase but it’s probably not as many as some of the bigger clubs who have been enjoying success in Europe over the last 20 years.
“But it has the potential and it’s a little bit like the place to be in Brussels on the weekend at the moment. Everything gets shut down outside on the roads and there’s street parties, there’s beers and vendors selling all sorts of food and drink. It’s quite a cool place to be.”
Although people may not be familiar with Union, the man at the helm of the club is.
Brighton owner Tony Bloom bought into the club back in 2018 and has overseen their return prominence alongside co-owner Alex Munzio.
The modern, forward-thinking approach that the pair adopted in a bid to awaken Union from their prolonged slumber has already had the desired effect – and they have no intention of stopping now, with plans for both a new stadium and a new training ground.
“The club is a sleeping giant. Obviously with the owners at the moment who have got good ambition with the stadium and the training ground, but doing it the correct way as well.
“They want to bring everything into Brussels and they’re also quite big on the environment – we’re trying to be the most sustainable football club in Europe, so they’ve implemented things to do with that. They’re big on foundation and they want to sort of doing a lot more work in the community, even though they already do a lot. It’s about doing things in the right way to tie in with the values that they hold and I think that’s attracted a lot of people from Brussels back to the club.
“Hopefully they can go from strength to strength even disregarding the results.”
And if they could manage to achieve the impossible and complete the fairytale ending?
“It would be amazing.
“I’m sure it would bring back memories and would be unbelievable for the club’s standing in Belgium and for Brussels. It would be something for the fans to celebrate; they’ll celebrate anyway because they’re great.
“Obviously it would bring a big financial benefit as well. It’ll help us on our journey to building that sort of infrastructure that would rejuvenate the club and allow us to get back competing amongst the top teams in Belgium again.
“I guess for the future they probably harbour hopes of being one of the biggest names in Belgium. Even I knew about Club Brugge and Standard Liege and Anderlecht, so I’d imagine it would have a huge benefit in terms of putting Union back on the map.”
It’s particularly poignant that Burgess mentions that the fans will celebrate regardless of how the rest of the season pans out.
Although it would be heartbreaking to miss out on the fairytale finale that is so richly deserved, Burgess admits that his experience since arriving in Belgium has beyond his wildest expectations.
“I’ve fallen in love with the club a little bit.
Nico Vereecken / Photo News)
“I still don’t want to believe that it’s possible. Honestly, it could have been that I just ended up being sat in the second division for a little while and get paid for what I’ve signed up for and enjoy the culture, learn French and round myself off as a person.
“But yeah, to be straight into the top league and then to be the right at the top…it’s unbelievable.
“I don’t think anyone at the club thought it was possible to be honest. We’re exceeding all expectations and all of our wildest dreams. If we did make it to the Champions League it would be outrageous that I could possibly play in that competition, from where I’ve come from.”
Not bad for a kid from Barking whose passion for history ensured he was in the right place at the right time to pursue a career in football.
It’s quite fitting that his unique journey has now left him on the cusp of creating some pretty impressive history of his own.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/belgian-football-leicester-christian-burgess-26310757 EXCLUSIVE: Meet the English star spearheading Belgian football's Leicester-esque title bid