Fortunately for them, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise have courted a steady media gaze this season. The Argus and South African are far from being star titles, granted, and outside of Brighton and Hove, departed fans in Pretoria, and its own corner of Brussels, the club has little relevance to an international audience.
Brought up, brushed down and invested well at the end of a new cycle in the club’s history by Tony Bloom, Union’s near-certain return to the Belgian top division, or Jupiler Pro League, for the first time in well over four decades heralds a revival of the lowland football hierarchies. Or the long-overdue return of what was a spent force, a marginalised arm of the Brussels elite stuck closer to leafy southern suburb Uccle than the city centre, and overshadowed by the sizeable municipality of Anderlecht.
The club reclaimed repute by transferring its accommodation to the Stadion Roi Baudouin, the old Heysel Stadium, from 2016 to 2018. The redevelopment at the Stade Joseph Marien was long-awaited, and the final act of the slightly eccentric Jürgen Baatzsch, chairman and now Honorary President, before Bloom announced his move, made only once the Seagulls’ Premier League survival was assured.
Bloom, the Brighton-born gambling and property entrepreneur – owner of high-end gambling syndicate Starlizard – in 2009 purchased a 75% stake in his boyhood club. His grandfather Harry was a board member and vice-chairman from the early 1970s, until his sudden death on a team coach travelling to a First Division match at Stoke City in 1980, with Tony just ten years old. Uncle Ray has continued his service as director since the 1980s, from the height of an FA Cup Final down to the brink of bankruptcy and non-league demotion and back up again. Deferring to the knowledge and experience of predecessor Dick Knight, who steered the south coast outfit away from their pre-millennium bust towards plans for Falmer’s world-class sporting arena, backed by Brighton’s most famous multinational investor, American Express, Bloom established an efficient, strategic precedent.
These phrases are synonymous with all in Bloom’s circles. Paul Barber, Dan Ashworth, Chris Hughton; unassuming tacticians, uninterested with taking the limelight, who are able to adapt to a wide range of situations. Barber first joined the Seagulls in the 2012-13 season, a move seen as revealing of the shifting English tectonics after extensive terms with Daniel Levy’s Tottenham, the only west coast Canadian MLS franchise in Vancouver Whitecaps, and before that the FA throughout the 2000s. Ashworth, in an act of succession, picked up the English national team is a sorry competitive state and steered a lumbering ape onto its present evolutionary trajectory. Hughton arrived in Sussex with his name unfairly tarnished by events on the Tyne, having been ejected in the April of his second Premier League season with Norwich, and with a task to avoid the threat of Championship relegation that a poorly equipped Sami Hyppiä staggered the team into, following consecutive seasons of play-off heartbreak. Bloom gave them the environment to lay foundations, and maximise the efficiency of a community-centred operation.
Under Barber’s prerogative, commercial success has not disavowed the club’s past. Where once Fatboy Slim’s Skint Records adorned Errea kits, now American Express and JD Sports logos flash across Nike products. The region’s stalwarts, Donatello’s, IT First and Harvey’s, thankfully remain valued partners. Hughton’s part in a ten-year process cannot be underestimated, taking the steps to ensure a top-flight ambition was in fact realised. On the flanks where Kazenga LuaLua and Elliott Bennett etched themselves into Albion folklore, the £13.5 million José Heriberto Izquierdo and £17 million Alireza Jahanbakhsh, members of this summer’s World Cup’s scenery, aim to emulate them. The scale of progression in such few years is truly astounding.
The loose baggage created by this slimming process are far from victims. The Withdean Stadium and University of Sussex sports facilities, where their teams trained for nigh on 25 years, are safely in the hands of the Brighton and Hove Council (leased still to athletics clubs and the recently improved non-league side AFC Varndeanians) and University, secured for many years to come. Managers have come and gone – often, in their own estimations, to better things. Gus Poyet, Oscar Garcia and Hyppiä are all now unemployed. Coaches Nathan Jones and Colin Calderwood opted to take roles as Luton manager and Aston Villa assistant, and have found success – although the latter was a victim of Steve Bruce’s downturn in West Midlands fortunes. Bloom et al. have been diligent to find the abodes best suited to loyal servants, meanwhile, with Connor Goldson, Jamie Murphy and Sam Baldock made aware of their marginalisation after stuttering previous opportunities in the top tier; the first two given European football with Rangers, Baldock a long-desired starting role at Reading. Uwe Hünemeier’s contract could run down to allow the German centre-back a return to the 2. Bundesliga with Paderborn; former captains Gordon Greer, Iñigo Calderón and Andrew Crofts all departed in the 2016-17 season for senior roles at Blackburn, Cyprus’ Anorthosis Famagusta and Charlton. Acrimonious departures are now unheard of, while glorious reprisals have become a thing of magic for nostalgic and forward-planning fans alike. Bobby Zamora, Leonardo Ulloa, and most contemporarily Glenn Murray, have entered into a selective group (Henry, soon to be Neymar) of icons confirming their lustre to new generations.
With the perils of the Premier League’s lower reaches to stave off at home for Bloom, inevitably his attention in Brussels is rationed. It will not have escaped his attentions, however, how his newfound neighbours Anderlecht’s dominance is evaporating. In a time of panic, the purple and white have turned from the Belle-Vue brewery’s Vanden Stock family, father Constant succeeded by Roger, to billionaire Marc Coucke, the founder of pharmaceutical company Omega Pharma. His prescription is uneasy in the short-term; after a policy of haemorrhage for over a decade, from Vincent Kompany’s 2006 departure to those of Romelu Lukaku, Moubarak Boussoufa, Lucas Biglia, Denis Praet, Aleksandar Mitrović and Youri Tielemans, allowing six players selected in their respective nations’ 2018 World Cup squads to depart; Dendoncker, Trezeguet, Thelin, Kara Mbodji, Spajić and Teodorczyk. A battalion of 14 fresh-faced permanent signings, only four over the age of 24, have disrupted cohesion in what may become the sticking point of manager Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s second season in charge; five points adrift of Genk’s lead, almost halfway through the campaign. The great bastion of Brussels football, reduced to trailing former feeder club Antwerp; defeats at Eupen and Sint-Truiden this term.
As one door closes, only temporarily we must presume, another lays ajar for Bloom to exploit. The Saint-Gilles municipality’s finest placed second in the first half of the Belgian First Division B’s season, meaning they only stand a chance of promotion if they win the closing tournament, finishing above original usurpers Mechelen and closest opponents Beerschot Wilrijk. A quirk of the Belgian league structure does enable a side failing to secure to promotion a spot in the Europa League, but these are minor securities for British speculators in the division.
Such is the shallow pool of talent in Belgium itself, obscured by a purring national team, that an international entity of Percy Tau’s calibre can afford flash-in-the-pan status, firing sides seasonally to within reach of promotion. Behind the headlines, French-Malian striker Youssouf Niakaté, on the back of extremely modest goalscoring form in the French third division, has been the real star of Union’s season to date, blasting 12 goals from his first 14 games. On the opposite wing to Tau, Faïz Selemani, capped once by Comoros and following release from Lorient, has struck four goals already. Equally, Slovenian boss Luka Elsner, just 36 years young after injury curtailed his second coming at Domžale in 2012, has been airdropped into the Northern European lowlands after a season decamped in Paphos. His adversary at OH Leuven, owned by the King Power group, is Nigel Pearson, but that is besides the point.
For a side that profited from the age of amateurism (until 1972) in Belgium, stretching far beyond most of the legacies of borderlands, the expenditure on Karlsruher’s Marcel Mehlem almost draws nosebleeds as fax machines hurriedly chunter into action. Kicking and screaming, perhaps, but Saint-Gilloise are being brought into the 21st century, and their 1920s hippodrome has come along for the ride. Freshly renovated, it is restored to former glories in appreciation of decades of stolid concrete loyalties.
To consider these trends dissimilar to the national team would be naïve at best. In the glory days of the 1980s, terribly intersected by the Heysel Stadium disaster, Anderlecht took to Europe, bedecked in shades of plum Fiorentina could only aspire to, and teenage midfield punk Enzo Scifo alighted at Inter in 1987, having been prevented by Spurs from adding 1984 UEFA Cup to the Brussels side’s title from the year before. The frames of these squads were built on Guy Thys’ 1980 European Championship runners-up, 1982 World Cup group winners, and 1986 semi-finalists, as Argentina inflicted a famous revenge. The Belgians may have watched on as Maradona stupefied on that occasion, but to defeat the USSR and Spain, following a lackadaisical opening defeat to hosts Mexico, something special emerged in that baking summer – an enigma not rediscovered until, of all people, Roberto Martínez stepped into the breach.
While Thys was a catalyst for change, unafraid to stand by his ideals by dismissing Erwin Vandenbergh and René Vandereycken, the latter understood to have voiced his disapproval with Scifo and Jan Cuelemans’ reluctance to track back, before their match with the USSR, Martínez is a subtler voice, managing by democracy. To oust the firecracker Radja Nainggolan, whilst retaining Adnan Januzaj and Nacer Chadli, the much-questioned Spaniard’s tactical concept was accountable to remodelling under public questioning from Kevin de Bruyne, hooked at half-time in a November 2017 3-3 draw with Mexico, and in its evolution became perhaps the most flexible of all four World Cup semi-finalists, with the experienced players to do so. After the all-or-nothing Marc Wilmots era, the formula in Russia was simple; efficiencies in key areas. Eden Hazard had another fantastic tournament after a sub-par domestic term, Lukaku, to borrow a rugby terminology, served as the destroyer and Michy Batshuayi as finisher, Thomas Meunier was for his second consecutive tournament a devastating revelation, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini’s disruptive play created a lacking midfield stability, and several free-flowing attacks began with three excellent ball-playing centre-backs. What unites the squad, its stars and versatility players, is diversity, borrowing from mentalities developed across Europe’s capitals, born in the urban communities of Brussels, Brugge and Liège, and grandfathered in Congolese, North African, Albanian, Germanic, and Franco-Dutch influence. They are a nation socio-economically safe, and in the crossroads of Northern Europe very often bi or tri-lingual, but only by stepping outside of a purely professional diplomacy, and forgiving the pure science of outsiders, did renovation take hold. The sacrifice has been domestic prestige, of course, and Anderlecht are far adrift of the Europa League pace this season, eliminated after just four games against Dinamo Zagreb, Fenerbahçe, and Spartak Trnava. A Frenchman is captain, and Hondurans, Zimbabweans, Americans, Gambians and Welshmen usurp Belgians, an untidy identity.
It is not a unique situation for Bloom in the city’s south west, however. Although arguably the most consistent figures in Chris Hughton’s squad – Sussex boys Lewis Dunk and Solly March, the Cumbrian Glenn Murray, and Lancastrian Dale Stephens – an English vogue, as in Burnley, Bournemouth and Cardiff, has failed to take hold. Bloom is only too aware where profitability lies in his list of priorities. The same is said in Saint-Gilloise, and his will be a long-term project, not fixated entirely on promotion this term, but trusting in Elsner, Jürgen Baatzsch, sporting director and former Lorient vice-chairman Alex Hayes, Bloom’s business associate (Starlizard’s statistical analyst) and board chairman Alex Muzio and new CEO Philippe Bormans, formerly of Sint-Truiden, to produce results over time.
His interests in European expansion create a difficult balancing act, but for Bloom to test the perimeters of possibility, these challenges are inevitable. A public schoolboy who speculated at the arcades as a youth, masqueraded in betting shops using a fake ID aged 15, and, according to former England test cricket captain Michael Atherton, cast a fateful £5,000 away backing an England test match win against the West Indies in 1994 as a distraction from his career in the City, he is unafraid of a calculated risk. His judgement of algorithm and reward is almost certainly the sharpest in the Premier League, but has not impeded his humanity. Such is the foundation of his competitive edge.
If this is indeed the precedent for a string of small investments, Bloom has selected wisely a project to endorse. Media attention is purely positive; restoring a fallen elder to a modicum of its former glory is philanthropy, not opportunism. His is an individual embarkation, not a collective carpet bombing, leeching in benefit of Qatari, Saudi or Chinese conglomerates. Franchising the continent is not his ambition – families, instead, will be created with common moral compasses. You get the sense that to a large degree this is genuine for him. If he is to make a career from a sport that has given his family so much, he may as well honour their efforts by protecting the futures of those associations, and their communities. Internally, all of his employees would credit him as an honourable man. Externally, we offer a wry smile. He’s changed our supporting experiences, lifting Brighton out of the doldrums and giving countless positive memories; such is sport, transcendent of all other habitats of human life.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!