Christian Burgess had signed up for a new adventure. He listened back in 2020 when he was told of the plans for promotion, sold on a long-term vision to restore one of Belgium’s famous old clubs. He could never have expected this.
After promotion was duly achieved last season, Union Saint-Gilloise, back in the top division for the first time in 48 years, are top of the Belgian table with two games of the regular season to play. A first title since 1935 is now within the club’s reach.
For Burgess, the former Portsmouth central defender, it is an unexpected experience. After a career in English football’s lower leagues, a man who has played just one game in the Championship is now hoping to play many more in the Champions League.
“For someone like me, at 30 years of age, this might be my last chance to play in Europe but the aim now is to win the league,” he tells Sky Sports. “We have a great opportunity that might never come around again. I have loved every minute of it.”
Burgess is speaking from inside a small bedroom at Union’s training ground after breakfast. He is living alone in Antwerp and admits there were tricky times early in the pandemic when he was kept from family and friends, but he has embraced his new life.
He enjoys the anonymity. “I quite like that. I had five years of it at Portsmouth, such a big football city. It is like the lifeblood of the city. Although I loved it, coming to Antwerp and being quite obscure, just going about my life, has been quite a nice change.
“Whenever I have a couple of days off I will visit different cities, some interesting corners, really small villages. The Ardennes is a national park in the south that stretches from France across Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. It is a gorgeous area to go hiking.”
Accompanied by his friend’s dog, he will go and explore. “It is just a nice thing to get out of the city, really, and enjoy the fresh air,” he explains. “But it is also gorgeous down there. There are medieval castles and all sorts of stuff to see. I like nature.
“It was something that attracted me to Belgium, learning a language, experiencing this continental cafe culture, just a different way of living over here. Why not? I had always wanted to live and work abroad so I just thought it was a great opportunity.
“You do need to be a certain type of person, you also need certain circumstances. You have to be open to adapting to a different culture, a different challenge, getting out of your comfort zone with the language barrier, just open to exploring something new.”
Burgess would recommend the move to anyone but he acknowledges that few would be likely to replicate the experiences he has enjoyed on the pitch. Promotion was an achievement but what is happening now is one of the stories of the European season.
“We thought it would be tough to break into the top four and ruffle any feathers up there. But when you play against the other teams you realise we are quite good and you start to believe. Even now we are the underdog though. People are expecting us to fall away.”
Personal highlights include going to Antwerp and beating them in front of their own fans, while defeating Anderlecht home and away were special moments too. There is also satisfaction he has been able to reinvent himself in a slightly different role.
As a 6’5″ centre-back in League One, Burgess became accustomed to contesting aerial duels but in Belgium, playing in the middle of a back three, he is operating as more of a sweeper, looking to organise the team’s young defence. He has been a revelation.
“I have had to adapt to a different formation, a different style. The ball is on the floor a lot more over here. It demands a different skill-set that is not for everyone. I am back to a bit earlier in my career when I tried to pass the ball and break lines. It is enjoyable.”
A natural leader, he has taken on that responsibility at Union – although it has not been easy. “It is tough with the language to organise everything. I bark orders in English or French depending on who it is but when it gets to real panic mode the English comes out.”
Those benefiting from his influence include defensive partner Siebe Van der Heyden, recently called up to the Belgium national team for the first time. He is joined in that squad by Dante Vanzeir, another Union star. It underlines the group’s extraordinary rise.
Van der Heyden was signed from the Dutch second division. Vanzeir failed to break through at Genk. “We were all thrilled when Dante played for Belgium. It is a bit of a dream really. Genk are eighth and he is top of the league. He is sharp and strong, a good finisher.”
His strike partner Deniz Undav signed for Brighton in January before being loaned back to Union. He is the top scorer in Belgium. “This year, he has just come alive. He recently scored a couple of really banging goals and has looked like the real deal lately.”
Burgess himself wonders how long this group can stay together. Scouts from Milan and Juventus are regular visitors. “It will be interesting to see what happens to the team in the summer. We can achieve something special but will it be broken up? Who knows.”
That is a thought for another day. Right now, Union are five points clear with two games to play, the last of them coming on the final day at home to already relegated Beerschot. That promises to be a special day at Stade Joseph Marien – the club’s special stadium.
“That is a part of the ambience there,” he says of the old ground with its art deco facade. “It is unbelievable. It is basically in a park. The trees make it look like a forest and when you get the right lighting the scenery is unbelievable. It is a unique backdrop to play in.
“It is like a coliseum. It creates a great atmosphere and the area acts as an echo chamber. People come from all over Europe, groundhoppers. Union is on their list because it is unique. In fact, Union feels like it is the place to be right now in Brussels.
“For Friday night games, they shut down the whole area before the game. There are beers, street vendors, it is like a huge party. It is so weird the fan culture here compared to England. People are just here for a good time. They drink but there is never trouble.
“You will get people who are not necessarily huge football fans but they are here for the atmosphere and to support the team. It is so different from England where it can feel like life and death. Here, we have lost games and been cheered off the pitch.
“To be honest, they celebrate every win here like we have won the league. It is bizarre. I remember my first game in the second division. We had a squad photo on the pitch, the boys were celebrating. I was like, ‘What? This is nothing. We could get relegated.’
“It was wild. We celebrated the halfway championship. They call it the autumn champions here, it is a big thing. You don’t get anything for it. I imagine it will be the same if and when we become the regular champions. We will have a photo and some celebrations.”
Due to a quirk of the Belgian system, Union will not win the title even by topping the table after the 34-game regular season. That only earns them a spot in the four-team playoff in which they will play the other three teams home and away to decide the champions.
There is an advantage to having finished top but their points lead will be halved – putting Club Brugge within striking distance. “It has been a good season so far but now is the crunch time that can really make or break it. They are going to be huge games.”
The country, it seems, is behind the newly-promoted side.
“Even people I meet who don’t support Union are excited about Union and want to talk about the title race. They are all excited unless they support one of the big teams but even then they have almost been converted. It is the big underdog story.”
The challenge now is to give that story the ending it deserves.
“There will be a massive spotlight on the playoffs. Cliched as it sounds it will be like six cup finals, adrenaline, nerves, big games and big crowds. It is exciting. There have been standout games and nice personal performances but I hope the best ones are yet to come.
“I really enjoy living here and playing for the club. I have met so many interesting people and coming out of my comfort zone has made me a more rounded person. Winning the title would bring Champions League qualification which would be a reason alone to stay.
“There are plans to grow, a new stadium, a new training ground in Brussels and I would love to live there. I would love to stay another couple of years here and really leave a mark but you never know in football. Who is to say that the manager is going to stay?
“Who is to say that Barcelona are not going to come in for me?
“You never know.”
Burgess is smiling. But Belgium has taught him to chase his dreams.