Football/Soccer

Euro star: The Belfast man who helped inspire Belgian club's fairytale story

A chance encounter in a Belfast call-centre started Chris O'Loughlin on a nomadic course that led him across continents on the way up soccer's ladder – the latest chapter of which came so close to producing a fairytale ending. Neil Loughran hears his story…

Chris O'Loughlin was appointed sporting director at Union Saint-Gilloise in 2019 - and the club have enjoyed a rapid rise since, securing a crack at European football on their return to Belgium's top flight. Picture courtesy of Union Saint-Gilloise
Neil Loughran

NO matter what happens tomorrow, there will be a party atmosphere inside Stade Joseph Mariën on the outskirts of Brussels.

The unlikely title dreams that Union Saint-Gilloise harboured since hitting the front of Belgium’s First Division last October may have died when Club Brugge clinched the crown six days ago, but perspective ensures the period of mourning won’t last too long.

Having only ended a 48-year exile from the top flight last season, theirs is an underdog tale that provided a welcome escape from the monopoly of big boy control across Europe’s top leagues.

Coming so close to pulling off a 1,000/1 coup, one that drew comparisons with Leicester City’s 2016 fairytale, that’s still worth shouting about, isn’t it?

Chris O’Loughlin hasn’t quite reached that stage. He will, just not yet.

The 43-year-old was appointed sporting director at Union in 2019 - a year after the club had been taken over by Brighton owner Tony Bloom and Alex Muzio - and their rapid rise is the consequence of a cultural shift, canny management and shrewd signings made on a shoestring budget.

There is so much to celebrate but, right now, as the season-ending game against Antwerp looms, and even with a crack at Champions League qualification already secured, the way things finished up mean it’s all still a bit raw.

“Everyone’s disappointed,” says O’Loughlin, “there was a lot of expectation.

“Since matchday 11 we led the championship, so it is a disappointment. Still there is a reality to reflect on what has been achieved, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. But I don’t think we have to do that right this moment…”

Of course, in normal circumstances, in a normal league structure, Union would have had the title wrapped up long ago. At the end of 34 regular season games they sat top of the pile, five points clear of Club Brugge.

In Belgium, though, they do things differently.

Once the regular season is complete, the top four teams face each other twice in a Championship play-off – there, it goes from unnecessarily complicated to outright bizarre.

Each team starts with half of the points they won in the regular season, rounded up to the nearest whole number. Oh, those points gained by rounding up? They’re deducted in the case of a tie. Still with me?

The long and short of it is that, having started the mini-league with a lead of 2.5 points, back-to-back defeats against Club Brugge ultimately put an irreversible dent in Union’s ambitions.

“It’s not great,” says O’Loughlin of the Belgian system.

“Look, today it’s easy for us to talk about that, but at the beginning of the season we knew what it was and that’s the reality.

“The frustrating thing is we played well in the two games [against Brugge], we created chances to score. But the reality is, nine years ago, when Liverpool were looking for a goalkeeper they chose Simon Mignolet, and he’s made some amazing saves to keep Brugge in those games.

“That was the difference.”

Victory over Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht last weekend at least secured second spot and a place in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, while tomorrow’s home date with Antwerp brings the curtain down on a season supporters will savour for a lifetime.

But how did Chris O’Loughlin – son of a west Belfast man, born in Limerick, raised in South Africa before returning to his father’s home city as a teenager – end up such an integral part of the remarkable Union Saint-Gilloise story?

That’s an underdog story in its own right.

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THE Halifax call centre in Belfast’s Gasworks has seen many thousands of employees come and go since opening its doors around the turn of the Millennium.

Chris O’Loughlin is somewhere among that number. Memories of the nine-to-five are not particularly fond, but it was here that a chance encounter set his career – and his life – on a different course.

At that time, around the mid-Noughties, O’Loughlin’s own playing days were just wrapping up. After operating at a decent level in Cape Town, he had short spells at Cliftonville and Larne when dad Charles brought his family back home, just as the north began to break free from the shackles of its dark past.

The culture shock, he recalls, worked both ways.

“When I first came over, people thought there was lions running around, and elephants in your garden when you live in Africa. They didn’t understand where I was coming from, it was quite funny.

“But I remember pre-season training that year was constantly disrupted because of different issues. I had just finished school, I was 18 - this was 1997 so Belfast was very different to how it is now. I didn’t understand any of that because we weren’t exposed to that.

“You grew up, I suppose, with a romantic idea of Ireland and you don’t understand the politics and all that stuff. It was quite a shock to walk out of my grandad’s house and a soldier would be kneeling down in the driveway. It was hard to understand it.”

O’Loughlin eventually ended up at ambitious Amateur League outfit Islandmagee but, when a knee injury left him facing a long lay-off, some big decisions had to be made.

“That was in January, my season was over, and I just stopped playing. That was it. I was married, I had two babies - I had to get a little bit realistic. Football wasn’t making an income….”

And then one day, after growing frustrated waiting for an elevator in the Halifax building, O’Loughlin took the stairs instead. It turned out to be the sliding doors moment he didn’t know he had been waiting for.

On the way down, he bumped into a former Islandmagee team-mate who suggested moving into coaching, with a Uefa B licence course coming up soon.

“Na,” was the instant response, “I’ve got no interest in that stuff.”

By the time he got back to his desk, however, the tune was starting to change.

“I sat there, maybe after one abusive call too many, probably somebody angry about having direct debit charges, and I just thought ‘what the hell is this? This isn’t what I planned for my life’.

“So I joined that Uefa B and took a gamble.”

Determined to grab any kind of experience going, O’Loughlin faxed over his CV and newly-acquired licence to clubs and contacts back in South Africa, but there were no bites. As has been the story of his career, it was up to him to make opportunities arise.

Instead of taking up offers to coach in private schools, O’Loughlin volunteered in the townships around Johannesburg, helping spread the soccer gospel, slowly building up experience, even if his bank balance had nothing to show for it.

And, eventually, a door opened.

“I was at the very bottom of the ladder.

“There was no realistic pathway, but I just persevered and in the end, one person took an interest, a door would open somewhere else - there was a little bit of luck involved but also, hopefully, some ingenuity on my own part.

“I had read about a Congolese-Belgian guy called Bibey Mutombo who had an A licence and was coaching Black Leopards in a rural part of South Africa. I spoke briefly with him, and not long after he ended up coaching Orlando Pirates.

“I went to one of their games, prepared a book of things to look at and scribbled notes. I spent the whole night watching my recording of the game, and made a report. I went to a local printer, bound it and went straight to Pirates training.

“They weren’t going to let me in but Bibey recognised me, even though we hadn’t spoken in five months. He took my notes, drove away, and a few days later he wanted to give me some feedback on the document.”

O’Loughlin was subsequently invited to attend training sessions and second team games, before Mutombo enlisted the Irishman as assistant coach.

“I was thrown in at the deep end.

“The Pirates had South African internationals, Nigerian internationals, and at the first session it was just ‘go take the players for a warm-up’.”

When Mutombo departed for AS Vita Club in Congo, O’Loughlin took up a role at the Supersport academy in Pretoria. But the pair were soon reunited when – despite serious reservations – O’Loughlin agreed to become Mutombo’s assistant.

If returning to post-Troubles Belfast had been an eye-opener, Congo was another world entirely. The country was still reeling from a bloody conflict that saw more than five million lives lost and, although hostilities officially ended in 2003, an uneasy peace remained.

Moving to Kinshasa was not a decision to be taken lightly.

“AS Vita is a really big club, one of the top 10 in Africa, or they were. I was a bit nervous but I went over for three weeks to help with preparation and… it was definitely not something I had experienced before.

“The situation is volatile. I mean, you have to take everything you know about what the westernised landscape looks like and completely rip that up. It was just another level. It’s a place where supporters live or die for the team – the pressure is incredible.

“I didn’t think I would go back, but then I ended up going back for six months as head coach. My first really big win was against Mamelodi Sundowns in the African Champions League, 80,000 people there. My wife flew in for the game and was picked up by military escort - she sat there surrounded by army people. We weren’t given a chance but we won.

“I did two seasons in total [in 2009 and 2011], after each season I was like ‘this is it’. Some things happened that if I said it, you just wouldn’t go near it. I could write a book about my time there.”

In between times, O’Loughlin completed his Uefa Pro Licence with the IFA, and would travel in a bid to broaden his footballing horizons – to Serbia, to Valencia where he met Marcelo Bielsa, Narbonne in France, Portugal, the Netherlands. Relationships formed would ultimately service him well down the line.

After leaving Congo for good, he returned to Belfast. Despite experience garnered on an increasingly eclectic CV, making the next step wasn’t straightforward – like when he applied for a manager’s post at a Championship club in the Irish League’s second tier.

“I thought I had done pretty well [in Congo], and there would be at least a chance I could get involved somewhere. I had just come back from place where we went to the likes of Cameroon and played in front of big crowds, I thought ‘I’m sure I’ll get an interview’.

“I didn’t even get a response.”

When one door closes, though, another opens.

Networking led him to Jim Magilton during his stint as QPR boss, and the former Northern Ireland international would later bring O’Loughlin to Melbourne Victory as the interim management team saw out the Australian A-League season.

Next up was the place O’Loughlin now calls home, Belgium, where he spent five years at Sint-Truiden - either side of a fleeting spell as first team coach at Charlton Athletic - before a season as assistant manager at Kortrijk.

When the call came to up sticks again, this time trading the dugout for the boardroom as part of a new project at Union Saint-Gilloise, careful consideration was required. Do I really want to leave coaching behind? What is the potential of this club? Can I cut it as a sporting director?

Only one way to find out.

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The 102-year-old Stade Joseph Mariën is a protected structure, and has a capacity of just under 9,500 - meaning it won't be able to host the club's European games next season

HISTORY hangs from every from corner of the 102-year-old Stade Joseph Mariën. It was here that Spain played its first-ever match, against Denmark at the 1920 Olympic Games.

The original 1919 stand remains, replete with wooden seats, the stain-glass window bearing the club’s yellow and blue crest upon entry to the stadium a reminder of a different time.

Surrounded by trees on three sides as it sits on the edge of the 59-acre Duden Park, the stadium is a protected structure and hasn’t been upgraded since 1926, when the fetching Art Deco façade was installed.

Of their 11 Belgian top-tier titles, seven were won before 1920, the last coming in 1935. As a result Union remains the third most successful team in Belgian league history, with only Club Brugge (18) and Anderlecht (34) ahead.

Yet, for all those past glories, the people driving the club nowadays have eyes fixed firmly on its future. With a capacity of just under 9,500, Union has comfortably the smallest ground in the league – it is not equipped to host European football next season, therefore other options have been in the melting pot for months.

“We live in modern times, we cannot pretend that commercialisation doesn’t exist because - football aside - we all buy into it every day of our lives. That’s reality.

“Our club tends to capture people’s imagination, they come here, there’s no aggression in the stadium, our supporters are all liberal, far left, focusing on the rights of everybody and promoting inclusivity.

“There’s a fantastic atmosphere before and after the game, in the cafes around the stadium. You come with your friends and have a good time.”

For those reasons, they don’t want to lose what they have, either.

After blazing back into the top flight before mounting an unexpected title challenge under Felice Mazzu, Union’s aim is to keep that momentum going. Sometimes, though, it is important to take stock of just how far you have come.

“The project was always very clear - to build a strong, sports-positive culture, and we wanted to be in a position to compete to play European football. It’s definitely gone faster than we thought… it is pretty crazy.

“It has been a massive team effort, I’m in privileged situation where there’s a CEO, a president and myself, and the three of us work really well together, making a lot of the decisions.

We share a very similar way of thinking, as well as human principles, so that’s always helpful.

“From last September/October we started working towards next year, and we want to keep building the club, step by step, learning from mistakes and getting better.

“But it’s a very competitive industry and things can change incredibly quickly. Sometimes it’s just important to live in the moment.”

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