Daydream believer: Chris O’Loughlin’s remarkable rise up the football ladder

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise sporting director on the luck and misfortune along the road

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise sporting director Chris O’Loughlin (left) pictured with club president  Alex Muzio (right) and former manager Thomas Christiansen. Photograph: Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP via Getty Images

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise sporting director Chris O’Loughlin (left) pictured with club president Alex Muzio (right) and former manager Thomas Christiansen. Photograph: Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP via Getty Images

 

There’s a small note on the wall of Chris O’Loughlin’s office, tucked away in the near century-old stadium of Brussel’s Royale Union Saint-Gilloise.

“Don’t stop living your daydream” it reads, and O’Loughlin has no intent to do so anytime soon.

The Stade Joseph Mariën, with wooden seats and surrounded by trees on three sides, is an unlikely place to find a 43-year-old Irishman living his dream, indeed it’s an unlikely place for anyone to be doing so.

The ground, opened in 1919 one year before it hosted three games in the Antwerp Olympic Games, was last upgraded in 1926 when it was given its current Art Deco facade.

Back then, Union Saint-Gilloise were a big deal – with seven of their 11 Belgian top-tier titles won before 1920, the last wrapped up in 1935.

That makes them, still, the third most successful team in Belgian league history, with only Club Brugge (17) and Anderlecht (34) ahead.

But one of those figures may be about to change. Last year, with O’Loughlin in just his second season as directeur sportif, ‘USG’ were promoted to the top flight for the first time in 48 years, runaway winners of the 1B Pro League.

Now, with 22 of a likely 40 games played, the upstarts are seven points clear at the top of the table, with Club Brugge, Antwerp and Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht in their wake.

With the smallest ground in the league, and a budget said to be in the bottom half, this isn’t supposed to happen. Not anymore.

“I don’t really think there is a comparison and maybe that is what makes it special,” said O’Loughlin when pushed to compare a potential title win with a similar shock in football history.

“Maybe Ireland, Italia ’90”, he added, laughing.

Kaiserslautern, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town are some of the bigger names who have won a top-flight title immediately following their promotion, but those examples predate a time when money dictated results.

It’s tough to make a definite comparison, but USG lifting the title could be compared to Watford winning this year’s Premier League.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a dream, but at the same time, there’s a reality to the situation,” cautions O’Loughlin, whose side have topped the Jupiler Pro League table since the start of October.

“We potentially have 18 games to go to have that dream come true. There’s a lot of challenges along the way, new scenarios, new situations. We need to make sure we can deal with those.

“There’s no doubt – to this moment, it’s been an exceptional season. It’s nice to sit here and say you’re playing for something – whether to qualify for Europe or the title . . . but we have to take it game by game.”

Chris O’Loughlin: “I never thought I’d be a coach, then I thought that would be all I do, but this is a great position.” Photograph: William Van Hecke/Corbis via Getty Images
Chris O’Loughlin: “I never thought I’d be a coach, then I thought that would be all I do, but this is a great position.” Photograph: William Van Hecke/Corbis via Getty Images

No intention of coaching

O’Loughlin, born in Limerick to a father from Belfast and a Scottish mother, before spending much of his youth in South Africa, has not been short on patience on the road to his current destination.

Belgium may be providing a rare shot of football romance, but it’s hardly the first chapter of O’Loughlin’s career that feels like it was torn from a novel.

Having seen a playing career in the Irish League cut short by injury in the early noughties, he worked in a bank in before taking an interest in coaching. Well, something of an interest.

“After school I moved back to Ireland and in about 2004, I had no intention of coaching, but I did some junior coaching, I don’t know why . . . I just did it,” he recalls.

And he kept doing it.

He’d a Uefa B licence under his belt by the time he returned to South Africa and after some time volunteering as a coach in the townships, things began to click. Somehow.

“I was at the very bottom of the football ladder, but I got lucky. I met a guy called Gary McNab – Scottish, but he played for the South Africa national team. He was captain of Moroka Swallows, and coming to the end of his career, and took an interest in coaching. He introduced me to some people and gave me credibility. Then I read about a Congolese Belgian, Bibey Mutombo, who had an A licence and was coaching Black Leopards in a very rural part of South Africa. I spoke briefly with him and soon after, pure luck, he was 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 completely over-the-top report on the game. I went to a local printer, bound it and went straight to Pirates training.

“They wouldn’t 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 discuss the document. He had some critiques, but started inviting me to training sessions, second-team games and then asked me to be his assistant coach with the first team.

“At the first training session, there were no introductions, nothing. They had South African internationals, Nigerian internationals, and he just said ‘go take the players for a warm-up’ . . . I was really throw-in at the deep end.”

Mutombo left for Congo’s AS Vita club soon after, leaving O’Loughlin to take up a role coaching at the Supersport academy in South Africa, where he soon developed itchy feet.

“After that, I called around and managed to arrange one week in Espanyol, and one week with Valencia. On my last day there I met Marcelo Bielsa and he heard I had come from South Africa. Two weeks later his analyst was on to me, because Chile were playing South Africa.”

Things began to click some more.

“Then I was asked to come to Vita, where Bibey had been, and that was a massive club, one of the top 10 in Africa, with 80,000 at big games.”

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise Union’s Dante Vanzeir is challenged by RFC Seraing goalkeeper Timothy Galje and Gael Kakudji during the 4-0 win for Union in the Jupiler Pro League game at Stade du Pairay on Tuesday night. Photograph: Virginie Lefour/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images
Royale Union Saint-Gilloise Union’s Dante Vanzeir is challenged by RFC Seraing goalkeeper Timothy Galje and Gael Kakudji during the 4-0 win for Union in the Jupiler Pro League game at Stade du Pairay on Tuesday night. Photograph: Virginie Lefour/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

‘One terrible low’

Congo was still reeling from the end of a bloody conflict that saw more than five million deaths, and O’Loughlin was understandably nervous about moving to Kinshasa.

“The president of the team, a general in the army, called me, but I’d seen some trouble on TV and told him I couldn’t take that risk. He started laughing and said ‘where that problem is, is like Rome, and you are in London’.”

The general’s response, somehow, convinced O’Loughlin.

“It was one year, with so many highs and one terrible low,” he says. “I can’t describe the pressures involved there, it was like life and death football, with massive crowds for the big games.

“My first really big win was against Mamelodi Sundowns, with 80k there and my wife flew in, and was picked up by military escort. She sat there surrounded by army people, and we were not given a chance but we won – I’ll never forget that.”

The 2009 CAF Confederations Cup win over Sundowns was followed by another against-the-odds win over Cameroon’s Coton Sport to make the group stages.

And then the drama really began.

“We’d gone on a run, and we had to win or draw our last game against Santos from Angola, who we’d beaten at home, to make the semi-finals.

“The day before the team left, I was told there no visa for me. I was so angry – it was just politics blocking me . . . I didn’t work with an assistant coach because it was hard to trust people, so the federation put someone in place from their side.

“People just didn’t like a young guy coming from the outside in and doing well. I would have been 31 and in the semi-final of a big competition. The sad thing is it was done on our own side.”

Vita lost 1-0. ‘Never again’, he said, after leaving Kinshasa that year, only to return in 2011, when he led them to the CAF Champions League. It felt as though he had no choice.

“It’s very difficult with an African background to make the move to Europe, it’s not given any level of respect,” he says. “We face the same pressures, the same expectations, but it doesn’t get the credibility it deserves.”

He travelled a lot. England, Portugal, France and even Serbia. To no avail. After leaving Congo for a second time, he returned to Belfast.

Some networking led to Jim Magilton at QPR, who would later bring him to Melbourne, Australia, where they were eventually replaced by Ange Postecoglou, now Celtic boss.

“We played Brisbane Roar that season when he was in charge – they were unbelievable and the football was unreal,” O’Loughlin recalls.

Relative serenity

And so, to Belgium. It won’t surprise you that there was a dollop of serendipity involved in landing roles at Sint-Truiden, where he spent five years either side of a fleeting spell as first-team coach with League One Charlton, and then later Kortrijk.

Then came the call that led to him walking down Rue du Stade, to the relative serenity of Stade Joseph Mariën and Union Saint-Gilloise.

The small club was recently bought by Brighton owner Tony Bloom and Alex Muzio, and their offer to O’Loughlin to step away from the dugout and into the boardroom was a tempting one.

“I never thought I’d be a coach, then I thought that would be all I do, but this is a great position,” he explains.

“It’s a great role, but it helps when you work with a good president like Alex Muzio, who is heavily involved on a daily basis, and a good CEO.

“The vision is aligned across the board, which is the dream scenario.”

A 4-0 away win last Tuesday was the perfect start to 2022 for Union Saint-Gilloise, but Genk (H), Brugge (A) and Anderlecht (H) in the next week will be more telling.

As for O’Loughlin’s future? He’s learned not to make predictions.

“I’m not a person who puts that kind of pressure on myself,” he said. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing here. It’s an awesome club, with a great history, and I’m working with some really good ownership. I don’t know what the future holds, who’d have known we’d be in this world for two years?

“I’m aware how football works. It keeps moving forward, so you can only enjoy it in short doses. It can all change in a moment.”

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