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.
Chelsea FC: Brilliant Badiashile leading way for new signings as Thiago Silva partnership blossoms
His promising early form at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea will hope, hint at better times to come through their new signings.
The arrival of French centre-back Badiashile at the start of last month kick-started a record January spending spree of more than £300m.
After Chelsea were sent spiralling into crisis with defeats by Manchester City and Fulham, Badiashile made his debut in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.
After the Blues claimed a further two clean sheets in 0-0 draws away at Liverpool and at home to Fulham, he is building an impressive partnership with Thiago Silva.
Badiashile was one of five new signings to feature in Friday’s 0-0 draw with Fulham. He started alongside £106.8m Enzo Fernandez, who started well but faded over 90 minutes, £89.5m Mykhailo Mudryk, who struggled over 45 minutes while carrying a cold, and £30m Noni Madueke, who was bright after being brought on at half-time.
“What a waste of money” was the regular chant from the Fulham fans in the away end.
That felt harsh in Badiashile’s case. With his size and speed, he looks like a perfect partner for 38-year-old veteran Silva.
In addition, he showed the ability to play brilliantly out of Fulham’s well-drilled press and he coped in his duels against Aleksandar Mitrovic.
There is still adaption to be done, as Graham Potter barked instructions about his positioning in relation to Silva.
However, using French to communicate with the former Paris Saint-Germain captain, Badiashile has helped steady the ship in the absence of the injured Wesley Fofana, and with Kalidou Koulibaly out of form.
While still only averaging just 1.05 goals per game in the Premier League, Chelsea will draw more than they win unless their new midfielders and forwards step up.
Arriving in the weeks after Badiashile, the likes of Fernandez, Joao Felix, Mudryk and Madueke have not had as much time to adapt to their surroundings.
With Chelsea still in 10th place and increasingly falling behind in the race to qualify for Europe, they must follow Badiashile’s lead and hit the ground running before time runs out.
Reporter’s notebook: Jesse Marsch’s Leeds side showed encouraging signs at times but lack of points cost him his job | Football News
Jesse Marsch was approaching his one-year anniversary as Leeds United head coach before the decision was taken on Monday to relieve him of his duties.
The defeat to Nottingham Forest a day earlier had been the final straw for the Leeds board, who were all aligned in the view that a change was necessary after almost three months without a Premier League win.
The recent statistics paint a grim picture for Leeds. Seven Premier League games without a win and just two wins in the last 17 league games. And against Forest, although they dominated in the first half and created the better chances, a worrying pattern had started to develop which had become a huge concern for fans. Leeds were producing performances with lots of positives, but not enough points.
There is little doubt that a large proportion of the fan base had lost patience with Marsch, and they made their frustrations clear at the full-time whistle on Sunday with calls for a change of head coach.
What is very evident is that Leeds have not kicked on this season. At times there have been really promising signs, but the fans and the board at Leeds wanted more. Marsch will feel that with time he could have delivered more, but he was also realistic enough to know that he was walking a tightrope.
I got to know Jesse well during his 12 months at Elland Road and it was abundantly clear he cared passionately about the club. He understood what it meant to be head coach of Leeds United and what the club meant to the city and the fans. And he has to be given great credit for keeping Leeds in the Premier League last season.
Although it hasn’t worked out for Marsch this season, there is a strong argument to suggest that the next Leeds boss will be in a great position to move the club forward.
Patrick Bamford and Luis Sinisterra are now fit, and the January additions should make the starting line-up stronger. The club has also invested heavily in young players and one of those, Willy Gnonto, has emerged as one of the shining lights of the season.
Those factors have created an expectation that Leeds are better than their current league position, and that means a reluctance to accept another season fighting to avoid the drop. It also means that there are reasons to be optimistic about the future.
The process of finding a replacement for Marsch is already underway and Leeds hope to make a swift appointment. A move for Marcelo Bielsa is highly unlikely, but West Brom boss Carlos Corberan, who worked under Bielsa, is a candidate, while Ange Postecoglou at Celtic has also been linked.
It is also worth noting Leeds have a track record of leftfield appointments, so as they work through their list of targets, there is a good chance that a candidate emerges that could surprise everybody.
In the meantime, Michael Skubala, Paco Gallardo and Chris Armas will take training at Thorp Arch, and will be in the dugout for Wednesday’s Premier League fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
February 8: Manchester United (A) – kick-off 8pm
February 12: Manchester United (H) – kick-off 2pm, live on Sky Sports
February 18: Everton (A) – kick-off 3pm
February 25: Southampton (H) – kick-off 3pm
March 4: Chelsea (A) – kick-off 3pm
March 11: Brighton (H) – kick-off 3pm
March 18: Wolves (A) – kick-off 3pm
Tom Brady in his underwear is taking over Twitter
It’s Super Bowl week, and if you thought Tom Brady was going to let this week go by without being all up in your timeline…well. Just a week after announcing he’s retiring from football (you’ll never convince me he didn’t play an extra year just to stick it to Adam Schefter), Tom Brady has dropped his first thirst trap on Twitter. Or, attempted thirst trap. Actually, IS this a thirst trap?
As will many things Tom Brady, the attempt to be cool and edgy just winds up being sterile, boring, and kinda sad. A beige man in a beige room in beige underwear with a “pleass clap” look on his face.
And because OF COURSE:
Yes, Tom. We all knew the plug as coming. I’m not sure what color “heather crimson” is supposed to be, but I believe this is what we used to call “puce,” which… meh. The fact that there is something called the “Brady Boxer Brief” is enough to make me want to stick my head in the oven, because you know there are guys in New England burning up the internet right now to wear the same undies as their hero. And even more so because no amount of refusing to mask during COVID, vouching for Antonio Brown, stumping for Donald Trump, or getting a PPP loan during a nationwide pandemic is enough to get people to stop buying what this guy is selling. He’s even gotten to Jane Fonda, for crying out loud.
Of course, this entire thing was set up by Brady’s own brand:
So…whatever. It’s Super Bowl week and everyone is talking about Tom Brady, which is exactly how he wants it to be.
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