How Union Saint-Gilloise scout for character
Written by Simon Austin — December 30, 2023
WHEN Union Saint-Gilloise were scouting the Bodo/Glimt striker Victor Boniface, they discovered a golden nugget of information that persuaded them he was the type of character they were after.
“We were doing a deep dive into his background and found something really deep into his social media,” Union Sporting Director Chris O’Loughlin told Episode #59 of the TGG Podcast (which you can listen to below).
“A lady from Nigeria, who was struggling with food to feed her kids, had reached out to him and he just responded with a simple and plain, ‘Send me privately your PayPal or bank account details.’
“She had asked for a really basic amount, I think it was 15 or 20 Euros, and he did it. Victor wasn’t a player anybody knew at that stage, so we could take some credit from that information.
“We found it really far back in his Instagram and when you put that against a lot of other things we found, we realised, ‘This is a good human being’ and that is ultimately what we want. We don’t need an angel, we just need a person with a good soul.”
Union signed Boniface for €2m in August 2022. The following July they sold him to Bayer Leverkusen for €20m. A tenfold increase in less than a year: not bad business and another example of why Union are one of the smartest clubs in Europe.
Now the Nigerian forward is the fourth top scorer in the Bundesliga and coveted by even bigger clubs.
VALUES AND CULTURE
There are many things that Union Saint-Gilloise - top of the Belgian Pro League going into 2024 - do well, but if you had to pick out just two, it would be data and culture. Their English President, Alex Muzio, leads on data, filtering players from across the world and identifying the ones who could fit for the club.
O'Loughlin, who was born in Limerick and grew up in South Africa, leads on culture, which can be summarised as the way in which an environment impacts behaviour. Soon after arriving at Union, in May 2019, he set about establishing a core set of values for the club, along with Muzio and Chief Executive Philippe Bormans.
“Always start with some values you can stand behind,” O'Loughlin told the TGG Pod. “We discussed what was important for us and why. Then we came up with five values - integrity, commitment, courage, passion and humility - and discussed what those would look like on a day-to-day basis.”
A lot of work went into defining exactly what these words meant for the Brussels club and their staff, players and fans.
O'Loughlin explained: “Humility, people get confused sometimes: ‘The guy can’t wear a Rolex or can’t come in with the Luis Vuitton shower bag.' That’s not what we look at.
“An example of humility is being open to new ideas, being open to feedback. Passion can look like so many different things. It can be the passion to play football, it can be the passion and humility to another human being, passion towards your team mates.
"There are lots of examples we’ve been able to nail down in terms of human-being quality and what that would look like as a football player.”
These aren't just words and slogans that can be stuck up on a wall; they are lived every day.
“Whenever we bring a new player in, I say, ‘It’s not for selfies, it’s a real living and breathing thing,’” O’Loughlin said.
These values then informed the behavioural culture - “our daily interactions with each other, with our supporters, with the public” - and the performance culture - building out departments such as medical and analysis with “specific values and a specific process way of working.”
O’Loughlin said: “I’ve got a basic saying - ‘With good people, you do good things,’ and that’s what we want to tie it all towards.”
It was Richie Barker, the former Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham striker who is now number two at Derby County, who first got him thinking about the importance of a 'common goal' people could unite behind.
The duo worked together at Charlton in 2016/17, when Barker was assistant to Karl Robinson and O’Loughlin the first-team coach.
“I always found Richie really fascinating with the way he saw the game," O'Loughlin said, "and he told me, ‘If you can find a common goal to get everybody behind, you can have success.’
“He got me thinking a lot about this common goal. We’ve got a lot of players who are hungry to succeed and want to show themselves. The common goal can’t always be winning the Championship or finishing in the top four, five, because not everybody will have the budget or means for that.”
SCOUTING FOR CHARACTER
If O'Loughlin had to sum up the traits of the player Union are after, it would be “undervalued, underrated and hungry.”
Last season the team came within minutes of winning their first league title since 1935. The Pro League trophy was actually being flown via helicopter to their Joseph Marien Stadium when three late goals (two in stoppage time) were scored by Club Brugge to scupper their hopes.
This season they are even better placed, sitting six points clear at the top going into 2024. O'Loughlin said togetherness has been fundamental to their success.
"We’ve found over the last three years we’ve had incredible changing rooms and it’s getting better and better the more experience we gain in this way, of looking at a player other than his football abilities," he said.
This isn't purely down to chance. O'Loughlin believes the club's systematic way of scouting for character means they have not only good people, but commonality and cohesion.
“We have some standard things in how we recruit a player," O'Loughlin explained, "and if we recruit every player the same way, it doesn’t matter what country they come from, what’s their background, religion, experiences, there’s a strong chance we can create a common denominator between the players.
“Not that they are all exactly the same, but they have something in their spirit, soul, that links them."
For every prospective signing, the club create a ‘life story.’
“If you saw one of the reports, it is very much like the life story of the player,” the Irishman said. “We are looking for examples, for tangible things where we can say, ‘That looks like our guy.’
“When we first started recruiting players with the idea of this, I look back to our reports versus now and we’ve grown incredibly. The amount of effort that goes into it, it takes weeks and weeks of deep diving, research, it’s a lot of work that goes into it.
“We have found ways to identify them. We have workshops each year, we try with a new group a way of reinforcing those values, but it’s become easier and easier, because we spend that extra bit of effort in the recruitment and look for those values.”
So what exactly goes into these reports? Understandably, O'Loughlin doesn't want to share too many trade secrets, but he does say, "there is a lot of research, it goes very very deep into information."
A player's social media activity forms part of this, as with the signing of Boniface, but, again, context is key.
“You have to be careful, because sometimes people wear hats for those things,” O’Loughlin explained. “Sometimes they are informed on what they have to say.
“And if you see a photo of a player wearing fancy clothes standing in front of a nice car with his arms folded, you can’t say he doesn’t have integrity, you don’t know.”
The same goes for talking to former team-mates.
“You can sometimes come across somebody that just didn’t get on with that person,” he said. “You want to be very careful how you take information. And number two, we always try to keep our recruitment as low key as possible in terms of the information that’s going out.
“We are very careful who we speak to."
Character and culture are words that are often bandied about, but Union Saint-Gilloise have shown how they can be real game-changers.
"You can have incredible players with mentality, football qualities, but if the culture is not right for them they won’t grow," O'Loughlin said. "So my thing was always to match the two."