TGG Podcast #59: Chris O'Loughlin - Upsetting the odds with Union
Written by Training Ground Guru — January 4, 2024
BELGIUM'S Union Saint-Gilloise have marked themselves out as one of the smartest and most innovative clubs in Europe.
Despite having one of the smaller budgets in the division, they came within a whisker of winning the title last season (three late goals in the final game thwarted them) and go into 2024 top of the table.
They are also making waves in Europe, having reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League last season. In Episode #59 of the TGG Podcast, in association with Hudl, their Sporting Director, Chris O'Loughlin, gave insights into how they are managing to upset the established order.
O'Loughlin, who was born in Limerick in Ireland and grew up in South Africa, joined in May 2019 after a coaching career that had taken in stops in South Africa (Orlando Pirates) Australia (Melbourne Victory), Northern Ireland (national team), England (Charlton Athletic) and Belgium (STVV and KV Kortrijk).
You can listen to the episode via the Player below or read an edited transcript after that.
1. SECRETS OF SUCCESS
Chris O'Loughlin: There are some amazing people that work here. The CEO, Philippe Bormans, makes sure that one Euro goes very far. Then you have our President, Alex Muzio, who is passionate about the club, gives all his time for the club and is very intelligent with his data. And then myself and my team - we are committed to creating this performance environment and getting the right players in.
It’s something nice to be part of. You feel like you’re part of something real and everybody is working in the same direction and I think that’s a big help.
We have recently increased our transfers over the summer, but we’ve earned the right to do that. We started off with transfers of 300,000, then we went to 500,000. We had to sell along the way to be able to grow our budget. We had to qualify for the play-offs, we had to qualify for Europe.
We have done everything the right way. The money is not just thrown at us.
2. BRIGHTON LINKS
(In May 2018, Brighton owner Tony Bloom bought Union Saint-Gilloise, with Alex Muzio as a co-investor. In July 2023, it was announced that Muzio had taken over as the majority shareholder at the club).
In all my processes of being recruited here, I never met or had a conversation with Tony Bloom. When he was majority shareholder, he visited very rarely, but he wasn’t a day-to-day President. That was Alex Muzio, who has since become the majority shareholder.
My day-to-day involvement is only with Alex Muzio. When Tony was the majority shareholder he came for some of the special games. He was just on legal paper an owner back then but now that is totally Alex and he has always been the President of the club.
Alex Muzio and Tony Bloom had decided to buy a club together and build something up that was different and to challenge in a league. They looked around Europe and settled on Belgium because they found it to be a league where you could challenge.
Taking a club in Portugal it was impossible to challenge Porto, Sporting, Benfica; Holland, (to challenge) Feyenoord, PSV, Ajax, was impossible. Belgium, they just felt was a league where you could build something special and unique.
It’s just a perception that if originally there is an owner and he has a big club in a big league and he has a second one then it must be part of a strategy, but we were completely separate and are separate now that the shareholding has changed in the club. There was no link in terms of sharing of resources or recruitment strategies or sponsorships or anything like that.
I can see why people might be drawn to that conclusion, because Deniz Undav was at Union and ended up at Brighton, but Belgium is one of the top leagues as a stepping stone. Brighton, as do other Premiership teams, look in Belgium and he (Undav) was the top scorer in the league.
Last year we had (Simon) Adingra on loan, again a player they were looking for solutions, as a stepping stone club before he came to England. We wanted that speed, we wanted that quality, and we made our pitch to the player and to Brighton.
There were other players from Brighton on loan at other Belgian clubs, which makes sense, because it is such an interesting league for players before they come to one of the top five.
3. CREATING A PERFORMANCE CULTURE
I oversee the football department, but my first role and job here, that went along with the recruitment, was always to create a performance culture. I always believe to build from the foundation.
You can have an amazing culture for performance, but if you don’t have the players to match it, it doesn’t work. On the other hand, you can have incredible players with mentality, football qualities, but if the culture is not right for them they won’t grow.,
So my thing was always to match the two - first to build the culture, define it, be very clear on what it looked like and how it operated. Within that culture we divided it into two.
One was a behavioural culture, our daily interactions with each other, with our supporters, with the public. The second was the performance side, which is where your spokes of the wheel start to go out, where you start to build a medical department with specific values and a specific process way of working. And then an analytical department and the recruitment and try to create pathways for young players.
Those start on the performance side of the culture, but always bringing them together.
4. CORE VALUES
Always start with some values you can stand behind. Myself, the President Alex Muzio and the CEO Philippe Bormans, we all met with a specialist in this arena of helping organisations grow their culture and we discussed what was important for us and why. It was a consultant we brought in, someone who could help us direct our ideas a little bit and formulate them.
Then we came up with five values and discussed what those would look like on a day-to-day basis. That was the starting point and it’s taken time, once you have that values system, to get it running and get the right people in and around.
When you bring something new to any organisation, there is change and not everyone likes change. You realise who can’t be part of that and who needs to move on to make it work.
We work with: integrity, commitment, courage, passion and humility. Those five values get divided into a behavioural aspect, which is the interactions with each other, and then they get divided into performance. We base a lot of our recruitment on those values as well, whether it’s a staff member or a player.
You can watch any of these documentaries on American sports teams and you will see a lot of that kind of stuff on the wall, but it was important they were living and breathing values. Whenever we bring a new player in, I say, ‘It’s not for selfies, it’s a real living and breathing thing.’ 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.
We’re not looking for the perfect human being, but we need to have a sense and a level of those values in the player or staff member we bring in, because it makes everything run a little bit easier.
Humility: people get confused sometimes. Humility needs to be 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. 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.
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. It can look so many different ways.
I’ve got a basic saying - 'with good people, you do good things, and that’s what we want to tie it all towards.' First of all, we want undervalued, underrated hungry players. We don’t have the budgets to go and spend some of the money that’s being spent by some of our colleagues in Belgium.
By looking for these undervalued, underrated hungry players, we also have the scope to look far and wide, because we have some fantastic data.
5. A COMMON GOAL
I will never forget, when I was at Charlton, Richie Barker was the assistant manager and I always found Richie really fascinating with the way he saw the game and the way he would think about the game. He just said, 'If you can find a common goal to get everybody behind, you can have the success.'
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 or quality for that. If you suddenly miss out on it, then what are you left with?
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. When you take in all the other factors around them - the data, the style of the player, when we can find those behavioural values and attributes - then we can create something common and have a team environment and ethos.
Not that they are all exactly the same, but they have something in their spirit, soul, that links them and 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.
It’s a team sport. You can’t score the goals without someone passing, you can’t win games without someone running for you, tackling for you, committed with you. If we have some standard things in how we recruit a player, 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.
6. DATA AS A FILTERING SYSTEM
The analytics is a big strong part of our recruitment process. Our president Alex Muzio has worked in data for 20 years. He brings that expertise over to us. The data is very much calculated to what we need, Union Saint-Gilloise, taking into account our players, our league and where we want to go.
The data acts like a filtering system and means we can look across the world, within reason, and we are able to filter what we want and create lists. From there, we then need to make a next filter to see what’s realistic and the next filter would be watching the player, to understand the style of the player, how he would fit in with what we have or what we are going to need, and the final filter to tie it all together is the values of the person and who is the person.
7. SCOUTING FOR CHARACTER
If you saw one of the reports, it is very much like the life story of the player. 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. If you have an idea in your head what commitment or humility looks like.
We are always trying to redefine it and improve our information but it’s just a lot of hard work of going as deep as we can into the background. Where we started versus where we are now, it’s night and day.
(Do you interview former team-mates and staff about the prospective signing?)
You can sometimes come across somebody that just didn’t get on with that person. You want to be very careful how you take information. We are very careful who we speak to. It’s a lot of research, it goes very very deep into 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. It’s in our favour and advantage to keep our recruitment a secret. Sometimes you see people throwing the name Union against the player, thinking it will create some value.
(Do you do use a player's social media to judge their character?)
You have to be careful, because sometimes people wear hats for those things. Sometimes they are informed on what they have to say. And also for social media if you see 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.
If we see something that’s concerning, we will go deeper in the background.
8. VICTOR BONIFACE CASE STUDY
(The forward Victor Boniface joined Union from Bodo/Glimt for €2m in August 2022. The following July they sold him to Bayer Leverkusen for €20m).
Victor Boniface, when we were doing a deep dive into his background, we found something really deep into his social media.
A lady from Nigeria had reached out to him, who was struggling with food to feed her kids, and he just responded 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. We found he had done that and helped.
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.
9. DO YOU RECRUIT TO A SPECIFIC STYLE OF PLAY?
We are not restricting to a specific style, because then we start to bring down the pool of players we can choose from. The other danger is that trends happen in football and change all the time.
We have fantastic data, which we 100% believe in and buy into, and then when we watch the player we try to get someone who is going to help us fill in the jigsaw puzzle to get a competitive team.
We have some fringe dynamics of the team that are important for us. We want players who are hungry to win the ball back, who are quick on the transition; we always make sure we find speed, every year. We also want players who give us balance and sometimes the balance player is not the one who stands out. Sometimes it’s the one you least expect, who over-performs because of the way the squad is built up and just fits in perfectly to what’s needed.
10. FUTURE AMBITIONS
We want to build a new stadium and are busy with that at the moment. We currently train outside of Brussels and would love to move closer. And to be a regular competitor for the top positions in Belgium and, as much as possible, qualify for Europe, become regular at that, but that will take time.
We also really really want to develop our Academy. Up until four years ago the Academy was more like a social project than an elite Academy and we are slowly starting to change that.
We want to see our Academy actually holding onto its players and trying to find the pathways to the first team. We are in Brussels, one of the hotbeds of world football. It is so multi-cultural, there is so much talent. In our younger age groups we have some incredible players; the problem is we compete against Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Genk, Gent, Standard Liege - as soon as you have a quality player, those Academies come and take them.
And they can offer pathways to senior football, because their reserve teams play in the Second Division of Belgium, so we need to make our Academy stronger and eventually find our pathways to the first team. We do have one player in our squad that came through our Academy and are close to bringing a second player onto a professional contract that will train with the first team.
It’s coming a long way the Academy but there is a big future for it. We need to offer them something that leads towards professional football.
We have some guys who are very close to the first team running our Academy, who are taking those values and bringing them into it and the players are very proud to play for the club. We are trying to grow that value system within the young players. It is always an advantage to have players that come through into your first team that know the ways of the club and can keep some consistency and continuity into your identity as a club.