It is one of the most successful clubs in Belgian football. But for many years, it has floundered in the lower competitions, so to speak, and has been a sleeping giant. In 2015, however, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise returned to the second league and after a very long break, they were promoted back to the elite after a few years. Now fighting for the championship title again, it could be said that this Brussels-based side is truly like a phoenix risen from the ashes.
Founded in 1897, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise is the fourth oldest club in Belgium after Antwerp, Club Brugge and RFC Liége. It won its first title in 1904 and dominated the Belgian league at the start of the new millennium.
In terms of titles, it is the third most successful club in Belgium. From the 1903/04 season to 1934/35, it won eleven championships and nine second places. Between 1933 and 1935, the team played 60 consecutive matches without defeat, setting a Belgian record that is still unsurpassed today.
In the early 1990s, the club also dominated one of the first ‘European’ cup competitions, held before the UEFA competitions were officially sanctioned. In 1958-1965, the club enjoyed a brief period of European success, reaching the semi-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup after knocking out AS Roma.
However, the club was relegated to the second division in 1963 and even dropped down to the Belgian Promotion Division in 1980. The club thus spent almost five decades in the lower competitions.
Return to glory
Back from the depths to professional football in 2015. From the 2015/16 season to 2020/21, the club was in the second league.
It was at the end of the 2020/21 season that they enjoyed promotion to the top flight anyway, and it could be said that like a phoenix they rose from the ashes. He had 70 points and a comfortable eighteen-point cushion on second-placed Seraing. This sleeping giant was promoted to the Belgian top flight from first place for the first time since 1973.
After returning to the top flight, Royale Union SG topped the league table with 77 points in their very first season after the initial 34 rounds. This was with a five-point lead over second-placed Club Brugge. However, the Belgian giant did not fare well at all in the title group. In five matches, it won only once, drew once and lost three times.
Bruges won the league title, while the newcomer to the elite competition finished second. In the current edition, the Belgian Jupiler Pro League has completed 30 rounds, with Royale Union SG currently in second place with 65 points. They are just three points behind first-placed Genk, with a five-point lead over third-placed Antwerp.
The 11-time Belgian champions are also doing well in the European Cups. The team advanced from the Europa League group stage straight to the eighth round from first place, leaving Union Berlin, Braga and Malmö behind. And it was the German side that managed to knock out Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-final clash and advance to the quarter-finals, where another German club – Bayer Leverkusen – awaits.
The new owner
The current owner Tony Bloom is behind the rise of the formerly very famous Brussels club in a positive sense. He is doing things a little differently than other Belgian clubs and it is paying off.
Bloom is also the owner of the English Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion. He bought a majority stake in Royale Union SG in 2018, when the club was still in the second league. Interestingly, Bloom is a professional poker player, who has been named by English bookmakers as the smartest person working in this environment.
Bloom applied a strategy at Saint-Gilloise that most people would call “crazy”. He hasn’t spent a penny on transfers since the 2019/20 season. Instead, he relies on a data-driven approach, bringing in free agents who are out of contract at their club.
This type of recruitment strategy has led to the discovery of some interesting prospects, such as the team’s past attacking duo of Dante Vanzeir and Deniz Undav, for example, who scored a combined 55 goals in the second league in the 2020/21 season. This type of strategy is particularly challenging in that one must have perfect access to the players.
Especially when Bloom has to face clubs like Club Brugge, Anderlecht or Genk, who have very high transfer budgets. However, the owner of Royale Union SG proves that with a healthy attitude, diligence and love for football, it can be done, plain and simple. In short, Bloom is doing it really well, just like he can do wonders with Brighton of England.
Sources: The Athletic, Jupiler Pro League, Royale Union SG
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