'I didn't come to Belgium to fade away' - Portsmouth favourite Christian Burgess on brink of glory with Royale Union Saint-Gilloise
There are those who couldn’t fathom Christian Burgess’ decision, judging by their own preferences.
Today the central defender stands two wins away from silverware and top-flight football.
Exchanging League One for Belgium may have been incomprehensible to the Fratton faithful who crowned him their The News/Sport’s Mail Player of the Season, but for Burgess it signified a treasured opportunity.
Subsequently, he has featured in every minute of Royale Union Saint-Gilloise’s Belgian First Division B domination.
The league leaders are 15 points clear with seven matches remaining, having racked up nine successive league triumphs.
And following consecutive League One play-off semi-final defeats with Pompey, the 29-year-old can finally smell promotion.
Burgess told The News: ‘I didn’t come to Belgium to fade away, I was coming here to be successful.
‘I was sold an ambition by the sporting director and believed in what he had to say.
‘Obviously the culture, the language and a new adventure was a big part of it as well. It appealed to me, it appealed to me a lot.
‘I wouldn’t have just joined any club. There had to be ambition, that was important to me.
‘Union have the plans to get themselves to where they were once upon a time – and stay there. Which is basically the top division.
‘I took a risk in that sense. I didn’t know what the standard was like coming to this club, what the players were like, the other teams, anything.
‘It was a gamble, but I had a lot of conversations with the sporting director, Chris O’Loughlin, who convinced me.
‘You are never going to quite know unless you step out of yourself, but he sold the club pretty well and I measured him up as an honest guy. I went for it.
‘I could see the potential, I was sold on the potential of the club and the ambition they possessed. They were talking about promotion to the top league, it all excited me.
‘I took a small leap of faith – and it has worked out quite well so far.’
Ahead of this weekend’s clash with struggling Lierse Kempenzonen, Union have won 10 of their last 11 fixtures in all competitions.
That impressive record’s only blot was applied by Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht in the Belgian Cup.
Last month the Belgian giants claimed a 5-0 success at the Stade Joseph Marien, with former West Ham midfielder and Charlton loanee Josh Cullen in their side.
It was a glimpse of the future for Union and Burgess, who remain on course to next season rub shoulders with Kompany’s team and the likes of Club Brugge, Antwerp, Genk, Mechelen and Standard Liege.
Meanwhile, former Pompey team-mate Cameron McGeehan is at top-flight side KV Oostende, who are positioned third.
McGeehan was signed from Barnsley in August and has since made 21 appearances and scored three times, although is presently sidelined by injury.
The winners of Belgian First Division B are promoted automatically to the top division, with second place then contesting a play-off against second from bottom in the top flight.
As long-time leaders, Union are rightly eyeing changing leagues and returning to a level which once reaped 11 titles for the club.
‘We don’t want play-offs. We’ll go up as champions, hopefully,’ laughed Burgess.
‘At the moment, we are 15 points clear of RFC Seraing, having played the same amount of games.
‘If we win two out of the seven it makes it impossible for them to pass us, although I suppose they could tie if they win all seven. Then it would be calculated on goal difference.
‘It’s looking good, but we have to keep focused. We’re on a good run of form and hopefully can continue that and finish strongly.
‘We want promotion, but also let’s win it in the best manner we possibly can, posting some records for the most points, whatever they may be.
‘For myself, evaluating the standard in Belgium was really hard at first. For the first few games you don’t quite know the standard of the other teams, it’s a different way of playing, a different way of refereeing, and training is different too.
‘It probably took me a good 2-3 months to adapt, but we have some really good players, with a number of excellent youngsters coming through as well.
‘We’ve played a couple of bigger teams in the cup, which has been a better gauge of the standard. I speak to Cam McGeehan a lot and there is some variation up there in the top division too, some very good teams and not so good.
‘As for referees, they don't let much go over here, there’s less contact and a lot more free-kicks, whereas you get away with some things in League One. I’m sometimes really perplexed over the free-kicks which get given.
‘The players here know that already, it’s how they play, so they’d probably get a big shock if they were to go into League One, for example, and some of the challenges there.
‘I am playing pretty well. We use a back three or a back five, with wing-backs, and I’m in the middle of that.
‘We started as a back four and then switched because of injury to our full-backs and it has worked really well for us – and we’ve stuck at it. We have won 17 of our last 18 league games playing that formation.
‘I’m enjoying it. It’s different I guess, but I’m playing well and distributing it well. We have a good defensive record too, with just 18 goals conceded in our 21 games.
‘I’ve pretty much carried on from where I left off at Pompey. I didn’t get any break. I played the play-off game at Oxford United on the Monday and then the Thursday travelled to Belgium.
‘The following day I trained with the team for the first time, then made my debut on the Saturday. There was no time to be unfit, although I’m quite looking forward to a little break in the summer.
‘You actually have a lot less games in Belgium. I’ve played 24 games, which is all of them. There’s just one cup, which you don’t enter at the start, and we lost to Anderlecht in the last 16.
‘There was also a month off for a winter break, although this time around it turned into a week because of coronavirus.
‘The winter break for our league is a bit of a waste of time because it’s not as if we play loads of games anyway. We could have done without it, carried on playing and finished earlier, or started later.
‘It’s how they do it, which also means there’s not as much fatigue overall over here.’
While into the final six months of his Pompey deal, Burgess signed a pre-contract agreement with Union in early 2020.
However, with it scheduled to come into force on July 1, the need to extend the English season following the coronavirus pandemic saw Pompey request permission for Burgess to remain for their play-off campaign.
That was granted, enabling him to feature in the two-legged semi-final against Oxford.
On July 6, a penalty shoot-out defeat to Kassam Stadium signalled Burgess’ Pompey farewell, following five seasons, one League Two title, one Checkatrade Trophy, 210 appearances and 12 goals.
Within 72 hours he was finally on his way to join up with Union.
Burgess added: ‘I’ve settled in well, the guys have been really welcoming and there’s a lot more of an international feel, with plenty of players from many different countries. We’re all in the same boat.
‘There are Belgians playing in their own country, but also a lot of guys from outside, including myself.
‘I’ve got my left-hand drive now, my French lessons are going well, I’m taking a lot of them, and I’m enjoying keeping myself busy.
‘I live in Antwerp. It’s a beautiful city, not quite as big as Brussels, but very Dutch, speaking Flemish here.
‘We actually train just outside of Antwerp, so it makes more sense living there rather than Brussels in proximity to work.
‘If I can just finish off my first season with promotion, I will be a very happy person.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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