It may be the third tier of Belgian football, but anyone who values the heritage of the game and wants to see something more than the homogenous global product that football has become, then a trip to Union St. Gilloise, in the Brussels suburb of Forest, is a joy to behold.
I was told that Union and its ground were unique in today’s footballing world, and it was no exaggeration. It is easy to see why the club’s small band of followers love the place, from the tavern that sits adjacent to the stadium, to the ornate facade and the forest that fringes the ground, there is something very endearing about the place.
Union could easily be transported into English non-league football. Their followers look like identikit non-league fans, there is a homely feel in the supporters’ bar underneath the main stand and everyone seems to know each other. When we arrived in the Union’s Tavern, we could have been a couple of time travellers stepping off a spaceship to try some local beer. We were, without doubt, looked upon with some curiosity.
But then Union St. Gilloise is a curiosity in itself. When you come across their stadium, you cannot help but gasp at the sight of an art deco sporting venue that is not a million kilometres away from Arsenal’s old Highbury stands – except it is more ornate. Obviously, like old “people’s palace” music halls and cinemas from the inter-war years, it has seen better days, but it should be preserved, and I hope it is, for there are precious few sports buildings that remain from that age.
It was probably built for a time when Union were the top club in Belgium. Founded in 1897, the club has won 11 Belgian first division titles, the last of which was in 1934-35. Between 1903-04 and 1912-13, they were champions seven times. They won one title in 1922-23 and then completed a hat-trick between 1932 and 1935.
One little-known honour also fell their way three times in the Edwardian era – the Coupe Ponthoz, one of many prototype European competitions. Union won it between 1905 and 1907, beating England’s Hampstead in the last of those finals.
The Union supporters’ bar has photos to mark past glories, although the Elvis Presley painting does demand an explanation. But the tableaux that greets you in the bar does indicate that success has been a rare visitor to Stade Joseph Marien in recent times.
The stadium itself has a huge bank of terracing on the opposite side to the main stand, the like of which you won’t find anywhere these days. It’s steep, has a great view and the club’s fans, The Bhoys, park themselves high into the shadow of the forest to bang their drum and sing their songs.
The Belgian third division is split into two sections and Union finished sixth in 2013-14, which, a big improvement on 2012-13. They were relegated back to the third division in 2009 after a few years in the second.
But it was a Belgian Cup fourth round game that we were there to watch. Union were hosting a team from Seraing called RFC Seresien from over near Liege. The visitors, whose fans seemed to be segregated at the far end of the tribune, came in force.
You can’t get away from the name Kompany when in Belgium and Vincent’s brother, Francois, was on the bench for Seresien.
Union had won through the previous round of the Belgian Cup by beating Betrix on penalties after a 0-0 draw. They’d played just one league game since the start of the season, winning 1-0 at Oosterwijk in the midweek before this game. Seresien had endured a mixed start to their second division campaign.
The game was pretty much as we’d expected, although it was never dull. Union had plenty of enthusiasm and were quite direct, but the visitors looked more composed. They went ahead just ion the 41st minute with a goal from Gregory Dufer, who received a through ball and ran on to fire low into the net.
Union had their chances, but their finishing was hasty and often clumsy. But they gave a good account of themselves. It wasn’t enough to beat the second division side.
Union : Sadin, Castronovo, Guiro, Vandiepenbeeck, A. Cabeke (Mununga 78), Dieme (Cocchiere 46), Englebert, G. Cabeke, Morren, Papassarantis (Morais 77), Mputu.
Seresien: Fillieux, Preseaux, Bojovic, Gendarme, Tirpan (D’Onofrio 78), Belic, Boumediene (Kompany 62), Vaccaro, Dufer, Kehli, Stevance (Senekuku 71).
It was far from a classic, but the experience was well worth the EUR 15 we paid for a place in the tribune. This was the highlight of our trip to Belgium and you never know, we may go back to see Union St. Gilloise.
*Apologies to the Strawbs (Part of the Union, 1973)