Manchester United are now a truly global club, both in terms of fan base and professional reach. This has been exemplified this week by the five young Brazilian players who have visited Old Trafford from Desportivo, our Brazilian feeder club, and the 17 nationalities represented in our first team squad.
Our multinational networking hasn’t always been so far-reaching. The foundations for our global network were laid far closer to home, in the form of a link with Belgian club Royal Antwerp. Traditionally one of Belgium’s most successful and best supported clubs, they have falled on hard times recently, but represent an ideal place for Manchester United to send young players, especially imports.
The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, the Belgian second division is not the most competitive of environments, pretty much guaranteeing the youngsters sent there will get plenty of playing time. Secondly, citizenship laws in Belgium are especially lax. A player who is resident there for two years gains a Belgian passport, thereby becoming an EU citizen and bypassing work permit laws. It would take five years for this to happen with a player based in England.
Therefore, quite a mixture of players have moved to Antwerp in the interim. Since Danny Higginbotham became the first player to go there in 1998, no less than 30 other players at various levels of the Manchester United setup have spent time at Royal Antwerp. Where are they all now, and can the link be considered a success?
In short, the Premiership. Every single one of those players, with the exception of Lee Martin, currently plies their trade in the Premier League, with three of those first team regulars at Manchester United. Indeed, Gibson and O’Shea formed the central midfield pairing for our recent 2-0 victory against Arsenal in the FA Cup. Four of those players have gone on to win international caps, albeit two for each Irish side, not the most competitive of squads.
Not all of these players were a great success whilst in Antwerp, however. Whilst Frazier Campbell gained cult status and ended his only season with Antwerp as their top scorer, Ritchie Jones moved to Antwerp shortly after breaking into the Manchester United first team reckoning. In his season at Antwerp, he only made six appearances before returning to Old Trafford, and he has since sunk to Oldham Athletic.
Dong Fangzhuo was a player who arrived at Manchester United with great expectations amongst some supporters. The assumption was that, having paid a fee that could have risen to £3.5m for an unknown Chinese player, we must have somehow uncovered the Peking Pele.
In reality, Dong spent two years at Antwerp awaiting a work permit, and winning the Belgian Second Division’s golden boot was as good as it would get. Upon his return to Old Trafford he was exposed as the lumbering no-hoper that he is. He can now be found plying his trade in the Serbian top flight, having only recently ended an 801 day goal drought dating back to the 2008 Olympics. Dong, now 26, has never scored a top flight league goal for any club.
Another young foreign player who spent a long time at Antwerp was Togolese winger Souleymane Mamam. Snapped up by United at 16, he was farmed out to Antwerp to win a work permit. However, his progress stalled and he ended up making almost 100 appearances over four years on loan.
When his United contract was not renewed, he joined Antwerp permanently, but has since fallen further down the league ladder. Questions have since been asked about his genuine age, with international debut coming in a World Cup qualifier when he was reputedly just 13 years old. This would explain his prodigious youth performances and failure to progress.
Lee Martin and Luke Chadwick are two players who enhanced their reputation greatly whilst at Royal Antwerp, but both have seen their careers flounder since. Martin won the Royal Antwerp player of the year award whilst on loan, and won five consecutive fan’s man of the match awards.
Chadwick hit 7 goals in 36 games as he inspired Royal Antwerp to the Second Division title, and came straight into the first team reckoning upon his return to Old Trafford, eventually managing two Premier League goals for us. Although he has now dropped into League One, he is the reigning MK Dons player of the year, so has carved himself a successful lower-league career.
Others to have done so include former reserves captain Alan Tate, who has notched 200 appearances for Swansea City, and David Fox, who is currently first choice at promotion-chasing Norwich.
The same cannot be said for Ronnie Wallwork. Towards the end of his spell on loan, Wallwark was issued a life ban from football for assaulting a referee after a promotion playoff match. This was eventually reduced on appeal to three years suspended, applicable only to Belgium, which left him free to continue his career in England. However, a leopard never changes it’s spots, and the troubled Wallwork has recently been on the wrong side of the law thanks to some business involving stolen cars.
Whilst Manchester United’s link with Antwerp has only sporadically produced first team players at Old Trafford, there is a rich tradition of young players moving there as a sort of finishing school before embarking on long lower-league careers. With Ferguson always willing to give talented youngsters a go in the first team when they are good enough, but less happy to give those players an extended time to bed in, a loan to Antwerp has proved to be the best thing to happen to a number of our youngsters before they have headed out into the Football League meat market.
If the same level of success can be enjoyed with our proposed link with FC Twente, then it will be worth it’s weight in gold.