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Whatever happened to Royal Antwerp? The feeder club conundrum

With the route from youth team to first team becoming ever more difficult in the Premier League, foreign feeder clubs have become the norm for many top English sides, allowing young players to gain first-team experience. Chelsea have had a relationship with Dutch team Vitesse since 2010, and Manchester City have been expanding their ‘City Football Group’ since 2013, which now owns parts of clubs in America, Japan, Spain, Australia and Uruguay.

Manchester United were ahead of the game, however, with an informal relationship with Belgian side Royal Antwerp coming into operation in 1998. With no players loaned there since 2013 though, it appears that the relationship has come to an end, but should United establish a new relationship similar to that of Chelsea’s with Vitesse? On the other hand, is continuing to loan out these prospects to other clubs in England the best way forward?

United’s partnership with Antwerp offered youth team graduates valuable exposure to competitive games whilst also allowing non-EU players time to gain work permits or Belgian passports, due to more relaxed citizenship laws in Belgium. Among the first loanees in 1998 was Danny Higginbotham, who went on to play 450 games in his career, largely at Premier League level. Other success stories include Jonny Evans, Ryan Shawcross, Danny Simpson and John O’Shea, all of whom have established Premier League careers both at United and elsewhere after successful loan spells at Antwerp.

Less successful were the players loaned to Antwerp for work permit reasons, namely Dong Fangzhuo and Souleymane Mamam. Although Dong scored 34 goals in 74 games for Antwerp between 2004-2006, winning the Belgian Second Division golden boot, he was released by United in 2008. Mamam had to wait so long for a work permit that he ended up spending 4 years at Antwerp, making over 100 appearances before joining the club when his contract expired at United. After leaving Antwerp it was rumoured that Birmingham City wished to sign him, but the deal fell through as Mamam had still not acquired a Belgian passport.

Although Antwerp suspended the arrangement in 2009, citing financial reasons, Davide Petrucci was loaned out in 2013, seemingly the last United player to take this path. 2013 was, of course, a year of change for many reasons, predominantly due to the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, which has been cited as a possible reason for the ending of the relationship. Also in that year, Belgium changed their citizenship laws, meaning that an applicant could only gain residency after five years of permanent occupation, unless they “achieved exceptional performances which enhanced the international perception of the country Belgium or they have the capabilities to do so in the future.” If this was the case, residency could be achieved after two years. This requirement made it much tougher to gain Belgian residency, meaning the benefit of Belgium’s more relaxed citizenship laws was lost, and so partnering with a club there no longer made sense.

Despite the failures of Dong and Mamam, the relationship between United and Antwerp was one of success, with many players getting their first taste of competitive football with the Belgian side, and subsequently going on to become household names. Players such as John O’Shea and Jonny Evans have won Premier League titles with United, and even those who have left, such as Ryan Shawcross and Tom Heaton, have forged excellent careers at other top-level clubs.

Now that the partnership with Antwerp has ended, it is rumoured that United are on the hunt for a new feeder team. This comes with the belief that rather than establish a relationship with another team, United wish to buy a smaller European club outright. However, these rumours emerged in late 2016, and as yet no action has taken place.

In an article on their website, 85% of Daily Record readers thought that United should have a feeder club, but with the face of football much changed since the days of the Antwerp partnership, would any future relationship have as much success?

Of course, the main factor in the success of a loan is the quality of the player, and in recent years United’s academy has perhaps not been producing the quality some might expect of it. Players such as Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, James Wilson and Tyler Blackett have not made much impression on loan at Championship clubs, with Blackett leaving United altogether despite 11 appearances in a breakthrough 2014-15 season.

We cannot be sure that were these players sent on loan to a European club they would have performed better, but one of the advantages of having one club to send players to is that the group sticks together. Frazier Campbell stated that himself, Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson and Danny Simpson all shared a flat together at Antwerp and said that although it was “chaos”, he grew whilst in Antwerp, adding “some of my first experiences in life were out there.” Being amongst some of your fellow academy players must make settling in at a new club much easier, and allows for better performances from the start.

Furthermore, the quality of the first and second leagues in countries such as Belgium, Portugal and Holland (rumoured destinations for a possible new feeder club) is much lower than that of England’s, allowing a much higher chance of first-team football. Nowhere is this exemplified more than Chelsea’s partnership with Vitesse, ongoing since 2010. This was when Alexander Chigirinsky, a “friend and associate of Roman Abramovich” bought the side, and since then over 20 Chelsea players have been loaned to Vitesse.

Arguably the Chelsea-Vitesse partnership has been of more benefit to the Dutch side, with three Chelsea loanees winning the Vitesse Supporters’ Player of the Year award due to their impressive performances: Slobodan Rajković in 2010-11, Christian Atsu in 2013-14 and most recently Mason Mount, a promising 19-year-old attacking midfielder, winning it last season. While these players and many more have made a great impact in the Eredivisie, only 1, Nemanja Matic, came back to Chelsea and established themselves in the first team, and that was only after he was sold to Benfica and bought back. In contrast, United players often had good careers back in Manchester after their Antwerp spells, rather than leaving immediately when the loan finished.

After having successful seasons for Vitesse it is often the next step where these players fail, still not ready for the first team but clearly too good for the Dutch league, meaning unsuccessful loans in the Championship often follow – Lewis Baker at Middlesbrough is a good example. Failing that, the players is simply sold on. If United were to employ a similar system it would almost certainly result in the same ending – many players on the books but none good enough for the first team.

The process would involve sending players out on loan for experience, seeing a clear improvement, but then selling them to league rivals in favour of a big-money signing. Jesse Lingard would be the exception of recent seasons, loan spells at several Championship clubs such as Birmingham and Derby helping his progress no end. These cases are rare, however, and players have to be exceptionally talented and motivated to come through multiple loan spells and still succeed, which is tough to find in many young players.

While it is impossible for every loan player to come back to their parent club and forge a great career there, it has happened multiple times with United’s youth, after coming back from both Antwerp or from loans in the English divisions. The same cannot be said of Chelsea’s players, with Nemanja Matic the sole player in the 8-year partnership to actually go back to their parent club and play regularly. The success of Mason Mount may mark a change in this pattern, but it is too early to say. Whichever you look at it, the feeder club model that Chelsea have adopted does not appear to be working.

So that begs the question – do United need a feeder club? From the past success of Antwerp, it could be argued that a new feeder club system would be better managed by United than that of Chelsea’s, but this is a rather simple way of looking at the issue. Overall, whether United have a feeder club or not, the success of any loan is down to the quality and attitude of the player involved. If they have the right attributes then they should succeed wherever they go on loan, whether that is a Belgian Second Division club or Birmingham City.

Written by Andrew Bruce

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