Antwerp connection is a Belgium delight for Manchester United
The plastic hoarding on the back of the 1920s grandstand reads 'Antwerp Manchester United.'
It is flanked by club badges of Manchester United and Royal Antwerp. There are further signs of the cooperation inside the stadium which once held 61,000 and now holds a quarter of that number, more than enough to cope with Antwerp's average crowds of 7,000 in Belgium's second division.
It is not the most natural partnership between arguably the world's most popular football club and the Belgians, who have consistently punched below their weight since a 1993 European Cup Winners' Cup final appearance at Wembley. Royal Antwerp maybe Belgium's oldest club - their nickname is 'The Great Old' - but they are not even the top placed team in their own city, Europe's second biggest port.
Yet, since 1997 United and Antwerp have enjoyed a mutually beneficial link-up, United sending emerging talents on loan for up to a year and the Belgians benefiting from the presence of players with superior technical levels to their own, many of whom go onto become household names in the Premier League.
From John O'Shea and Jonny Evans to Ryan Shawcross and Danny Simpson, more than 30 players have made the switch from Old Trafford to Antwerp, usually when they are 18 or 19.
"I watch Match of the Day on a Saturday night and see all the boys who've been here," beams Paul Bistaux, a lawyer who is Antwerp's long time secretary and the main point of contact with United. "I'm still in touch with a lot of them."
Players speak of Bistaux as someone who made them welcome in a foreign land, but there is more to the deal than a familiar outlet for United loanees.
At the end of the 1990s, Belgian law made the country one of Europe's most generous and speedy places to acquire European citizenship if you were an immigrant with a good professional standing. A club could identify an African player, for instance, and that player could move to Belgium where he would assimilate into European football and complete the bureaucratic necessities.
United seldom used that option, but Arsenal struck a more concrete deal with fellow Belgian second division side Beveren and players moved en masse from Ivory Coast to Beveren.
Jean-Marc Guillou, a former French international close to Arsene Wenger, oversaw a deal where Beveren became a market stall for Ivorian players en route to other European clubs who would pay lucrative transfer fees. Arsenal had first pick, signing players such as Emmanueal Eboue. Gervinho started at the Belgium club and arrived at the Emirates Stadium via Le Mans and Lille.
Beveren, a small provincial club, reached their domestic cup final with nine Ivorians in their starting line-up and not one Belgian.
The link up only ran for five seasons until 2006. Subsequent investigations found that Arsenal had loaned Beveren €1.5 million (Dh7.3m) to shore up their financial position, which was questionable but legal.
Fifa and Uefa cleared both clubs of any wrongdoing but that ended the connection with Arsenal. The numerous link-ups which clubs like United established in the early 2000s have also reduced.
A decade ago, United had what they termed "alliances" with five feeder clubs around the globe from Antwerp to Shelbourne in Ireland, IF Brommapojkarna in Sweden, Oslo Øst in Norway and Paramatta Eagles in Australia. Another deal with Desportivo Brasil was struck in 2005, when the Brazilian club was founded. They were evidence of United casting their net wider, but were often open ended agreements, where those clubs would contact United first about a particular talent and trusted the English club to be fair in negotiations. United may send staff too and Antwerp have had two first-team managers from the Old Trafford coaching ranks in the last decade.
While some Beveren fans claimed their club was stripped of identity, other appreciated quality football, even if it was played by Ivorians. In Antwerp, the fans like the United deal, partly because two or three loan players do not effect on their fabric.They look back fondly on the player sent from United who went onto to excel elsewhere. Players like O'Shea and Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Ryan Shawcross and Danny Higginbotham (Stoke City), Danny Simpson (Newcastle United), Jonny Evans (Manchester United) and Darron Gibson (Everton) are some of 35 United loans.
Youth development has always been vital to United's success. Antwerp offers a different opportunity.
"I needed to be playing a level above Under 19s and Antwerp was perfect for me," said defender Kirk Hilton, one of the first to make the move in 1998. "It was the right choice and I played first-team football in front of crowds of 10,000. Games had a competitive edge, it was a good experience living in a different country and I played the best football of my career so far. I played with Luke Chadwick and we were promoted to the Belgian first division. Antwerp asked me back for a second year and I was up for that, playing against teams like Anderlecht."
Bojan Djordic, a former United player now at Antwerp on a permanent basis, said: "The football in Belgium's first division is very technical, much better than the league's below the Premier in England," adds
"Players would be better off in the Belgian first division than in England. That's why we hope to get promoted."
Formal feeder clubs are illegal in England, but many clubs have informal relationships with clubs built on personal relationships following transfer negotiations. In some cases the ties are even stronger. United may loan players to wherever Sir Alex Ferguson's son, Darren, is manager, because Ferguson senior trusts Ferguson junior to treat a player correctly.
Such relationships have always existed, though being a feeder club can cause frustration. Ajax coach Ronald de Boer recently complained, with some justification, that even Ajax had become a feeder club for bigger leagues. But then smaller clubs like Ajax Cape Town feed into Ajax Amsterdam.
Ajax Cape Town, majority owned by the Amsterdam giants, has seen players like Benni McCarthy and Stephen Pienaar make a move up and then on from Holland. Sporting Lisbon had a link up with United established after the Portuguese club sold Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Lisbon club switched Manchester clubs in January 2010 and now offer City first option on emerging talents.
United have also phased out some tie-ups introduced under former chief-executive Peter Kenyon. The one with Antwerp remains, though the Belgians did temporarily suspended the deal three years ago.
"We couldn't keep our commitment to Manchester United," said Bistaux. "United don't ask a lot from us, but what they do ask we want to do right. United want us to be stable and consistent and we were in danger of failing because we couldn't keep up with the commitment of providing loan players with an apartment, car and bonuses."
With Antwerp on a better financial footing, Bistaux went back to United. The deal resumed and promising striker John Cofie was sent on loan in January.
"It has been the right move," Cofie says. "It's better than reserve-team football because it's like a step up from boys' to men's football. You play in front of real crowds. Antwerp get around 7,000 for most home games and you are lucky to get 700 at reserve level."
Cofie is seeing another side of football too. He gets spotted in the city, the subject of media coverage and experience the ups and downs of a club full of journeymen professionals for whom a win bonus can make a significant difference to their weekly family income.
And if he does not reach fulfil his potential, he will be better prepared for his future.
Updated: March 9, 2012 04:00 AM