Manchester United sent a host of young players on loan to Royal Antwerp during a productive partnership between the two clubs. So many, in fact, that nobody seems sure of the exact number.
The partnership was active for 12 years from 1997 but ended in 2009 with Antwerp, according to the Daily Mirror, “citing problems they had in fulfilling their financial commitments to United’s loanees”.
A number of players enjoyed temporary moves to the Belgian club and, while the total figure is unclear, we’ve looked back at 29 who made the switch.
The first United player to move to Antwerp, the club made a lasting impression on Higginbotham, according to general secretary Paul Bistiaux.
“Danny was actually the first United player to step foot on Belgium soil as part of the link up because he wanted to come over first to have a look at see what we were about before he would commit himself,” he told the Manchester Evening News in 2010.
“We gave him the red carpet treatment. He trained with our players and had lunch with them and then immediately said yes he wanted to come over for 12 months.
“I am still in contact with Danny and it has been great to see him make a good senior football career.”
The scheme got off to a controversial start as the defender was hit with a season-long ban for insulting a referee following an incident with Ronnie Wallwork – more of which to follow – although it was eventually reduced to four months.
— Fergie's Fledglings (@FledglingsBook) December 7, 2014
A spell at Antwerp would set the tone for the rest of Wallwork’s career, as the midfielder earned a life ban for assaulting a referee, albeit seeing the punishment reduced to three years and applicable only to Belgium upon appeal.
Despite making enough appearances to earn a Premier League winner’s medal in 2000-01 and being named West Brom’s Player of the Year in 2004-05, trouble always seemed to follow Wallwork, even after his career fizzled out in 2008.
In 2006, while at Barnsley, he was stabbed by the ex-partner of his girlfriend and he was jailed for 15 months in 2011 after pleading guilty to three counts of handling stolen cars.
In 2014 he was ordered to carry out 120 hours unpaid work with £1,200 costs after admitting to stealing an Audi A4.
A move to Belgium proved to be the last action of Wood’s United career, and he eventually found a home at Welsh outfit TNS, where he spent eight years before retiring in 2011.
Hilton actually went on to rejoin Antwerp on a permanent deal after dropping down the divisions in England. His second stay in Belgium ended in 2008 and turned out to be his last spell as a professional footballer.
A tragic tale, two years after playing on loan at Antwerp, Davis was killed in a car accident on the eve of his first appearance for Watford at the age of just 21.
Two loan spells at the turn of the century saw Chadwick score seven goals in 26 appearances for Antwerp before he embarked an a nomadic career – at least until settling into a six-year stay at MK Dons.
After ending his career at Soham Town Rangers, the former England Under-21 international is now an academy coach at hometown club Cambridge United
After two months on loan at Antwerp in 2002, Tate became a hero at Swansea, initially helping the club avoid relegation from the Football League before remaining at the Welsh outfit throughout their rise to the Premier League.
That included Football League Trophy glory in 2006, after which he cemented his status as a fans favourite by wearing a ‘F*ck Cardiff’ t-shirt.
Wood only made three appearances for Antwerp, but we’d like you to know that later in his career he moved from Oldham to Bosnian side Željezničar Sarajevo, then on to Southern Football League Division One Central outfit Atherstone Town.
The most decorated United footballer to appear for Antwerp, O’Shea spent 12 years in total at Old Trafford, winning everything on offer.
O’Shea’s subsequent spell at Sunderland was much less successful, as he suffered back-to-back relegations, and the defender joined Reading in the summer.
Fat John O'Shea at Royal Antwerp pic.twitter.com/yKaLjc5S1W
— Daniel Harris (@DanielHarris) August 29, 2013
A loan move to Antwerp was the first of 22 transfers Rachubka has been involved in during his career to date.
At the time of writing, the goalkeeper can be found turning out for the Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League.
The son of former Stoke goalkeeper Peter Fox, the midfielder would fail to make an appearance for United but enjoyed a successful spell at Norwich, coming third in the voting for club’s Player of the Season as the Canaries won promotion to the Premier League and featuring regularly in the top flight under Paul Lambert.
However, he fell out of favour under Chris Hughton and dropped back down the leagues. He’s currently plying his trade for Plymouth in the fourth tier.
Antwerp presented Heath with his first experience of professional football. But two years after he left United, the striker was being released by non-league Farsley Celtic.
Signed at the age of 16 by United, Togolese youngster Mamam was sent to Antwerp to earn a work permit but ended up spending his whole four years at United on loan at the Belgian outfit.
Upon the expiry of his United contract, the midfielder joined Antwerp permanently, and later saw a move to Birmingham break down.
In a bizarre turn of events, he returned to United as a trialist in 2011 and even scored but went on to join a club in Lebanon later that year.
Souleymane Mamam making his comeback for Manchester United is the most remarkable return until Manucho returns and wins the Champions League
— Dan (@GolazoDan) August 1, 2011
We absolutely love the idea of 19-year-old Bardsley playing in Belgium, challenging his bemused team-mates to a boxing match in their own kitchens.
He must have made an impact in Europe, judging by the fact he has his own page on Danish Wikipedia.
An England youth international, Johnson’s move to Antwerp was the first of three loan spells away from United.
After leaving English football in 2009, the midfielder moved to the USA, impressing enough for the Austin Aztex to earn a move to the Portland Timbers, but he retired at the age of 26 and now coaches Dundee’s Under-20s.
There were hopes Fangzhuo could become United’s first Asian star when he joined the club in 2004, but the striker had to spend almost three years out on loan at Antwerp in order to qualify for a work permit.
Thirty-four goals in 71 appearances represented a decent return in Belgium, but he failed to break through at Old Trafford and retired at the age of 29 following spells in Poland, Portugal, Armenia and China.
In 2016, Spanish publication Marca claimed Fangzhuo underwent plastic surgery to change his appearance in an attempt to stop the abuse he was receiving for a disappointing career.
A six-month loan move to Antwerp in January 2006 proved the start of Eckersley’s European adventure as the left-back went on to join Danish clubs Brondby, Horsens and AGF Aarhus.
Still playing for St Mirren, the 32-year-old helped the Scottish side win promotion to the SPL in 2017-18.
Jones had tasted already first-team football with United before moving on loan to Antwerp, and his loan was cut short after just six appearances with the Red Devils suffering an injury crisis in midfield.
Further opportunities failed to arise, however, and the midfielder was later used as an example by Trevor Brooking of how talented young English players need more chances at top-flight clubs.
The 31-year-old has been without a club since leaving Canadian outfit FC Edmonton in 2016.
A highly-rated prospect when United beat a number of other club’s to his signature from Wimbledon in 2003, Martin blames too many loan spells for his failure to establish himself at Old Trafford.
However, he highlights his time at Antwerp as the most productive of those temporary moves.
“Antwerp was probably my most enjoyable loan as that was a similar style of football to what I was used to,” he told us in 2017. “On the continent, even though the football wasn’t the highest standard, it was something me and the other boys who went over were used to.
“I blended in quite well as we wanted to pass and move as that’s what we were doing at United reserves. We benefitted from that rather than going straight into the typical British way of playing.
“It was also good as it made you grow up, having to go away from your family and experience something different, living in a hotel.
“Our only family was the four or five boys who were out there at the time so it made us grow up and really matured a lot of the boys early on.”
Heaton had played 19 times on loan at Swindon Town in the first half of 2005-06 before joining Antwerp in the January of that season.
The goalkeeper’s experience while out on loan at various clubs convinced him to leave United in order to play first-team football, admitting to The Guardian that “it got heated for a minute or two” when he told Sir Alex Ferguson of his decision to depart.
His choice paid off as he worked his way back to the Premier League and into the England squad with Burnley, although he now has two fellow internationals to compete with for a place in Sean Dyche’s side.
Ebanks-Blake had already made his first-team debut for United by the time he was sent to Antwerp in January 2006.
The striker showed the goalscoring instinct he would later display at Wolves with four goals in nine games, but his career has rapidly gone downhill over the last two years.
Now 32, the former England Under-21 international left League One Chesterfield in 2016 to join National League North side Telford and is now playing for Halesowen Town, where he plays up front alongside former Notts County man Lee Hughes.
Two of Simpson’s six loan spells away from United came with Antwerp at the end of 2005-06 and beginning of 2006-07.
Upon his return to Old Trafford from the second spell, the right-back was deemed ready for English football and helped Sunderland win the Championship under Roy Keane.
He may ultimately have failed to make the grade with the Red Devils, but he still got his hands on a Premier League winners’ medal at Leicester City.
Campbell spent the 2006-07 season at Antwerp and was a major success, scoring 20 goals in 31 appearances to fire the side to the play-offs.
And his time living abroad clearly had a major impact on the striker’s life, judging by his comments to the Daily Mail in 2013.
“We had a four-bedroomed flat and it was chaos. There was me, Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson and Danny Simpson. Obviously, we were in bed at 9pm every night…
“I remember one day we were bored so went to the equivalent of Toys r Us, got super soakers, water balloons and were just driving down the streets watering people from the car.
“Then we got a call from the manager saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ It didn’t help that we were driving a car with the team badge on the side.
“It all helped me grow, though. Some of my first experiences in life were out there.”
Many football fans were surprised to learn of Evans’ role in West Brom’s taxi-gate scandal last season.
Perhaps those days in Belgium alongside Campbell and Gibson were a warning all along.
Let’s just say squirting super soakers in Antwerp was not the most trouble Gibson has got himself into in a car.
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) May 21, 2018
Gray was also at Antwerp during 2006-07, but we’re not sure what he did to not be invited around with Campbell and co’s banter brigade.
The right-back gradually dropped down the Football League after leaving Old Trafford in 2010, but he now captains Hibernian in the SPL.
Shawcross spent the second half of the 2006-07 season on loan in Belgium, scoring three goals and doing enough to catch the eye of Stoke City, who he promptly helped to promotion from the Championship the following season.
The defender initially joined the Potters on loan, but Tony Pulis was quick to make the signing permanent, and only 12 months after ending the season in Belgium’s second tier, Shawcross was named in the Championship Team of the Year.
Cathcart never made a first-team appearance for United, and his loan to Antwerp was the first of three temporary spells away from Old Trafford.
The defender made 13 appearances during a six-month stay at the Bosuilstadion in 2007 and is now established in the Premier League with Watford.
Lea joined Antwerp alongside Cathcart off the back of being nominated for United’s Reserve Player of the Year award in 2006-07.
The defender never made the grade at Old Trafford and similarly failed to establish himself at Scunthorpe.
A season at Chester City ended abruptly when the club folded, and he spent a bizarre summer of 2010, joining Rochdale a week after signing for Hyde United, only to rejoin Hyde four months later. Fast forward another month and he had moved to Colwyn Bay.
According to the 30-year-old’s Wikipedia, Atherton Collieries were his last club.