‘They were visionaries’ – The Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United partnership that was 20 years ahead of its time

It’s August 1998 and the Royal Antwerp team bus is rolling back into the club’s Bosuilstadion home, but Danny Higginbotham can’t believe what he’s seeing.

The 19-year-old is the first Manchester United player to be packed off to Antwerp as part of a new link-up between the two clubs, but the Belgian giants are somehow marooned in the second tier and their season has started disastrously with three straight defeats. This is the latest, a 5-0 thrashing away from home.

But hundreds of Antwerp fans are still waiting for the coach to return and Higginbotham is amazed by the level of support until his new teammates put him right.

The teenage Mancunian is the last to get off the coach and he’s quickly surrounded. “F**k off back to Manchester” is the message and Higginbotham intends to do just that. The relationship between the clubs could be over after just three games.

Higginbotham is talked out of leaving, however. He stays and 31 more United players make the same journey over the next 15 years. Most of them go on to have successful Premier League careers and value their time in Belgium. It was a partnership that worked out for everyone and the links remain strong.

It’s not unusual now for Premier League clubs to have relationships with, or even ownership of, clubs across the globe. It can be beneficial for sending players out on loan and sharing knowledge. But it was unheard of in the late 1990s when United struck their deal with Royal Antwerp.

The Manchester Evening News has spoken to players who went on loan to Antwerp and officials from both sides to tell the inside story of a partnership that was years ahead of its time.


“They were visionaries.”

Warren Joyce is describing Sir Alex Ferguson, Jim Ryan, Les Kershaw and Brian McClair, the key United figures in sending players to the port city in the north of Belgium.

Joyce spent two years managing Antwerp on behalf of United and oversaw perhaps the most successful cohort of kids to play for the club, but it wasn’t actually supposed to be like this.

The story begins in a city centre hotel in Madrid in the mid-1990s and a meeting of Uefa clubs attended by figures from United and Antwerp.

“Our chairman was at the meeting and at dinner he sat next to the late [former United director] Maurice Watkins,” Paul Bistiaux, Antwerp’s former club secretary, tells the Manchester Evening News.

“They started to talk about the work-permit situation in Britain and Belgium. Initially, it was that United would bring over foreign players and have them stay at Royal Antwerp for a couple of years and then move to Britain.

“In fact, we became more of a training ground for young United players who spent some time with us, it became a sort of practice ground for young United players.”

“They sat me down and said ‘this is what we want from our players’. They wanted a pressurised environment, Antwerp was one of the biggest clubs in Belgium, a big fan base, there was pressure to win,” Joyce told the MEN.

“For Jim and Choccy [Brian McClair] and through Sir Alex as well, they were visionaries in looking at development pathways for young players.

“It was tough, with the fans it could be a hostile environment. I remember drawing a game 0-0 against the team bottom of the league, there were 600 people waiting in the car park ready to give the players a bit of their mind, there were no stewards, they were ruthless.”

In 1998 Higginbotham was the guinea pig. He would be joined mid-season by Ronnie Wallwork and Jamie Wood, but it almost never got that far.

Undertaking his first experience of senior football and living abroad on his own, the defender was ready to return to Manchester when he was scapegoated for the poor start to the season.

Higginbotham had given a penalty away in a 1-0 defeat on the opening day of the season and when he was abused after game three his heart sank.

The wife of manager Regi Van Acker intervened – “her mothering instincts took over” – and Higginbotham was shepherded into the office inside the stadium.

“The manager said to me ‘please come out for some food with me and my wife tomorrow’, but at that stage I just wanted to go home, I’d had enough,” said Higginbotham.

“I gave in and went out with them but I was adamant I wanted to go. He said ‘please, give us three more games because I feel we’re on the cusp of turning things around’. We’d just been beaten 5-0!

“I eventually said I’d give them three games. We won the next 12 games and were near the top of the league at Christmas.”

Sir Alex Ferguson sent a strong United team to mark Antwerp’s 125th anniversary in August 2005

That first year was the most dramatic. Higginbotham recalls it as one of the best experiences of his career, but it was also very nearly the end of his career.

As their United teammates were preparing for a tilt at the treble, Higginbotham and Wallwork were playing in a heated play-off game against Antwerp’s rivals La Louviere. It was settled by an injury-time goal that Higginbotham describes as “five yards offside” and frustration took over.

Referee Amand Ancion claimed he was assaulted by the two United players in the tunnel. Wallwork was banned for life and Higginbotham for a year, punishments that were eventually overturned.

“It was all a load of rubbish,” Higginbotham says now.

“At the end of the game everyone was frustrated, there was advertising hoardings around the edge of the pitch and I kicked one in my frustration and got my foot stuck, so I went into the tunnel later than everyone else.

“As I walked into the tunnel it was chaotic, there was fighting everywhere. As we’re walking towards the dressing room one of the officials has got his hands on our goalkeeping coach. Ronnie is in front of me, he pulls the goalkeeping coach out of the way and grabs the official. I pushed Ronnie to the side and said ‘just get in the dressing room’.”

That was it, but back at the hotel, Bistiaux told the players they couldn’t play after Ancion’s complaints. Bistiaux flew to Manchester and had to explain the events to Sir Alex Ferguson at the Cliff.

“That was all credit to Sir Alex, he could have stopped it there and then but he didn’t,” he said.

“I explained to him what happened and gave him the full story and he understood what had gone wrong. He could have pulled the plug, but I’m ever so grateful that we continued and built a very good relationship both professional and personal.”

Dong Fangzhuo poses in Antwerp while on loan from United

Not only did Ferguson not pull the plug, but he went above and beyond to help Higginbotham and Wallwork.

“We went to the Belgian FA headquarters in Brussels, Sir Alex, having just won the treble, came over to give me and Ronnie character references,” added Higginbotham.

“That meant so much to me, we were just snotty nose kids, but he still took time to fly to Belgium to help us.

“I’d love to have sat down and had a coffee with the referee later on in life to ask him why he did that? No anger, no resentment, just to know his thinking behind it, because from the beginning it was a complete and utter farce.

“That’s something I’ll never get the answer to, but it was really frustrating and stressful for me at that time. It got to the point where I’d be going out for training and I’d just get these ridiculous nosebleeds that wouldn’t stop for an hour. It was a really hard time.”

Higginbotham eventually won the fans over and he was the first of many United players to be taken to the hearts of the locals. Fraizer Campbell became a hero for his goalscoring exploits, Jonny Evans was a rock at the back and experienced Belgian striker Patrick Goots once described the unheralded Kirk Hilton as the best of the lot, but few made as big an impact as Luke Chadwick.

“They flew me out to watch a game just before Christmas 1999, it was an incredible experience,” he told the Manchester Evening News.

“The stadium was full and the atmosphere was electric, there were smokes and flares, it had a real European feel to it and I couldn’t wait to get out there and get going.”

Chadwick went out the season after Higginbotham and Wallwork and there were plenty of jibes from his new teammates about not arguing with referees. And while the previous season ended in heartbreak, this time Antwerp stormed to the title and promotion.

“The atmosphere was electric. They were incredibly passionate fans. I came on in my first game and managed to score a goal and the fans started signing my name,” said Chadwick.

“I’d never experienced that before in my life and the feeling that gives you was absolutely amazing.”

Chadwick was adored by the fans for his thrilling wing play and after the final game of the season he was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of supporters.

“We won the league with about five games to go,” he said. “The last home game there was hairdressers in the dressing room, spray painting our hair red and white, which was quite a surreal experience. I can’t ever imagine coming in at United and painting your hair red and white.

“It was a really big party, we were on the steps of the town hall with thousands of people on the main square, a beautiful part of Antwerp, it was brilliant to experience that.”

Chadwick has been back to Antwerp countless times since for a mini-break and it was a city he “fell in love with”. After promotion, he went back the following season and played half a year in the top division, before being recalled by United.

Like so many others he improved significantly as a player for his experience with Antwerp.

“I had Danny Simpson, Jonny Evans, Fraizer Campbell and Darron Gibson with me to start with,” said Joyce, who managed Antwerp from 2006 to 2008. “They went as young kids and came back as Premier League players.

“Jonny Evans within six months became a man mountain, he was supposed to be there for the season but he was doing so well that they parked him back at Sunderland and he helped get them promoted. If he’d have stayed there I think Antwerp would have got promoted instead of Sunderland.

“They put Ryan Shawcross there who was a bit less experienced, still did a good job but Jonny was just a little bit older and more experienced.

“Frazier Campbell was a superstar out there, he came back and ripped it up over here in the Championship.

“Craig Cathcart was a bit younger, not as strong, having to live in the shadows of Jonny a bit, but kicked on and had a fantastic career.”

There were others who have Antwerp as an early destination on their footballing roadmaps, such as John O’Shea, Phil Bardsley and Tom Heaton, but not all loans felt significant at the time.

Heaton’s journey has come full circle, from promising United youngster sent off to Antwerp to being back at the club as third-choice goalkeeper at the age of 35.

But his spell in Belgium was unfulfilling, even if he now looks back and realises how much he actually got from it. Heaton had just played 19 games in League One for Swindon but midway through the 2005/2006 season, United felt he would be well suited by a move to Antwerp.

“I went over there with high hopes and didn’t play. I don’t know whether they sort of forced me on them or they weren’t particularly keen, but not only did I not play I couldn’t get on the bench. It was a disaster on the football side to be brutally honest,” Heaton told the Manchester Evening News.

“It was one of the biggest turning points in my career, in that you’re away from the shiny walls of Manchester United. Antwerp were a club that were in the second division at the time, a big history and a massive football club but going through a difficult time in their history.

“Training ground conditions were different, where we were staying, organising our own food, it was taking a bit of ownership of your whole life really.

“Looking back after my three-and-a-half months of not playing a single first-team game, not training particularly well and probably not dealing with the things you need to get right off the pitch, in your gym work, your diet, how you’re living, I didn’t get it right and it was a real marker for me that outside of the walls of United and Carrington you have to take some serious responsibility on that.

“I remember Tony Coton came out to watch one day. I had a good afternoon with him, he was brilliant. He said to me ‘it’s obviously not ideal circumstances, we can bring you back if you want, that’s an option, but because you’re registered you won’t be able to play, and I think it will be better for you if you see it through’.

“That was 100% the right decision, to see it all the way through, learn and take as much as you can from it. I now see it as one of my best experiences, not because it was all positive but because of what I took out from it and what you learn from it.”

Heaton ended up playing reserve team football and experienced a mindset where games weren’t to be called off, no matter what. He played one game in trainers on a frozen pitch and recalls another goalless draw on a similarly difficult pitch, a couple of hours from Antwerp.

“We were sat on the coach for ages after the game, then there was an older coach, a really good guy, he came running down the hill, jumped on the bus and said a couple of their lads had forgotten their documents for the game so it means we win 4-0.

“We partied all the way back to Antwerp. We whacked the tunes on back on the bus, everyone started dancing, it was so different, a great experience.”

Higginbotham talks of a dressing room of divergent nationalities that was as unified as he’s ever known, partly thanks to the war in Yugoslavia, with players from both sides in the same dressing room.

“You had lads in that dressing room who didn’t know if they had family members who were still alive and you had lads who were on other sides, lads whose countries were at war with each other, but the way that unified the dressing room, the life experiences I got from that were absolutely phenomenal,” he said.

“That year was the biggest learning curve for me on and off the pitch than nearly every other year.”

But for Heaton the experience wasn’t the same and he wasn’t always made to feel that welcome.

Cristiano Ronaldo in action for United during their friendly against Antwerp to mark their 125th anniversary

“Some were and the club were pleased to have us and some lads were playing really well,” he said. “But their players weren’t always that welcoming to it, especially at the start when it’s all new, it could be difficult.”

The experience was often all the more enjoyable for United’s players because they were out there with teammates from the academy.

As with any group of teenagers set free in a foreign country, there could be high-jinx and the odd night out.

“It’s a completely different culture going out there, you can go out at midnight after a game, we found ourselves in karaoke bars most of the time because we didn’t know where to go,” remembers Chadwick.

“It was certainly easier to go out in Belgium than it was in the UK and we enjoyed ourselves off the pitch and made the most of the experience of being young people living in a different country.”

Higginbotham had some good nights out too and most of them turned out to be free.

“All the players were sponsored, but we weren’t sponsored by companies, we were sponsored by pubs,” he said.

“Belgian beer is like rocket fuel, every now and then you’d have to go to your sponsor’s pub, you wouldn’t spend a penny but you’d come out and be drunk.

“The manager was brilliant, he was always of the mind that if you’re winning and going out, take care but it’s ok. It created this fantastic atmosphere.”

Free time wasn’t as easy to come by for Heaton, who was at the club with Simpson, Lee Martin, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Adam Eckersley.

“We were in the Crowne Plaza hotel. The club didn’t want us to eat in the hotel because it was too expensive,” he said.

“We had breakfast at the football club but for lunch and dinner they had an agreement with a restaurant that was half an hour away from the hotel.

“We’d finish training, back to the hotel, half an hour to the restaurant, half an hour back, few hours in the hotel then we’d have to drive half an hour back to the restaurant and back again. There were a few service station dinners there, I can tell you that.”

All along it was a partnership backed by Ferguson, who immediately saw the benefits it could have for the best young players coming through the academy.

He was so grateful he sent a full-strength team over for a friendly in 2005 to mark Antwerp’s 125th anniversary.

“He promised me a long time before and he’s a man of his word,” said Bistiaux. “The match was one of the highlights in Antwerp’s history.”

The final United loanee to head to Antwerp was Davide Petrucci in 2014, but in a way there is still a connection there. Ritchie De Laet began his career at Antwerp, eventually made the opposite journey to United but is now back at his hometown club as captain. Antwerp finished second in Belgium’s top division last season and are third in 2021/22.

Bistiaux has retired from his role at the club now, but he remains in touch with some of the United figures he grew close to during a flourishing partnership.

“I’m still very friendly with Jim Ryan, once a year we meet up either over here or in England. I used to be in touch with Maurice until he died,” he said.

“I’m still in touch occasionally with Danny Higginbotham, Luke Chadwick, John O’Shea. I’m still in touch with a few of what I like to call my ex-players.”

There are plenty of ex-players that have forged good careers that will always owe a debt of gratitude to Antwerp.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.