Man United's Belgian link proved mutually beneficial

As they prepare to play Anderlecht again, Royal Antwerp had productive ties with the club especially about 2006-07

Royal Antwerp, Belgium, 1998, Manchester United

The exterior of the Bosuilstadion, home of Royal Antwerp in December 1998. Matthew Ashton/EMPICS Sport

Over the years, Manchester United have had just a handful of Belgian players on their books.

The fact that Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj are the two most high profile probably doesn't say much.

But as Jose Mourinho's side welcome Belgian record champions Anderlecht to Old Trafford tonight after drawing their Europa League quarter final first leg 1-1, another of the country's clubs had long ties with Man United.

Step forward Royal Antwerp, a club founded all the way back in 1880 but which had a partnership with the English record champions from 1998.

Royal Antwerp's successes are in the distant past, having won the last of their Belgian league titles 60 years ago in 1957. In 1992-93, they also made it all the way to the final of the old European Cup Winners Cup off the back of winning the Belgian Cup the previous season. But these days, they play in the second tier of Belgian football.

However, the link with United meant that they were able to avail of some of the Red Devils' young talent on loan.

For example, Ireland international Darron Gibson spent the 2006-07 season at Antwerp, having made his senior United debut but before he was involved in a Premier League match.

He's not the only former Man United first teamer to have cut his footballing teeth at the Belgian club. 

Current West Brom and Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans did the same for the first half of the same season, playing 11 times for Antwerp.

Other former United loanees to the club all around the same time period include Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross, Crystal Palace forward Frazier Campbell, Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton and Leicester City's Premier League winning right back Danny Simpson. All went on to make the grade at Premier League level to varying degrees of success.

That loan system was also in turn beneficial for the parent club by giving young talent the opportunity to play senior regular football in a less pressurised environment. 

It also had other advantages. In the case of Chinese striker Dong Fangzhuo, who did not make the grade at Old Trafford, the player was loaned out to the feeder club while Man United awaited a work permit that would allow him to play in the Premier League.

Manchester United vs Anderlecht kicks off at 8.05pm.