Football: Antwerp nursery for Old Trafford

MANCHESTER UNITED are signing a feeder deal with the Belgian club, Royal Antwerp, to groom their stars of the future. United have struck up an agreement with Antwerp to loan young players and use the club as a way round United's problems of signing the best teenage talent from around the world.

The United manager, Alex Ferguson, set the deal in motion when he asked United to find him a nursery team who could take on the likes of South American and African players, who cannot get work permits in England unless they are established internationals.

The key to the deal is the more liberal work permit regulations in Belgium - in Britain at present, non-European Union players must be recognised as senior internationals, a handicap that has hindered United and helped their Spanish and Italian rivals in the past.

The plan is for United to finance the transfers of a handful of young Brazilians, Argentinians and Africans in the coming months, who will all join Antwerp. United will then foot the bill for all the expenses involved in bringing foreign players to Europe.

"We do have regulations, but they are not as severe as in England," Antwerp's secretary, Paul Bistiaux, said last night. "In Belgium you can get a work permit more easily, based on a minimum salary. If you have the promise of a job paying pounds 10,000 a year you are allowed in."

United's scouts have been scouring South America and Africa for months, attempting to earmark the best emerging talent and now can bring them in under their wing at Antwerp.

"Who signs will be United's decision," Bistiaux added. "They will also make all of the financial arrangements. We hope to have some of the best young players in the world at our club and we are proud to have these links between us. The co-operation will be strictly on the field. United are not buying the club, they are using us for a mutual benefit."

Bistiaux revealed that Arsenal had approached Antwerp first, during last season, but they wanted a complete takeover. Antwerp, a club with a proud and famous tradition, did not want that.

United have already let their talented left-back, Danny Higginbottom, go to Antwerp on loan. However, the main advantage will be recruiting the best non-EC talent, and there could be some arrivals within a month.

Once the leading foreign youngsters settle in Belgium they will qualify for EU citizenship after a couple of years and are then free to move on to United. who will have first call on their services.

In the near future, work permit rules for footballers may alter, with moves in the pipeline to allow clubs up to five non-EU players, regardless of their international experience.

Manchester United would not confirm the deal yesterday. "We are talking to a Belgian club, but I can't say which one," said Peter Kenyon, United's deputy chief executive yesterday. "Nothing has been finalised yet."

None the less, United's quick thinking has left their rivals trailing, but undoubtedly leading clubs will now look at this as a way of getting round the system. Arsenal have looked into the concept while Liverpool may also follow suit. However the amount of money involved may restrict the number able to pursue such an ambitious plan which will require invest- ment but should inevitably pay dividends.