English clubs will be disadvantaged by new Brexit rules on signing young players from overseas, says Manchester United head of academy Nick Cox.
From 1 January, all players moving to England from overseas must be at least 18 years old, and qualify for entry through a points-based system.
The rules were agreed between the Premier League, Football League, Football Association and Home Office.
“We wish there was a level playing field but there won’t be,” Cox said.
The new rules bring to an end the current arrangement, which means clubs can sign players from the age of 16 and which have seen players such as Cesc Fabregas, Paul Pogba and Hector Bellerin move to England.
United’s Under-18 squad contains nine players born outside the UK, including 17-year-old forward Hannibal Mejbri, who was signed from Monaco for a fee that could eventually reach £9.1m.
Asked about the new rules, Cox told BBC Sport: “It probably puts us at a disadvantage to other European clubs.
“There will be movement of players between clubs in other European countries but they won’t be able to move to our club at the age of 16, as they currently can.”
But Cox’s answer hints at one way round the problem.
Through their City Football Group umbrella, the owners of Manchester City already have a significant stake in three clubs still in the European Union – Girona, Lommel SK and Troyes AC, who play in the second divisions in Spain, Belgium and France respectively.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have a very close relationship with Vitesse Arnhem – who are fourth in the Dutch top division – sending numerous players there on loan, including England international Mason Mount.
The new rules forbid English clubs signing under-18s, but there would be nothing to prevent those ‘partners’ doing it on their behalf.
“I wouldn’t suggest it is circumnavigating the rules,” said Cox. “It is within the rules.”
United had a similar tie-up with Royal Antwerp, but that started to wane before Sir Alex Ferguson retired as Red Devils boss in 2013.
Cox refused to say whether the Old Trafford club were looking at strengthening those existing links – or looking elsewhere.
But United will not stand aside and leave the market to rival clubs.
“Our mandate was always to recruit the best talent available to us and we absolutely will continue to recruit the best talent that is available to us,” Cox said.
“We do not want to break the rules but there will be a number of strategies we believe we can execute within the rules that will help us to continue to uphold the traditions of youth development within our football club that we are very proud of.
“We have had a long time to plan and prepare for 31 December. We feel we are in a good place and know where we are going given the limitations and restrictions Brexit will ultimately bring.”
Cox was speaking on behalf of United’s academy in recognition of its receipt of the Coaching Chain award from UK Coaching – this year’s award having gone jointly to anyone who has been involved in the development of England striker Marcus Rashford.
The 23-year-old’s remarkable impact in highlighting the issue of child poverty in the UK – and his willingness to take on the government over the specific issue of free school meals during the coronavirus pandemic – has taken him beyond the boundaries of a football field.
“Quite often the phrase used about Marcus is that he is an ordinary person doing extraordinary things,” said Cox.
“That is the magic of this. He is just a local boy who had a difficult upbringing but has found himself, through his own efforts, in a position where he can help and influence ordinary kids who are just like he was.
“For him to tackle the issue head on is a wonderful thing. We are incredibly proud of him. We like to think we have positively impacted on Marcus and his development but it would be foolish of us to take the credit for what he is achieving.
“This is about him and his personal desire and drive to make change.”