Blazing a trail

Zesh Rehman has been praised for his work in the Asian community but not on the pitch. Jason McKeown explains

Saturday March 7, 2009, Bradford City are thrashing Aldershot Town 5-0 to climb into fourth place in League Two. Around Valley Parade there are Mexican waves, but in quieter moments a pocket of dissenting home fans can be heard protesting their displeasure. “We want Zesh!” is their loud, high-pitched cry. These were no regular supporters but children from local schools, predominantly Asian. And their vocal disapproval, aired during Bradford’s biggest win for 11 years, was due to the benching of Pakistan international centre-back Zesh Rehman.

It was more than a coincidence that, a few weeks after Bradford appointed its first-ever Asian ambassador – entrepreneur Omar Khan – to encourage more Asians to support their local club, Rehman arrived on a five-month loan deal. He became the first player of Pakistani background to play for Bradford – a city where over 20 per cent of the population is Asian.

More importantly for manager Stuart McCall, Rehman had a strong pedigree which eased fears he was a commercially motivated signing. Zesh began his career in the Premier League with Fulham, before spending three years at QPR. His Bradford arrival prompted a flurry of local and national media interest, and Rehman quickly became used to fielding journalists’ questions about why there aren’t more Asians making it in professional football. Rehman was regularly out in Bradford’s Asian communities promoting the virtues of supporting your local team. A sudden increase in school visits to matches and Zesh chants suggested a portion of Bradford’s public had a new sporting hero.

But for seasoned supporters, the main concern was Rehman’s performances. Deployed in an unfamiliar right-back position, Zesh struggled to impress – though he wasn’t helped by the team’s form collapsing at the wrong time. The Aldershot thrashing was followed by a nine-game winless run which destroyed Bradford’s promotion hopes. In the season’s final game, Rehman played his natural centre-back position and impressed. He was signed on a permanent contract and named club captain.

With the playing budget slashed, McCall’s more cheaply assembled squad failed to mount a promotion challenge the following season. Rehman, playing in central defence, particularly struggled. Some decent performances were overshadowed by a number of weak displays and individual errors. Twice in a matter of weeks he was hauled off at half-time, but no matter how poorly he performed, Rehman would usually keep his place the following week. This prompted malicious rumours from some supporters, chiefly that he had a clause in his contract stating he must always play. No evidence ever came to light, but that many fans were willing to believe it underlined how lowly they rated him.

As for his presence encouraging more Asians to support Bradford, that seemed to fail too. In April joint-chairman Mark Lawn was quoted as saying: “I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been very slow and we haven’t had any intake [of British Asian fans] at all.” Rehman continued to devote hours to community work. He even established the Zesh Rehman Foundation, aimed at providing Asian children with more opportunities to make it into sport.

Back on the pitch McCall resigned as manager in February 2010, with promotion hopes over. Peter Taylor took charge and, for the rest of the season, continued to select Rehman despite his inconsistency. At Easter another Rehman error gifted Macclesfield a goal, which lead to a section of supporters booing his every touch. Taylor kept faith and a week later, when Rehman played well and scored, he raced over to embrace the manager in thanks. He ended 2009-10 in excellent form.

This season, however, he was kept out of the starting 11 by new signings and limited to occasional opportunities at right-back when injuries struck. Ironically Rehman was playing better than ever and when he played results improved, but Taylor kept signing inexperienced defenders on loan to play ahead of him. Clearly upset at being overlooked, Rehman used his media profile to declare publically his unhappiness. He even told David Cameron, after being invited to a Downing Street reception to celebrate the “immense contributions” of Asians to Britain.

Taylor’s patience with Rehman’s outbursts was wearing thin, and another interview in December – where Zesh claimed his team-mates couldn’t understand why he wasn’t playing – proved the final straw. Taylor stuck him on the transfer list and two weeks later he signed for the Thai champions, Muangthong Utd.

Where this leaves Rehman’s legacy, not least his foundation, is unclear. Undoubtedly he has made some impact in the communities of Bradford, but extra numbers attending on a Saturday have been minimal to nil. Clearly attracting more Asian supporters isn’t a quick-fix and could take years to bear fruit, but Rehman’s time at the club made it clear that the presence of an Asian player in the team – whether merited or gimmicky – isn’t enough on its own to win people over. Particularly if that target audience is left unhappy about a 5-0 win.

From WSC 288 February 2011