Asian players are still thin on the ground in English football. There are some good prospects but, believes Gavin Willacy, the round-ball game should look at the success of rugby league in this area

Two years ago WSC 225 focused on the Asians Can Play Football campaign. Of the four British Asians playing professionally then, Michael Chopra, the mixed-race son of an Indian grocer, is trying to prove he is a Premier League-quality striker with Sunderland, and QPR midfielder Zesh Rehman has clocked up nearly 100 appearances in the Championship. They are making a career – and a lot of money – from football. Adnan Ahmed is on the fringes at Tranmere and Harpal Singh – who got into Leeds’ squad but didn’t play a first-team game there – is coming to the end of an injury-ravaged season in Ireland, sitting on the bench for Bohemians. Coming into the League this season has been former West Ham trainee Anwar Uddin, after captaining Dagenham & Redbridge to the Conference title.

But all of these players are in their mid-20s and are experiencing the varying fluctuations of a typical pro football career. It is to the youth teams that we must look for the next generation of British Asian pros. Kick It Out claims that there are around 70 British Asians in pro club academies. But that averages out at about two per academy. Across a ten-year age group, that is still a minuscule number.

Working in youth football, I see an Asian player maybe every few games. I would be surprised if there were more than one or two in every hundred teenagers trying to become a pro. Barnet’s academy has just two among nearly 80 players: one Nepalese, the other Mauritian. Neither is from the strongly Asian areas of north London. Two years ago, Vijay Sidhu and Rikki Bains were in a highly successful Coventry City youth team, but neither are still in pro football: Bains is in Blue Square North with Tamworth after a few games at Accrington, while Sidhu appears to be without a club.

Perhaps the best prospects are Walsall defender Netan Sansara and Charlton striker Rashid Yussuff, both members of the England Under-18 team this year. But with so much resting on so few, there is huge potential for disappointment. There could soon be just two recognisably British Asian players left in the League.

“Recognisably” British Asian because there are also Asian players who are not perceived as such by the public or press: former Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United striker Jack Lester, now at Chesterfield, was brought up in Sheffield by a white family but quietly acknowledges his Asian roots.

Cricket is mining a seam of talent from both the privileged upper middle classes of Anglo-Indian society and the cricket-obsessed Pakistani and Bangladeshi working classes and could field an England XI of British Asians. But a closer point of comparison for football would be rugby league, a sport rooted in working-class urban communities, where many UK Asian families live. League, a sport approximately ­one‑twentieth the size of football, appears to be having more – if limited – success in providing opportunities for British Asians. Look at the squads for Super League clubs and any Asian-sounding name you see will probably belong to a Pacific islander. But a few Asians crop up lower down the scale. Safraz Patel is a regular in the National League, while the leading amateur leagues feature a Malik, an Abdul, a Rashid. Even Scotland have fielded four Asian players at A-team level in recent seasons.

That presence should increase. Abdul Khan grabbed headlines last year when he signed pro for Bradford Bulls. A regular for their under-18s last summer, the back-row from Birstall has a bright future. “It’s a great opportunity for me being the first Asian to sign for Bradford and hopefully it will encourage others to get into the game,” he said. “Rugby league is not really a big sport for Asians, but it’d be great to see more and more playing at Bradford. I don’t think it’s been publicised enough in the Asian community but it is an awesome game to play.”

But he was not the first: Saqib Murtza was at Bradford at under-18 level, then played for Salford City Reds Under-21s last season and has just become the first Asian to sign for Batley Bulldogs. Like Khan, Murtza rebuts just about every stereotype in the bigot’s book: a 20-year-old prop forward, he’s big, strong, tough and expected to become a first-team regular in National League One.

The forefather of these lads is Ikram Butt, who became the first British Asian to play for England at rugby when he played against Wales in 1995. Butt played at the top level for London Broncos as well as working in the grassroots as a development officer, sports politician, an important mover and shaker in Asian communities in West Yorkshire and beyond. He is now leading BARA, the British Asian Rugby Association.

Despite being seen by most as the preserve of the northern, working-class, white male, and all the negative connotations of that, rugby league has a surprisingly rich history of inclusiveness. There were more black players in league in the Sixties than in football in the early Seventies. More than 20 years before Paul Ince became England’s first black football captain, Welshman Clive Sullivan skippered Great Britain to victory in the 1972 World Cup final. Individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds have also coached and managed Great Britain (Ellery Hanley and Abi Ekoku respectively), while there were at least three black British assistant coaches at the 12 Super League clubs in 2007. The only non-white managers in the Premier League to date have been foreign.

In league it seems to be a case of “what you can do” rather than “who you are” or “where you come from”. Maybe football could learn from them in enabling all ­ethnic minorities to fulfil their talent. 

From WSC 250 December 2007


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