England boss Gareth Southgate and Mesut Ozil lend support to British South Asians in football; Arjan Raikhy makes Aston Villa debut and wins FA Youth Cup; Sky Sports reveals first South Asian heritage England player; Singhs' make history; Shadab Iftikhar lands managerial role in Scotland
Friday 31 December 2021 16:08, UK
It's been a rollercoaster 12 months across football, but 2021 will also go down as the biggest year for British South Asians in the history of the English game.
Three Premier League youngsters signed their first professional deals, taking the number of British South Asian footballers in England's top flight up to five, with 16 players from the community contracted across the divisions last season.
Zidane Iqbal and Dilan Markanday hit the headlines after making their first-team debuts in Europe - for Manchester United and Tottenham, respectively, while history was also made in the Sky Bet Championship, in the FA Cup and at Wembley.
The first South Asian heritage England international was revealed in a year that also saw the growth of the British South Asian supporters' movement.
Sky Sports News had it covered from all angles - we look back at an unforgettable year in 2021 for British South Asians in football…
The year started with a bang as teenager Arjan Raikhy made a surprise debut for Aston Villa against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool in the FA Cup third round in January.
Villa fielded a youthful line-up after a Covid outbreak forced their first-team squad and coaching staff into isolation. Louie Barry scored a shock opener before Villa were eventually beaten 4-1, with Raikhy starting in central midfield.
As fate would have it, Villa's youngsters would earn another crack at Liverpool at the end of the season - this time in the FA Youth Cup final. Raikhy was named man of the match as he helped steer Villa to a 2-1 win, becoming the first British South Asian player to win the FA Youth Cup since Anwar Uddin with West Ham in 1999.
The 19-year-old signed his professional contract with the club ahead of the current campaign and is currently gaining valuable senior experience on loan at Conference side Stockport County.
The following month saw the launch of Sky Sports' first-of-its-kind South Asians in Football index page, aimed at directly tackling the community's lack of representation in top-level football by shining a light on those making strides in the game.
February also saw the PFA introduce the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme, aimed at enhancing the experience of South Asian footballers at all levels of the professional game by creating a structured network of support that allows them to thrive.
Danny Batth, Neil Taylor, Otis Khan and Zesh Rehman are among the senior footballers mentoring scholars and emerging pros, with those players, in turn, sharing their academy experiences with their younger peers.
But things turned sour days later when one of Britain's highest-profile South Asian footballers, Yan Dhanda, was sent racist abuse on Instagram after Swansea's FA Cup fifth-round tie with Manchester City.
The abuse came as English football bodies joined forces to send an open letter to Facebook and Twitter demanding action, amid increased levels of abuse aimed at footballers and officials on social media. A Facebook spokesperson said the racist abuse directed at Dhanda was "completely unacceptable".
Dhanda spoke exclusively to Sky Sports News after the incident to express his gratitude for the messages of support from across the community. Britain's first Sikh female Member of Parliament, Birmingham Edgbaston MP Preet Kaur Gill, called for better support for players targeted by online hate.
"Yan Dhanda has been a trailblazer for South Asians in football and I want to see more South Asians at the top of their game, but if that's to happen we need to deal with the appalling racism they face," she told Sky Sports News.
"For years now social media has been a Wild West where anything goes, and that has to change. The tech giants have summarily failed to act when it has been left to them, which is why we need strong powers and penalties in the Online Harms Bill."
Many have waited decades to see a South Asian heritage footballer play in an England shirt, but many already have without realising it.
In March, Sky Sports News helped rewrite history by delivering the news that Luton Town great Ricky Hill is not only England's fourth Black player, but also became the first British South Asian footballer to represent England at senior level when he turned out for the national team in the 1980s.
Club legend Hill helped Luton win the old Second Division in 1982, featuring in more than 500 games for the Hatters including the epic 3-2 victory against Arsenal in the 1988 League Cup final.
Hill's mother is Jamaican but his family on his father's side are from India. Hill's great-grandparents moved to Jamaica from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
The former midfielder's grandfather, John Hill, was originally named Gurcharan, which was a popular Hindu and Punjabi name at the time.
Hill made three international appearances, with his England debut coming as a substitute in a European Qualifier against Denmark on September 22, 1982.
Ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Sky Sports worked with Birmingham City Women to help U16s academy player Layla Banaras launch her Ramadan nutrition guide and meal planner.
When Banaras discovered there were few resources available to young Muslim athletes who were fasting during the month, she teamed up with Birmingham City and sports nutritionist Isobel Cotham to do something about it.
The tough-tackling defender, whose role models include Afghan-origin Denmark international Nadia Nadim, said she also hopes to be able to inspire girls who want to make it in the game.
"I don't see many people who look like me, but hopefully I can show them that they can," Banaras said.
"You don't see many Muslim women playing football. I hope I can be someone who they can look up to one day and say: 'Yeah, I can do that'."
Also in April, Sky Sports News broke the news that Sikh-Punjabi brothers Bhups and Sunny Singh Gill were making English Football League history as the first pair of British South Asians to officiate in the same Championship game.
The match took place on April 10, four days before one of Sikhism's most important festivals, Vaisakhi, which is widely celebrated across India and beyond.
Bhups and Sunny are sons of the first turbaned Sikh to referee in the English Football League, Jarnail Singh, and were part of the officiating quartet for Bristol City's Championship clash with Nottingham Forest.
"I always say perception is reality," former referee Dermot Gallagher told Sky Sports News.
"What people see is what they believe and people seeing Asian boys refereeing or running the line in the Championship, possibly in the Premier League - it sends out the message that you can do this, it's there if you want it."
That was followed in May by Sunderland Sikh-Punjabi twins Amar and Arjun Singh Purewal becoming the first South Asian brothers to line up against each other in a Wembley Cup final, as Hebburn Town took on Consett in the FA Vase.
Arjun led Consett out as captain but it was Amar who came away with a winners' medal, opening the scoring in a 3-2 victory for Hebburn over their North-East rivals.
"To play at Wembley, win, and to go home with the trophy is an absolute dream come true. It's been one of the best weeks of my life," Amar told Sky Sports News.
"It's a little bittersweet because I'm gutted for my brother, but I'm proud to score at Wembley. Not many South Asians, let alone Sikh boys have done that. It's a moment I'll never forget."
Arjun was devastated to lose but said he was thrilled for his twin brother, adding: "There's a much bigger picture here and that's giving and showing kids - particularly British South Asian kids - belief that they can also make it in football.
"We need better representation at every level of the game. Amar and I are determined to play a more important part in this push, starting at home in the beautiful North East."
Later in the month, Hamza Choudhury became the first British South Asian to win the FA Cup under the arch at Wembley, coming on as a substitute in Leicester City's 1-0 win over Chelsea.
Reacting to Choudhury's triumph, the first-Muslim member of the FA Council Yunus Lunat told Sky Sports News: "It's extremely difficult and challenging for the South Asian community [in football] but when we have role models like this - and this is a huge moment - it really needs to be celebrated, it really needs to be magnified and used as an example to inspire the next generation.
"It tells them that there are opportunities there by doing the right things. Yes, there are challenges but dreams can be achieved.
"He is a role model for the whole of the South Asian community. It's a huge moment, a huge moment in modern-day football."
English-based duo Marvin Hamilton and Dillon De Silva also had plenty to celebrate after making their full debuts for Sri Lanka, with both also getting their first goals at senior international level.
The end of the season saw Wales international Neil Taylor leave Aston Villa after three-and-a-half years with the club. Fellow left-back Mal Benning was also on the move, joining Port Vale after more than 250 appearances across six seasons for Mansfield Town.
England youth international goalkeeper Rohan Luthra ended his decade-long association with Crystal Palace to join Sky Bet Championship side Cardiff City.
In the FA Women's Championship, Simran Jhamat made a historic move to Bristol City, with Mille Chandarana making a return to Blackburn after a spell in Italy's top division, Serie A Feminine.
Manisha Tailor was also promoted to assistant head of academy coaching at QPR, becoming the only South Asian female to hold such a position in men's professional football.
South Asian Heritage Month celebrations in the UK reached fever pitch when Sky Sports News exclusively revealed former Dagenham & Redbridge captain Anwar Uddin was going to become the first British South Asian former player to become a member of the FA Council.
Uddin, who is the first British-Bangladeshi to play professional football, heads up the Fans for Diversity campaign and set up a virtual meeting between Gareth Southgate and official Three Lions' supporters' group Apna England earlier in the year.
Southgate was praised by the group for listening intently and speaking openly during the call, with the England boss later acknowledging South Asian communities have been overlooked in football, suggesting an alternative approach to scouting as one of the measures required to improve representation.
"Sometimes the Asian voice has been lost in the anti-discrimination argument," England manager Southgate said, in the 'Football for Me' FA video series.
"And when you look at the percentages of the population that we're talking about, it's high numbers. Frankly, it's a big talent pool that we're missing within football. It's like in any business. If you're only selecting from a smaller section of the population, then what are you missing?
"We should be looking at how we scout. Historically, there has been a sort of unconscious bias, maybe the perception that some Asian players were not as athletic, they weren't as strong [as other players]. That is such a ridiculous generalisation.
"We've got to be creative [with scouting] in getting into the places where some of these kids might be playing and encouraging them into broader leagues where they can be assessed more easily against other players, to then make that step into the academy system.
"What I've noticed with the England team in recent seasons is that dynamic in terms of the supporters coming up to me has changed a lot, far more Asian people, coming up to me, talking about their pride in the team, talking about the diversity of the team.
"That could only be even more powerful if someone from the Asian community was in the team as well, and we had that greater representation across the board."
The summer also saw Preeti Shetty join Brentford as a non-executive director, becoming the only South Asian woman in a Premier League boardroom.
Sky Sports News revealed back in March that Brentford were taking the rare step of advertising for a board member in their bid to become the most inclusive football club in the country.
After a fiercely competitive recruitment process, Brentford opted to make two ethnically diverse appointments with Deji Davies and Shetty both joining the Board ahead of the club's first season in the Premier League.
Brentford chairman Cliff Crown said: "As we went through the process, it became clear that there were many exceptional candidates interested in the role.
"Preeti and Deji made it to the final round and after the final interviews we could not choose between them. Given they bring different skills, we decided the best decision for the future of the club was to appoint them both."
October saw World Cup winner Mesut Ozil add his voice to calls for more opportunities across football for British South Asians.
Fenerbahce star Ozil joined forces with partners including Bradford City, the University of Bradford and the Football Association to open the Mesut Ozil Football for Peace development centre in Bradford.
"I have always been surprised why the South Asian Community are only allowed to be fans of the game," World Cup winner the former Arsenal attacking midfielder Ozil said.
"Why are we not seeing more players or managers breaking into professional football? I want to promote them, give them an opportunity to be successful both on and off the pitch.
"I myself am from an ethnically diverse background and understand the challenges. I hope the Football for Peace Mesut Ozil Centre will become the platform they need."
Later that month, Spurs' Dilan Markanday made a trailblazing appearance in the Europa Conference League, coming off the bench against Vitesse Arnhem to become the first British South Asian player in Tottenham's 139-year history.
Markanday's achievement has rightly been celebrated as a significant moment for the player, the club and the community, but the 20-year-old Barnet-born attacking midfielder does not want to stop there.
"I hope more and more come through and I am the first of many," he said.
"I hope that lots of British Asians make that step, believe in themselves, back themselves and can come through and show what they can do.
"I hope they all see it and like it and are inspired by it, I hope they keep supporting me, following me and hopefully one of those watching will go on and do it themselves.
"The dream is to play for Tottenham for the next 15 years, playing every game, but obviously I know things might not work out and there are going to be ups and downs. Being around the first team has made me want it even more. It has made me hungry and I want to be in that environment every day for the next 15 years."
The celebrations continued into November with the Punjabi Rams supporters' group stepping in to become a shirt sleeve sponsor in a landmark deal with Derby County Women. The Punjabi Rams would go on to win the Fans for Diversity accolade at the Football Supporters' Association Awards later in the month.
Wolves technical director Scott Sellars predicted a bright future in the game for Kam Kandola after the 17-year-old put pen to paper on his first contract in senior football.
"Kam is a great representative of the South Asian community in Wolverhampton," Sellars said.
"There is a real shortage of players from that background in football in general, but we want our club to reflect our local community.
"I'd love to think that South Asian kids growing up in Wolverhampton will see Kam as a great role model because he's done a lot of work in telling his story and how it has been for him to get to where he's at.
"Hopefully he'll inspire more local boys, not only those who share his background, to believe that they can do it because they've seen Kam do it."
Shadab Ifthikar then landed the manager's job at Highland League side Fort William, with Sky Sports News revealing the Belgium scout was becoming the first manager of South Asian heritage in senior Scottish football.
The Preston-born former Mongolia assistant manager said: "I was shocked when I heard that. I'm still in shock, to be honest with you [that I'm the first South Asian managerial appointment in senior Scottish football].
"Football has to reflect society. We know it's time for change, we know that different things need to happen in the game.
"We've all got to work together to tackle the problem, and make sure that we continue to fight consistently, every day to show what the beautiful game of football should look like."
The following week saw 18-year-old Zidane Iqbal take to the field at Old Trafford to become the first British South Asian footballer in Manchester United's history.
Manchester-born Iqbal, who has both Pakistani and Iraqi heritage, came on as a late substitute for Jesse Lingard in the 1-1 draw against Young Boys to make his Champions League debut.
Iqbal said: "It feels amazing, I've been working my whole life for this opportunity, it's a dream come true, it's just the start and hopefully I can keep pushing on."
A spokesperson for supporters' group Apna England told Sky Sports News: "It's obviously a proud moment for everyone associated with Manchester United Football Club but it is also absolutely monumental for South Asians in the game.
"Zidane Iqbal is an exceptional talent, whose commitment, work-ethic and dedication to making it at the highest level has been rewarded by one of the biggest clubs in world football.
"With urgent action required to tackle inequalities that persist across football, there is no better way to inspire change than by highlighting those that are blazing a trail in our game.
"Seeing Zidane Iqbal out there making history will no doubt inspire millions across the world. It's a great day for the community - and a great day for football."
British South Asians in Football
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