“As a player, I’m a centre-back. I’m quite like an old-school centre-back, you might say. I focus a lot on defending: on blocking shots, on heading and things like that.”
Kamran Kandola is a first-year scholar at Wolves. Just turned 17, he is at a crucial stage in his career as he seeks to earn a first professional contract with his hometown club. Fortunately he has been able to take advice on how best to approach the challenges ahead.
“I’ve been at Wolves since the under-eights and as a really young player I saw [Stoke defender] Danny Batth come through,” Kandola says. “I saw him as a person to follow and I’ve got quite a similar playing style too. Now I’ve been able to connect with him and learned a bit about how to develop in my career. I’ve got similar weaknesses as he had as a kid – for me it’s my speed. Talking with him I know things that I wouldn’t have known and I can now implement that into my training. It makes me a better player and that’s all you really want.”
Kandola is one of nine British Asians who are scholars within the academy system. Batth is one of 15 British Asians playing in the English professional game. The numbers speak for themselves when it comes to the under-representation of the Asian community But now Batth and other pros, under the umbrella of the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (Aims) are doing something about it.
Here is how the eloquent Kandola explains the idea behind Aims: “I think the problem may be that young players don’t see as many Asians in the game and it puts them off a little bit. What we’re trying to do now is change those negative thoughts. To think: ‘OK, we’re starting to see it now.’ To show that you can do it. There should be no reason to say: ‘You’re Asian so you can’t play the game.’”
Under the scheme, scholars such as Kandola get access to pros such as Batth. In turn, they pass their learning on to kids further down the academy or in grassroots teams. As with everything else right now, the scheme is largely online but it has a five-year plan to further and embed Asian inclusion within football.
Aims is the product of three years’ work by Riz Rehman, the PFA’s player inclusion executive. He speaks highly of an organisation often in the firing line for criticism and thanks its chief executive, Gordon Taylor, a controversial figure, for getting it off the ground. But he is also the only British Asian at the organisation and it was his lobbying of Taylor that brought Aims into existence.
“The players I work with, they give up their own time,” he says of Batth, Neil Taylor, Anwar Uddin and Zesh Rehman, part of the group of pros who lead the mentoring. “They don’t have to, they’ve got families, they’ve got other things they could be doing.
“They’re often asked by media to comment on the under-representation of Asian players in football but they’ve never been given the opportunity to actively get involved and make a change. We’re not talking about doing something, we’re doing it.”
For Riz Rehman, a former youth player at Brentford whose career ended with a broken leg before he could sign his first contract, the barriers to more Asians making it in the game are educational.
“The idea that parents stop their kids from going into the game is an outdated stereotype,” Rehman says. “The issue for parents is that they don’t know the questions to ask. They don’t have the networks. And it’s the same for the kids.
“For kids it’s about knowing the pathway but it’s also about things that they could only learn from people who’ve been there before. They need to know how to ask the right questions of their coaches. One of the big things they ask is on the mental side, like how to deal with rejection.
“The bigger piece of work is with the parents. They want their kids to progress but they don’t know the mechanisms. They need to educate themselves too. If they want their kid to succeed in the grassroots system they need to think like coaches. If the coach is talking about how they need to improve their game out of possession, they need to understand what that means. The challenge is to get from the grassroots to the academy system.”
Rehman believes giving Asian players and their families the knowledge to form their own networks, create their own access, should be a full-time job of work with all football authorities. But without representation, that change won’t come about.
“I’m chair of the Surrey FA inclusion advisory group and one of our aims is to diversify the staffing within the organisation as at the moment everyone is white. That needs to change. We need better representation on and off the pitch.
“The professional players I work with have had a career in the game and others can also do the same with the right mentors and a trusted network. We’re British born and bred, we love football and it will make us all proud to see more Asian players. The benchmark is not one player playing for the full England side, it’s about more players across all four leagues and within the academy system.”