Asian supporters still voting with their feet

Football clubs in troubled towns like Burnley and Oldham are being urged to use their unique position to build bridges between communities
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The Independent Online

Monday evening at Turf Moor was made for football lovers, a dramatic local derby between Burnley and Manchester City, the early season sun gradually easing into floodlighting as it set over the East Lancashire hills. Of the 20,000 people passionately following City's eventual 4-2 victory, how many would you think were from Burnley's large Asian community? From my best efforts to assess it, walking round the ground, scanning faces, talking to people: one.

He was a young man, friendly but wary of giving his name after Burnley's racial problems and June riots. Told he appeared to be the only Asian there, he said: "I know." He had heard of another, a man who takes his two children into the James Hargreaves Stand, but he had never seen them himself. He was, as far as he knew, the only Asian fan at Burnley.

The report by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research, published a fortnight ago, found that most football clubs in areas with large ethnic minority populations attract very few members of those communities to their grounds. Most clubs were employing few black or Asian staff and were found not to have implemented in full the 1998 Football Task Force report on tackling racism.

"There remains at a significant minority of professional clubs, a distinct lack of effective dialogue with the local ethnic communities," the report said.

In towns like Burnley, Oldham and Bradford, the need for football clubs to use positively their unique place in the community seems all the greater. Burnley Football Club is arguably Burnley's most famous institution, founder member of the Football League, championship winners in 1921 and as recently as 1960. Massively important to its grim, troubled ex-mill town, the club is famously one of England's best supported per head of population.

Under their millionaire chairman, Barry Kilby, and Andrew Watson, their chief executive, Burnley have recovered some of their former dignity having risen, Watson is keen to recite, from 61st in 1998-99, near relegation from the Second Division, to 27th last season, one below the First Division play-offs.

Turnover has increased to an expected £11m this year after a £6m injection from Kilby, and the usual relentless campaign to sell products to fans. The Burnley FC credit card was being pushed hard on Monday. From the look of the near-all white crowd, this must be one of England's most replica shirt-wearing crowds, per inch of middle-aged spread.

Despite the huge turnover, however, the club is making a loss, £1.6m last year, because they are spending so heavily on players' transfer fees and wages. Watson said the club did want to attract more Asian fans, and last April they appointed Dino Maamria, a former Tunisian Under-21 international and Burnley triallist, as their "ethnic minority officer". His problem, Watson said, was: "Most Asians are not football fans."

While accepting that Watson is completely sincere, this is something of a slapdash cliché highlighted by the Sir Norman Chester Centre report as a common excuse given by clubs. It was repeated by nearly every Burnley supporter I spoke to on Monday. "They're not into football, they like cricket," said Darren Ramsden, 29. His friend, Dean Walsh, 40, said they had seen black people at games but "they were Afro-Carribeans, not Pakis".

Time and again people said that the local Asians were not football fans. Most strained to say the Asians would be welcome if they chose to come; many said they were ostracising themselves. But it was not difficult, in a town in which the BNP polled 4,000 votes in the election, to find more vicious perspectives.

Outside the ground, three lads in their thirties, who would not give their names, were openly racist. One had been charged with a racist criminal offence following the riots. "The Pakis are a cancer in our society," said one. "They wouldn't be welcome here – they're taking over everything else. There's little enough left which is white." It put the atmosphere, the passionate chanting of "Burnley, Burnley, Burnley", the shirt-wearing, in a more brutal perspective.

A single conversation with any local Asian disproves the routinely cited prejudice that they are not football fans. "Asian people are passionate about their football," said Mashuq Hussein, a community worker at the predominantly Asian Edge End school and longstanding player for Paak FC, an all-Asian club which plays in a Sunday league in nearby Pendle. "They watch it on TV, they play it, they talk it, the kids love it. But they won't go to Turf Moor. There is still real fear, of what treatment we would get."

Talk to the Asian community, and a dark football history emerges, of racist violence, from fans in the 70s and early 80s. Mashuq used to go to Turf Moor when he was 12 and 13: "I used to get battered nearly every time." Asad Rehman, 34, now a human rights worker for Amnesty International, grew up in the Leyland Road area near the ground. "Every week people would be attacked, shops vandalised, by people going to or from the football. Traditionally the racists used the club as a focus. It is a massive issue in Burnley. And we cannot see that the club has done enough to fight it. It is still seen as a white stronghold."

When the club's community programme visited Edge End, Mashuq's school, the Asian teenagers said they didn't go to Turf Moor because they were intimidated, not just about going to the match, but even venturing into Burnley town centre on a matchday.

"I encouraged some of my mates to go recently," said Mashuq. "They sat in the North Stand. Somebody leaned over and said: 'Make this your last match.' They did."

There are fears too that some elements in the club's support have links with the BNP. "We know the people because we grew up with them," said Asad, "Many of the BNP are Burnley fans."

Lancashire police refused to confirm whether they have found links between Burnley fans and the BNP. Police are nervously awaiting an appearance by the Anti-Nazi League tomorrow, worries exacerbated by potential for nationalist trouble around England's match against Germany. Burnley has a major problem, and its football club is both a symbol and a minority of its supporters a part of it.

Watson argued that the appointment of Maamria was "as much as we could be doing" to build bridges. Yet, although it is welcomed as a first step by many in the local Asian community, it bears little rigorous inspection. Maamria, a good player and qualified coach, very well-liked in the club, is not employed by the club at all. He is a part-time football coach employed by the club's community programme, a separate company. It is entirely self-funding by, for example, selling soccer schools to children at £14 for two days – indeed it pays Burnley FC rent. Maamria's £6,000 wage is paid for by a Sportsmatch grant. He has no specific training in race relations or community work. "My job is to go out and coach the kids and be positive with them, and hope that it will enthuse the next generation of people, of all backgrounds, to come to Burnley."

Mashuq, who works with Maamria voluntarily, said much more could be achieved: "If they put more funding in, we could really build bridges: involve the players as role models, take the football club out into the Asian community, with a range of programmes. This is a token gesture."

Watson was adamant. "We cannot do any more." Out of the club's £11m turnover, it could not afford to pay for any community initiatives: "I wish we could, but we are making a loss."

Piara Power, of the Kick it Out campaign, said: "Many clubs are still doing depressingly little. There are basic programmes which can help the football clubs to play a great role in bringing the communities together. Just doing coaching can't achieve much."

In the Danes House district of the town on Monday night, there were Burnley v Man City gatherings at several houses with On-Digital, including 20 people crammed into one living room on Holbeck Road, roaring on the Clarets. That is 20 times more Asians than there were in the ground. That is a problem, for any town, any business, any national game.