More than just faces in the crowd

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In a pub a few hundred yards from Ewood Park, the view among locals was almost unanimous. "Get rid of the Pakis and Blackburn would starve," a fat, red-faced man said, to the accompaniment of chuckles from his cronies. So that was it then, Asia's contribution to east Lancashire - curry houses and the corner shop.

No one mentioned football, and why should they? No Asian player has made it in any significant way in British professional football, and not a single boy with Indian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan roots is on the books of the Premiership leaders, Blackburn Rovers. The consensus in the smoky bar was simple and brutal: "Pakis can't play."

Yet, on the town's playing fields of Pleasington, and on the all-weather pitch at Brookhouse, it was obvious they could. Asian boys did not suffer by comparison to their white contemporaries; they stood out with their quick feet and balance. If anything,it was the few Afro-Caribbean youths who looked clumsy, grasping at proficiency in unfamiliar surroundings.

The picture, however, was wholly misleading. There are around 1,900 professionals in England today and 300 of them are black. The England team is packed with black players, but not one is Asian.

"Attitudes are not helpful," Ibrahim Kala, who ran a predominantly Asian Under-15 team in Greater Manchester, admitted. "We'd be playing matches and I'd be the only person on the sideline supporting the players. The opposition would have dozens of mums and dads shouting, while we'd have no one.

"Asian kids live football round here - you see them playing in all weathers, and the law of averages says some of them should make the grade. I accept they have to make an effort to go beyond their communities to get spotted, but club scouts should be prepared to come to us too.

"I've seen examples where the best player on a team has been ignored because he is Asian, while the second best - who is white - is given a trial. There needs to be positive discrimination to break down barriers, most of which are in the mind."

Clubs need to break the vicious cycle of no players now equalling no players ever, and Blackburn Rovers more so than most. Already, 15 per cent of the town's 140,000 population is of Asian extraction, and the demographic trend is upwards. The estimate isthat within 20 years one in three inhabitants will belong to an ethnic minority, which provides a simple rule of mathematics: either the club attracts black spectators to Ewood Park, or they will never be able to compete in crowd terms with Manchester United and their ilk.

"In the long term, Blackburn Rovers have to attract Asian players and spectators," John Tummon, a co-ordinator in the north west for the Commission for Racial Equality's "Kick Racism Out Of Football" campaign, said. "They won't pull their weight financially, even with Jack Walker's money, and won't fulfil their potential if they don't. The same applies to clubs like Leicester and Bradford."

Blackburn's awareness of this problem has led them to target much of their community programme in this direction, and they have been rewarded with more Asian faces in their crowd. That, according to the club's community officer, Peter Devine, is encouraging, but he concedes that the day when Ewood Park rings to the sound of young Asian voices remains in the distance.

"There are no Asians playing even at a good standard of non-League football, never mind at professional level," Devine said. "They tend to play among themselves, in their own leagues, so they're never put in the shop window. The only way they are ever going to make it is by progressing through a higher standard of football."

Devine has written to every Asian club in the area stressing the point, and much emphasis has been placed on coaching schemes in areas of Blackburn that are predominantly non-white. "There are a lot of talented players technically," he said, "particularly on astroturf pitches, but they don't seem to progress from there.

"I can't condone racial taunts for one second, and I can understand why Asian players would not want to risk being the target of them, but I'm afraid things aren't going to change. Asians are going to have to combat that just like black players have done."

Devine agrees that an Indian or Pakistani player will have an effect far beyond his talent. "We'd attract thousands of Asian supporters," Devine said. "Players too. It just needs one."