More than a quarter of a century after the first rush of Asian immigration, we have an Indian rapper topping the charts with 'Boom Shak-A-Lak', three Asian MPs in the House of Commons - Keith Vaz, Niranjan Deva and Piara Khabra - an Indian restaurant in every High Street and 'Bhangra' Asian-House raves every Friday. Where, then, is the first generation of Asian footballers?
Twenty years ago the black community in Britain was extending its influence in much the same way. Bob Marley was cutting a trail for the reggae explosion, the children of post-war Caribbean immigrants were getting a toe-hold in the professions and white university students were smoking grass and calling it ganja. However, where black teenagers were preparing to open up League clubs to a new wave of footballing talent, Asian players have so far been conspicuous by their absence.
Viv Anderson made his debut for Nottingham Forest in 1973. The elegant full-back, born in Nottingham of Jamaican parents, went on to become the first black player to win a full England cap, in 1979, and is now the manager of First Division Barnsley. He remembers being fired by the success of Clyde Best at West Ham United. 'The next five to ten years will see an Asian player come out and make a name for himself. It always takes one to make an impact and the rest will look at him and say: 'Hey, I can do that as well.' '
At First Division Leicester, moves are already afoot to tap the pool of Asian talent in the city. Over the past six months the club has been running training programmes aimed specifically at Asian secondary school boys. Its officials have met with local ethnic and anti-racism groups, gone into Sikh temples to give talks to the community and taken on Asian assistants to help with the scheme.
'Football tends to be looked on as a white-dominated sport,' Paul Mace, the club's head of publicity, explained. 'It seems to have passed the Asian community by and so we are trying to get them interested in the game and in Leicester City in particular.'
Fears of racism had helped to discourage Asians, he admitted. 'We want our football ground to be welcoming for every person in the community. We realise that in the past it has been intimidating for Asian supporters, so we are trying to get more in to look at us and become associated with football.'
City have no Asian boys on the books as yet, but several hundred have passed through the training scheme and the signs are encouraging. 'We don't expect the process to bear fruit tomorrow,' Mace said, 'but the more youngsters there are playing, the more likely they are to break through in our team.'
Other clubs confirm a lack of Asians at apprentice level, but paint an optimistic picture of a surge of talented boys in the schools. West Ham United, of the Premiership, who have two Asian youngsters in their centre of excellence for nine to sixteen-year-olds, said that most boys had yet to make the transition from school to district sides. 'It's a trickling through effect,' said Jimmy Neighbour, the club's youth development officer and former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder.
Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Brentford and West Bromwich Albion all tell a similar tale. For some, Asian boys are making less of an impact than expected, Leeds United having only three in their three centres of excellence while Bradford City's centre had none.
So why is it taking so long for Asians to break through? Neighbour spoke for the majority of clubs when he said that Asian parents were more inclined to push their children towards academic goals than working-class whites. 'Education comes first for them, but as their culture comes closer to ours and more boys are born here and become integrated a lot earlier, then hopefully they will get more involved in the game.'
Robert Govender, news and features editor of the Asian Times, also subscribed to this theory. He explained that the first immigrants in the 1950s came from rural areas and that 'their work ethic was more developed than the pleasure ethic.'
Once here, their children were told to concentrate on school work to the detriment of sport, the games that they were interested in were the colonial ones of cricket, hockey and tennis, and in addition they tended to shy away from contact sports like football. All this, he felt, was about to change.
'The old saying still goes: the hungry fighter is the best fighter. Young Asians are going to look for more alternatives and take up football more out of an economic necessity than a love of the game. They are very practical people and will acquire a physical and mental toughness in the inner cities. All that is required is one or two getting a break and shining on television and you will get others following suit.'
In fact, one Asian footballer has already enjoyed a professional football career, and has since gone on to become a successful businessmen. Ricky Heppolette, born in India, broke through at Preston in 1964 at a time when there were very few Asians around to follow suit. He was fortunate in that, unlike other Asian parents, his
hockey-playing father had encouraged his sporting prowess and that at 5ft 8in and stocky he was blessed with a sturdy build. 'I was a physical player with a western frame,' he said. 'One thing they said about Asians was that they didn't have the physique and they weren't willing to go in and mix it. They used to look at Nobby Stiles who had limited ability but a huge heart and I moulded myself on him.'
He left Preston for Leyton Orient in 1969 and eventually ended up in Peterborough, where, at the age of 45, he runs a company supplying party novelties. He reckoned the time was right for the generation born in Britain to make its footballing mark. 'The financial rewards in football are a lot greater than they were and parents are saying that it's not a bad thing to go into,' he said.
However, Piara Khabra, the Labour MP for Ealing Southall, felt that the slow development of Asian talent could be put down to racism. 'Football clubs in this country are more racist than in any other activity,' he said. 'A lot of them have never had any intention whatsoever to encourage the development of Asian footballers. As far as racism is concerned, football is one area in which it has not been properly tackled and it is one of the reasons why the Asian youth has not made any progress.'
He said Indians, and Punjabis in particular, were very keen on football but were receiving no encouragement. The club should start by taking an interest in their local communities and by attracting Asian supporters to their grounds. 'Asian kids go to Wembley and are intimidated by the fans,' he said. 'You feel yourself isolated in the crowd. You can't share your excitement because those around you are racist.' Not surprisingly, the clubs countered charges of racism, though Jim Furnell, the youth development officer at Blackburn, said: 'I know there's a bit of resentment in the town with the National Front element here.' The former Arsenal goalkeeper said that in the mid- Eighties, Rovers met with Asian leaders to try and get them involved in the club but little came of it. 'We keep saying if we get one Asian in the team we'll be able to fill the stadium,' he said.
Heppolette felt the success of black players would make things easier for emerging Asians. 'Racism is quite rife but as to putting boys off playing the game, I don't think so. It all comes down to your temperament.' He said he encountered few problems himself as a player: 'You would get the occasional comment but nothing serious. Besides, supporters will always go for what they think is any weakness or lack of ability.' Viv Anderson took the argument a step further by saying: 'The chants on the terraces are now non-existent and each team has got a black player anyway who is more often than not the hero.' Peter Nicholas, the youth development officer at Second Division Brentford, said clubs had fought hard to overcome a racist image. 'I don't think there's any problem in football now - black boys have proved the point by becoming black players. Even on the field when they were taunted with being a black so-and- so, that's gone out of the window.'
The former Welsh international continued: 'It will be easier for Asian boys coming through. Their mums and dads have never gone to football, but kids who do go will have kids who in 15 to 20 years' time will come through. They are only just starting.'
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