“It makes me realise that I can really help the future generation of Asian players to break through and help them with any setbacks they may face”. Dillon De Silva (QPR)
This month marks a year since The Professional Footballers Association (PFA) launched the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS), an initiative focused on increasing the number of Asian players within professional football.
The scheme, which has been running since the early part of the 2019/20 season as a pilot, aims to enhance the experience of Asian footballers at all levels of the professional game by creating a structured network of support that allows them to thrive, both on and off the field.
Current and former players, who have playing experiences across all four leagues and internationally, including Danny Batth, Malvind Benning, Neil Taylor, Otis Khan, Zesh Rehman and Anwar Uddin, are working with the PFA to provide support to the future generation of Asian heritage players.
PFA Player Inclusion Executive, Riz Rehman, sits at the centre of the scheme, facilitating formal meetings, workshops, and player-led events that give scholars, academy players, and their parents/guardians a unique opportunity to connect with senior Asian players.
Rehman, a former Brentford FC professional, is the brother of ex-Fulham defender Zesh. Back in 2004, Zesh proudly became the first British Asian Pakistani to start a Premier League match.
Speaking to Touchline, Riz Rehman said: “Historically, Asian players and their parents/guardians have not had the networks in the game to help them navigate the academy system.
“For the last 30 years we’ve heard the same lazy stereotypes labelled against Asian players, but it is now time for us to start talking about and recognising the positive contribution these players have made to the game. The narrative needs to change and this is a start.
“Under-representation, whilst a big problem for our communities, shouldn’t be the defining narrative. We ultimately want to develop a sustainable flow with proportional representation of professional football players of Asian heritage playing at the top level of the men’s and women’s game.”
“We are 12 months in now since the inception of the AIMS programme and have had lots of fantastic events, meetings and positive success stories. We want to take it to the next level now. The aim is to get to a place where every club in the country recognises the value of a support programme for players from a minority background.”
Statistics show that Asian and British Asian people make up almost 7.5% of the British population, but in the 2020/21 season, just eight players made first-team appearances across the Premier League and English Football League. This season, there is an all-time high of Asian representation in professional football, with 16 players on professional contracts and 23 apprentices within the system – a figure that still seems shockingly small.
Despite this, the AIMS initiative’s senior mentors have had overwhelming success across the game, racking up over 1,500 league appearances between them.
“Growing up I didn’t have the opportunity to tap into any mentoring from experienced players,” Mentor and Sunderland AFC player Danny Batth commented.
“My support network was simply my family and friends, so now I am delighted to be able to support academy players and their parents from similar backgrounds on their journey into the game. Working alongside the PFA I am able to share some experiences, setbacks and things I have learnt which I hope will help to progress the careers of these young players,” he added.
For the mentees, the AIMS programme has provided a community for support, advice and guidance. Dillon De Silva, an under-23 player at Queens Park Rangers, explained how he has also used the scheme as a source for inspiration:
“Connecting with the senior players and listening to people like Danny and Neil [Taylor] has inspired me to work even harder and make sure I have a career in the game like them.
“I recently shared my journey with the younger academy players on the AIMS programme and I really enjoy having these conversations. It makes me realise that I can really help the future generation of Asian players to break through and help them with any setbacks they may face.”
It isn’t just the players who feel supported either. Raj, the father of Sunderland Under-18s player Sonny Singh, expressed his gratitude to Rehman and the mentors for the support they have provided since its launch:
“Through my son’s journey and as a parent, I’ve found it difficult to speak to a coach or club as I’d be worried about how it would affect my son at the club,” Raj revealed.
“I’ve found the PFA and Riz to be very supportive and helpful when it comes to any concerns that I’ve had. Having regular ‘Zoom’ calls gives me great reassurance as a parent that the PFA have his best interests at heart.”
A key focus for the PFA is to work with Club player care staff to build a database of Asian academy players within the youth development phase to establish methods of support and easily connect them to like-minded apprentices and individuals with lived experiences. The database has also enabled them to track the number of players currently within the academy programmes on a year-by-year basis.
AIMS is open to all football players on a professional playing career path who feel they could benefit from additional support. The PFA is also encouraging current and former players to join the support network as mentors and share their valuable insights with the next generation of Asian footballers.
If you would like to know more about the scheme, please contact PFA Player Inclusion Executive, Riz Rehman (07391 512974 or [email protected])
‘AIMS: One Year On’ features in Issue 43 of LFE’s Touchline magazine.