The Premier League says it acknowledges South Asian heritage players are “significantly underrepresented” in English football, as it looks to bring an end to decades of lost talent.
A new initiative known as the South Asian Action Plan, created by the Premier League in conjunction with Kick it Out, aims to better identify talent among boys of South Asian heritage at the “foundation phase” age, between eight and 12 years old, and increase the numbers of players within the academy system.
“We have an accurate record of the ethnic make-up of our young players and we absolutely see that boys of South Asian heritage are significantly underrepresented,” the Premier League’s director of football, Neil Saunders, said. “We feel that that shouldn’t be the case and we’re committed to addressing that. We recognize it isn’t going to happen overnight but we’re committed to a long-term plan. ”
The scheme, launched this week at a gathering in Birmingham of 100 coaches and officials from 35 clubs across England, is to aim for long term improvement in the number of South Asian heritage players in the professional and non-league game, hoping to echo the development of English youth talent more broadly under the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).
Saunders was instrumental in the success of the EPPP, which has developed a generation of English talent – from Reece James to Phil Foden – who competes at the very top. Players of South Asian heritage have not benefited from this change, with only 16 players active in the English professional game. Work by individuals across the country, including Riz Rehman of the Professional Footballers’ Association whose Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme built a network for aspiring professionals, has initiated change which Saunders believes the Premier League can accelerate.
“There’s lots of good work already taking place and it’s about how we capture some of that and work with others to complement it,” Saunders said. “We feel there’s a really important role we can play to accelerate this change and to be really explicit to Asian communities that football is for you and our academies are for you.
“We know through the data that young Asian boys, and we’re talking about boys in this instance, love football. They’re playing football at grassroots level, they’re watching the Premier League and this hopefully is an explicit statement about our commitment to embracing them and providing them with better pathways to thrive in our environment. ”
The chair of Kick it Out, Sanjay Bhandari, said the scheme marked “acceptance” that action was needed. “We can’t change what happened yesterday; all we can do is focus on what we can do now, ”he said. “It’s a bit like a 12-step recovery program: the first step is acceptance. People and clubs signing up to say we understand that there’s a challenge, but also an opportunity here, because they are flipsides of a coin. ”
The Premier League is to work with academies to better engage young prospects and two talent ID events will take place in Leicester and London in May and June. Further training and recruitment of coaches will also take place, but benchmarks are not being set to judge the success of the scheme.
Bhandari said the time was not right for hard targets. “I worked on the football leadership diversity code [launched by the FA 18 months ago] and it was about setting targets because the time was right for them. We need to get a different level of commitment here first and get people on that journey. ”