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Scottish football trailblazer Yan Dhanda opens up on the challenges facing British South Asians in the Beautiful Game

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Trailblazer Yan Dhanda has told Sky Sports that British South Asians in Football still face an uphill battle against stereotyping and unconscious bias in the game.

Former Liverpool youngster Dhanda, who said he has loved his two years away from England playing for the Ross County faithful, is one of Britain’s highest-profile footballers from a South Asian background – and has been joined in Scotland for the second half of the season by Birmingham City loanee Brandon Khela.

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How Brandon Khela and are Yan Dhanda are breaking down barriers in Scotland

The Indian-heritage pair wrote their name into club folklore on Sunday by helping Ross County claim a massive three points and their first-ever victory over Rangers after 24 previous attempts.

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Yan Dhanda and Brandon Khela were part of Ross County’s historic 3-2 triumph over Rangers

Sky Sports News exclusively revealed in January that the West Midlands pair had made history in January when they lined up for Ross County at Celtic Park.

It was the first time two British South Asians had both started a top-flight match in the SPFL and a proud moment for Scottish football as well as Sikhs and Indians all over the world.

England’s Premier League season, by contrast, looks set to end with zero South Asian representation on the pitch for the second successive season – the first time that has happened in almost 15 years.

There is just one footballer from Britain’s South Asian community playing regularly in the men’s second tier, Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury, and only one regular in the Women’s Championship, Blackburn Rovers’ Millie Chandarana.

More from South Asians In Football

Dhanda featured alongside the duo in last year’s inaugural South Asians in Football Team of the Season.

Asked why there has been a stigma towards South Asian communities trying to make their way in the game, Dhanda told Sky Sports: “I just think, I’ve said it before that people stereotype [South] Asians to doing certain jobs because they are good at it.

“Me and Brandon have proved that we are good at football as well and there are others like (Norwich City defender) Danny Batth who is good at football, and there’s lots more coming through from a younger age.

“But I think the stigma around Asian people was stereotyping them to being good at other jobs.”

Dhanda was speaking ahead of the Indian harvest festival of Vaisakhi, with Sikhs also marking 325 years since the birth of Sikhism as a collective faith.

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Bik and Micky Singh deliver a Vaisakhi message for Sky Sports viewers from St Andrew’s

The former England U17 international added: “I’m quite lucky I had some very good coaches [at academy level] who are now first-team managers that I have learnt quite a lot from.

Liverpool's Northern Irish manager Brendan Rodgers (Foreground) watches a training session at their Melwood training ground in Liverpool, in 2014
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Yan Dhanda regularly joined first-team training at Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers

“I think they have been supportive. I’ve had quite a lot of young managers who have a different mindset – compared to maybe back in the day – when it comes to Asian players. I think I was quite lucky in my academy days when it comes to the coaches that I have worked under.”

Why Dhanda’s comments are important

Yan Dhanda scored a 99th-minute equaliser to earn Ross County a vital point in their bid to avoid relegation

Dhanda and Sky Sports News’ Dev Trehan came together in 2020 to take a stand for South Asians in English football after former Football Association chair Greg Clarke reinforced racialised stereotypes by suggesting British South Asians had different interests compared to Black people, pointing to levels of representation in the FA’s IT department.

Clarke apologised and stepped down from his roles with the FA, UEFA and FIFA following a series of comments made in front of a DCMS Select Committee hearing, and has since been succeeded as FA chair by Debbie Hewitt.

But his remarks opened old wounds among Britain’s South Asian football community whose mistrust of authorities stems from being locked out of the elite game in England for more than 50 years after many families moved to the United Kingdom in the seventies.

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Yan Dhanda told Sky Sports News’ Mark Benstead he was proud to take a stand for British South Asians in Football

Dhanda, who fronted the Football Association’s Bringing Opportunities to Communities drive in 2019, condemned the stereotypical comments, telling Sky Sports News the remarks indicated football has gone backwards rather than forwards on South Asians in The Game.

British South Asians are the most populous ethnic minority group in the country – and Sky Sports News has produced South Asians in Football content and supported the community every week since that interview with Dhanda, creating the longest-running major initiative in the space both in media and football.

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People from across the game celebrate Sky Sports’ groundbreaking work and commitment to British South Asians in Football

Some three-and-a-half years after Dhanda spoke out, the Football Association has finally admitted the gross under-representation of South Asians in the professional game is “stark” and that taking steps to addressing the long-standing issue is now “a long-term aim” for English football’s governing body.

Yasir Mirza, who was appointed FA director of equality, diversity and inclusion last year, said last week that the FA’s key mantra “A Game for All” is about ensuring English football is safe and inclusive for everybody, including Britain’s South Asian community.

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The Football Association says British South Asian representation in elite football is a ‘stark’ challenge but something that the FA is committed to addressing

“I think the challenge is quite stark around South Asian representation in the elite game,” added Mirza, who was speaking at a Football and Faith event at Wembley Stadium ahead of Eid.

“Keeping our foot on the pedal I think is a really, really important job for us. It’s a long-term goal. It’s a long-term aim for us.”

But has football really moved on?

View of a Premier League matchball and plinth with 'No Room for Racism' branding

Two years ago, the Premier League launched its first-ever South Asian Action Plan, which is linked to its No Room for Racism action plan.

The Premier League said 1,344 boys and girls engaged in community qualifiers run by six Premier League clubs last year, culminating in 24 teams and 200 players taking part in last year’s Emerging Talent Festival – though not all of the players were from South Asian backgrounds.

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Jurgen Klopp admitted Liverpool’s first-half performance was ‘horrible to watch’ in defeat to Crystal Palace and they cannot win the league if they play like that again

Crystal Palace, who stunned Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, were among the clubs supporting last week’s No Room for Racism activation.

Messaging was displayed around Selhurst Park during their recent game with Manchester City, with players taking the knee ahead of kick-off to show their unity against all forms of discrimination.

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Sanjay Bhandari says action is needed to improve British South Asian representation in English football

But at the turn of the year, Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari hit out at more “lazy racist stereotyping” after a Crystal Palace scout’s comments about South Asian families on LinkedIn.

Palace’s lead pre-academy scout Michael Verguizas wrote: “Asian families put all their efforts into education plus their [sic] more aligned to the game of cricket… Don’t think it’s pushed in their families or in their culture…Boys following this sport are far and few in this industry”.

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The first-ever Muslim member of the FA Council, Yunus Lunat, says British South Asians have been left behind across sports, and not just cricket

Bhandari posted on social media: “This is some lazy racist stereotyping that does not align with grassroots participation data from someone with authority over the player pathway.”

Academic Dr Stefan Lawrence said: “Yet further evidence of the nonsense that exists in football discourse about [South] Asian players. People in the game should be doing much better by now. No excuses.”

Anti-racism campaigner and former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq added: “Welcome to 2024 – these people decide the future of our kids.”

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See how Azeem Rafiq responds when Sky Sports News’ Dev Trehan asks him if he thinks British South Asians are respectfully treated in elite sport

Sky Sports News has contacted Crystal Palace for comment.

FA Council Member Yashmin Harun wrote on social media: “The gatekeepers within football are some of our biggest barriers, and they need to be outed for the views they hold. Unfortunately he’s not the first and he won’t be the only one with these views…”

Dhanda: We’re still getting racism

Yan Dhanda Ross County

Friday marks a year to the day since former Crawley Town manager John Yems was handed the longest-ever ban for discrimination in English football after making racist comments to players.

His initial 17-month suspension was extended to three years after the Football Association appealed against the sanction on the basis it was insufficient.

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PFA player inclusion excutive Riz Rehman says there needs to be less talk and more concrete action for British South Asians in Football

It came after Yems was found guilty by an independent regulatory commission on 11 out of 15 charges for using discriminatory language, admitting one further charge.

YAN DHANDA SWANSEA

Dhanda has been a target for racist abuse for much of his football journey, including a high-profile incident during his time at Swansea.

He told Sky Sports News in 2021 he was grateful for the messages of support from “across the football community” after receiving racist abuse on social media after an FA Cup defeat to Manchester City.

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Former Chelsea and Brighton head coach Graham Potter said his former player at Swansea, Yan Dhanda, will not be beaten by racist abuse on social media

It later emerged that the offence was committed by a 14-year-old boy, who was subsequently placed on an educational support programme.

“When you go on your phone and see something like that, it’s not nice,” Dhanda said.

“I had Steve Cooper as manager who was very supportive and really likes young players. He was great for me at the time. He supported me a lot. I was only young at the time, so it was difficult to deal with.

Steve Cooper replace Chris Hughton as Nottingham Forest boss last September
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Yan Dhanda is full of praise for Steve Cooper who was very supportive in his time of adversity

“I think it is difficult and there is no sugarcoating it and saying it is easy to just ignore it, because it is tough, and we still do get it, and other players from different backgrounds get it as well.

“It is not fixed yet and the problem is still there.”

Dhanda: Believe in yourself when others don’t

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Check out all of Ross County star, Yan Dhanda’s stunning goals from the Scottish Premiership season – all in under 60 seconds!

Dhanda said aspiring young footballers from South Asian backgrounds must try and take some hope from the exploits of the handful of players that regularly feature in elite men’s football in Britain.

“I think you have to take belief from that,” Dhanda said.

“They need to know that when we were their age in the academies – you didn’t see many players in the opposition team or your own team that looked like you. But don’t take anything from that [would be my message].

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Trailblazer Mal Benning tells Sky Sports News he had to be 20 per cent better than his counterparts to stand out as a British South Asian in English football

“I think me and Brandon, we have proved that you can get to the professional level, you can make a living out of being a footballer and you can get to the highest level.

“I think you have to take belief from that and keeping believing in yourself even when others don’t.”

Khela: I never saw anyone that looked like me

Brandon Khela Ross County

Sky Sports News revealed in the summer of 2022 that Sikh-Punjabi teenager Khela had become the first British South Asian ever to sign professional terms at Sky Bet Championship side Birmingham City.

The midfielder said he tried to use the glaring absence of South Asians across elite pathways as an extra incentive to try and make it in the game.

“When I was really young, trying to break through I never used to see anyone that looked like me who was the same skin colour as me,” Khela said.

“That was the only challenge [that I had faced on my own individual journey] really, but that motivated me to inspire other people.”

Asked if he was surprised when he learned he was the first British South Asian to turn out for Birmingham City in almost 150 years of Blues history, Khela said: “Yeah, looking back at it now. But hopefully it should inspire other people and show that there is a pathway there, especially at Birmingham City.”

British South Asians in Football

For more stories, features and videos, visit our ground-breaking South Asians in Football page on skysports.com and stay tuned to Sky Sports News and our Sky Sports digital platforms.

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