Dilan Markanday leads the way in Blackburn’s inclusion drive
At 8.55pm last Wednesday, 10 minutes into the second half of Blackburn’s Carabao Cup victory against Hartlepool, the Rovers season-ticket holder Hafiz Zayd was joined by about 100 fans as he led the Maghrib Salah, the penultimate of five daily prayers observed by Muslims, in a hospitality lounge at Ewood Park. Blackburn’s multi-faith prayer room, located behind one of the goals, accommodates around 30 people, with supporters, stewards and kiosk staff all invited to make use of the facility.
A few minutes later Dilan Markanday, a Sikh of Indian heritage and one of few South Asian players in the professional game, scored his first goal for the club. “It is really important that there are players from all different backgrounds and cultures, and that they get an opportunity to show their qualities,” Markanday says.
For Markanday that goal was another landmark moment on a journey that has taken him from playing grassroots in Barnet, where he was born, to joining Tottenham aged 12, later training alongside Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Gareth Bale and becoming the first South Asian to play for the club in a competitive game after making his debut last October. He signed for Blackburn in January and is determined to keep flying the flag for the South Asian community. Together with Zidane Iqbal of Manchester United and Hamza Choudhury, on loan at Watford from Leicester, the winger is among the 0.45% of professional players of South Asian heritage, according to data collected by the Professional Footballers’ Association. Arjan Raikhy and Kamran Kandola are in the academies at Aston Villa and Wolves respectively.
Last year the PFA launched the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme to nurture talent and inspire the next generation, with senior professionals mentoring players such as Markanday, who can in turn help youngsters. “There has been a lot more light on the South Asian community growing and players coming through and I think that has really helped,” Markanday says. “A few people have said that they look up to me and I try and help by giving advice to the younger kids.”
One of those is Adam Khan, a goalkeeper at Blackburn who was introduced to Markanday at the club’s South Asian talent ID event in conjunction with the PFA that was attended by almost 70 youngsters this summer. “He came up to me and was like ‘you’ve really inspired me’, which was really nice to hear from someone who is now at the club. It was brilliant seeing all the young kids have a smile on their face and all the families. It is important for the parents to see that the club is doing this and that something could come from it. A lot of young kids are scared of the numbers that come through. You always hear ‘there is a less than 1% chance of making it’. I think that is a big factor, having that belief.”
For Markanday, that belief stems from his family who attend most games. “My dad is the one who really pushed me. I turned up to trials at Tottenham and I’d be asleep in the car saying I didn’t want to go and he like dragged me inside. I’m really grateful. Sometimes I get messages from family in India who I haven’t even met and it is really nice to know they are looking out for me and that I have that wider network. I guess I’ve had a bumpy road which people may not see from the outside because they just see the social media and that I’m happy all the time, which is not always the case.”
On Wednesday Khan, a first-year scholar who is of Pakistani heritage, and Riz Rehman, the PFA’s player inclusion executive, will meet an Under-11 and Under-12 player at Blackburn, both of whom are of South Asian descent, to remind them that there is a pathway. Markanday will no doubt crop up in conversation. “I think them seeing my journey is enough for them to see that it is possible and that they can go and do it,” he says. “Then when I speak to them, they really believe it. I can give them advice, tell them about my journey, the ups and the downs, and make sure that they understand what it takes to make it. It’s just about keeping going, keeping believing and I want to push on this season now.”
The Championship leaders Blackburn, who visit Reading on Wednesday hoping to maintain their 100% start to the season, are a club in tune with their community. They recognise that more than 50% of children under 16 in Blackburn with Darwen are of South Asian heritage – and on Wednesday the English Football League will launch Together, a five-year equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy overseen by the EFL’s head of EDI, David McArdle, who was appointed to the newly created role last November. The hope is that more follow their lead in ensuring the game is representative of the demographics it serves. Ewood Park also has halal and alcohol-free concourses.
In May around 4,000 Muslims visited the stadium as Blackburn became the first club to host Eid prayers on their pitch to mark the end of Ramadan and last season the club launched Ewood Express, an initiative that helped bring more than 2,500 children to games by providing free buses to and from local mosques, schools and sports clubs, and also saw the club win the EFL’s inaugural diversity award. “In the past the evening prayer may have stopped people from the community attending matches because they didn’t think the two could marry up and that they could do both,” McArdle says. “By Blackburn offering that service and that opportunity, it breaks down that barrier.”
A panel including representatives from Kick It Out, Women In Football, Level Playing Field and Pride Sports will formally launch the EFL’s strategy – the Together motto has appeared on shirt sleeves since the beginning of this season – alongside governing bodies and clubs at the Valley, home of Charlton Athletic. Challenging discrimination in the stands and on social media is among the EFL’s key aims. “We want to ensure we have a robust and 360-degree approach,” says McArdle. “Now the hard work begins to implement the changes we want to see.”