'It helps to come
and watch football'
Blackburn has been labelled a segregated town, but football is bringing diverse communities together, writes Marcus Raymond
Blackburn has been labelled a segregated town, but football is bringing diverse communities together, writes Marcus Raymond
It feels like an age since crowds were allowed at football, but back in February when they were, a group of asylum seekers from El Salvador went to watch Blackburn Rovers versus Swansea City. I was delighted to join them.
At half-time, I spoke to Jaime, there with his family. They fled El Salvador due to a civil war between the government and gangs. Civilians had started getting caught up in it, sometimes being killed to “prove strength”.
“It definitely helps to come and watch football,” he said. “We can enjoy it, start getting used to your culture, but also forget a little bit about our problems at home. We’ve felt welcomed in Blackburn.”
Come the final minutes of the game, Blackburn were unlucky to be 2-1 down, having missed a penalty and hit the post, but were still knocking on the door.
The Salvadorans – none having watched Rovers before, some only arriving in Blackburn in recent weeks – became as vocal as anyone.
The eldest group member sat next to me, the most animated of the bunch. I had quickly realised his cheering and jeering bypassed our mutual language barrier. With his tone of voice responding to events unfolding on the pitch, I could have a very good guess at everything he shouted. The group laughed and whooped as his commentary neared crescendo.
Deep into stoppage time, Rovers piled bodies forward. The ball spilled out to Bradley Johnson, his left-footed drive finding a gap and hitting the back of the net. 2-2.
The crowd roared. The group went wild. Next news: me and the older guy are cheering and jumping, arms round each other’s shoulders, having only met two hours ago.
Bringing people together is important for Blackburn. The diverse town has been labelled “segregated” and “divided” in the media
As we piled out after celebratory group photos, staff from ARC – the local project supporting asylum seekers and refugees, which facilitated the trip – were already being asked when they could go again. It was clear just how quickly football can bring people together.
Bringing people together is important for Blackburn. The diverse town has been labelled “segregated” and “divided” in the media. This isn’t totally without substance, especially residentially.
Although the 2011 census found Blackburn’s population is 69 per cent white, Ewood – the suburb home to Rovers’ stadium, Ewood Park – had a 92 per cent white population. Bastwell and Audley were 90 per cent and 73 per cent non-white.
Blackburn’s communities may live somewhat separately but the Kick Down The Barriers project is bringing people together more, shining a brighter light where great things are already happening, and challenging stigmas. Football is one avenue of hope.
Rovers matchdays see a transient population come to Ewood, a more diverse mix who may never otherwise visit the suburb, away fans included. But you only need to look around the stands to find Blackburn’s diversity – especially the Indian and Pakistani communities, which together account for 81 per cent of its non-white population – isn’t fully represented at the football. There’s a gender imbalance too. But there is promising work being done by the club to encourage all communities to get involved, hence their tagline #OneRovers.
“I would like to see more Asian people watching Rovers. It’s their town as much as anybody else’s.”
Mick Robinson would love to see more diversity at matches. A supporter for 55 years, he has always championed inclusivity. He remembers having to defend himself with fists against National Front aggression on the streets of Blackburn in the 1970s.
“I would like to see more Asian people watching Rovers. Why shouldn’t we expect more to come? It’s their town as much as anybody else’s.”
Robinson recalls a National Front presence and monkey chants at some matches years ago. Although overt racism is less evident on the terraces now, he wonders if Blackburn’s Asians still haven’t felt welcomed at Ewood.
“That’s bound to have affected some people, thinking I’m not going there,” he said, recalling hearing a Rovers fan shouting racist abuse at a recent match. It took one guy to stand up and say “shut the fuck up” to the culprit for others to join in and get him ejected.
There’s also possible anti-Venky feeling – animosity towards Rovers’ Indian owners who took over in 2010, the club’s fortunes quickly plummeting. That hostility that might mutate into something uglier.
“I don’t think the fan base has changed that much,” said Mick. “I still see a lot of the same people who were going when I was in my teens.”
Mick’s footballing hero Howard Gayle is also an anti-racist campaigner. Gayle played for Blackburn in 1987-92, their first black player. He is now an ambassador for Show Racism the Red Card, Rovers being on his events circuit.
Although he has fond memories of his “best spell in football”, he was tentative about joining initially. “Blackburn was long touted as a National Front hotbed, so I had reservations.
“I had played in Blackburn before, for Liverpool Reserves, and was racially abused. But I’ve always gone into the lion’s den.”
He thinks then-manager Don Mackay had concerns about bringing black players to Rovers. But having joined, Gayle “struck up a really good chord” with the fans, having become “one of our own”. He holds the club in high esteem.
“Football is a tool to bring people together. Clubs don’t use it enough. I remember saying to Bill Fox [former Rovers chairman], if you got a couple of Asian players in this club, you put another 10,000 people on that gate. He didn’t get it.
“Asian people want to see representation. It’s not rocket science. You produce an Asian star player, Asian families would come. You’ve got to tap in and embrace the support of all cultures.”
“We’re not fully represented. Only a small amount of Asians attend. But it isn’t fear of racism – it’s more the quality of football.”
Nasser Hussain is a member of Blackburn’s Asian community, hooked on Rovers since watching their 1995 Premier League-winning season, aged five.
“We’re not fully represented. Only a small amount of Asians attend. But it isn’t fear of racism – it’s more the quality of football.
“At my school there were only seven Rovers fans in our year. The majority of Asians in Blackburn support Liverpool or Man United. But some follow Rovers too, sometimes as a second team.”
Nasser’s friend Talha Sange, also from Blackburn, was already a dedicated United fan aged five, following his sister. His other siblings support Liverpool.
“I think people would rather watch the Premier League,” Talha said. “But I keep one eye out on Blackburn’s results – your home town is your home town at the end of the day.”
Of course, supporting bigger teams isn’t specific to any community – it’s common worldwide.
“Blackburn can attract the Asian community to playing football too,” Talha said. “The town doesn’t have a shortage of good Asian players, but they don’t seem to make it, unfortunately.
“Football does all it can to bring communities together. The government can play a bigger part, but I think the rest is just up to us as individuals. How many of us actually want to achieve that common goal?”
Nasser believes Blackburn’s segregation is due to differences in cultural and religious beliefs.
“To improve this, Rovers is the perfect common ground. The club represents Blackburn’s people, including all communities. You’re part of something, a different kind of belonging.”
Outside football, Nasser’s leisure time is spent among Asian family and friends, but football has been “a perfect ice-breaker in many social situations”.
“I’ve made friendships with white students and lecturers, solely due to the common factor of us being Rovers fans – meaningful connections which may not have happened otherwise.”
Nasser feels Rovers’ community initiatives are on the right track, but is concerned the Venkys have damaged a good reputation, hence attendances dropping dramatically.
“When I speak to younger relatives about supporting Rovers, they laugh. Gaining promotion back to the Premier League would really get us back on the map and make it more appealing for new fans.”
Progress on the pitch aside, Nasser is impressed with the club’s work engaging the Asian community, especially over the last two years.
“They’ve really upped their efforts to attract a more diverse crowd and give us attention. It’s great to see.
“When I first started going, I only saw a handful of Asian men. Now there’s quite a lot of Asian women, families. I think Rovers have made them feel comfortable to attend.”
Manager Tony Mowbray has attended the last two Eid in the Park events with players in tow
Much of this good work is down to Blackburn Rovers Community Trust. In 2018, Rovers opened a new multi-faith prayer room, another part of the “football mosaic” they are building at Ewood, having been among the first clubs in the country to open such a facility in 2008.
In 2019 the club held its first Diwali event, and the trust attended the British Muslim Awards for first time, winning Community Initiative of the Year. Manager Tony Mowbray has attended the last two Eid in the Park events with players in tow, and has recently led senior staff in a fast for one day for Ramadan.
It was the trust that donated the tickets for the ARC trip. It also arranged a ground tour for Blackburn’s Sudanese community. Photos showed families having a wonderful time. Hanade Mahamed said she enjoyed the day. “Blackburn is segregated, but I think football can improve this. My family love football.”
Rovers are connecting fans globally too, online discussions including fans from Iraq, Indonesia, the US and Germany.
Leena Dwivedi lives in India. She has followed Rovers since 1995. “I have been to the stadium, a life achievement. I never imagined an Indian company would own such a proud club. It’s an out-of-this-world feeling for me.”
Evidently, the culture of a football club can reach every corner of the earth. Closer to home, other teams near Blackburn – also in diverse yet more traditional towns – face similar challenges, but are also showing promise.
Just up the M65, Burnley have involved their players with a project encouraging local resettled refugees to get into football.
More recently though, a Burnley fan tried to tarnish his club’s reputation. Although footballers have taken a strong united stand against racism in line with the Black Lives Matter movement, he organised a plane stunt for his team’s match against Manchester City. The plane towed a banner with the words “White Lives Matter Burnley” on it, which hit headlines.
Many Burnley players, staff and supporters strongly condemned it. Despite their fierce rivalry on the pitch and in the stands, Rovers and Clarets have both shown they want to reject racism and bring people together through football.
Asian families in Bradford used to be subject to racist abuse on match days, often not letting their children out of the house, let alone to go watch the game. But in 2015, the multicultural Bangla Bantams supporters group was founded, taking families to matches, a really positive step.
Teams based in cities arguably further ahead with cosmopolitan integration, like Arsenal and Man United, seem to already attract a more ethnically mixed fanbase. So where to go from here for Blackburn?
Clearly football can bring communities together, in Blackburn and beyond. This sentiment was expressed by everybody I interviewed. Rovers are doing great work to engage all communities in the town.
This could be beneficial for all of Blackburn too. Some people think footballing success and progress can go as far as improving an entire town’s fortunes, boosting positivity and prosperity for everyone, whether or not they’re a football fan.
You could question whether separately engaging groups from specific backgrounds – like taking a Sudanese group for a ground tour – is always the most effective way. Gayle would favour a method of reaching out to all communities together, by developing an integrated approach from the off. But things must start somewhere and such positives could lead to communities mixing more down the line.
As Robinson put it: “Whether football can heal racial tensions, I think it can play its part well. Rovers are only part of the equation, but it could be a powerful one.”
Marcus Raymond was commissioned to write this article by the Kick Down The Barriers project