Asian Football Awards winner admits the professional game for ethnic minorities is 'not a bed of roses - you have to work hard'
Irfan Kawri, believed to be the only first-team scout from an Asian background in the top two divisions, has called on others to follow his lead and increase the proportion of ethnic minority coaching and technical staff in the game.
The wider under-representation of British Asians in the game, both on the field and off it, has been the focus of intense debate for more than a decade. Kawri, a first-team opposition scout for Wigan Athletic, says the reaction to him in the game has been almost entirely positive and he hopes his experience will encourage others from a similar background to seek backroom roles.
"There should be more integration between the minority cultures and the British culture. When I was a young lad at school the Asian lads would call me a coconut because my circle of friends included a lot of white British lads, and that was through football," says Kawri, who grew up in Bolton.
"They would just play in their own communities, five a side or seven a side, while I would play in the proper leagues. But that was brilliant because I learned what it was like in the dressing room environment and they learned about my culture and my religion – it worked both ways."
Kawri, who this week won the Inspiration Award at the Asian Football Awards at Wembley, played as a schoolboy at Rochdale before moving into non-league football with Leigh RMI and then into coaching back at Spotland Stadium.
He looks back on the period when he was released by Rochdale as a player to highlight one of the issues he feels some Asian players still face. Despite his parents being hugely supportive since, he says that then they didn't see football as a career. "I went for a trial at Bradford when Chris Kamara was first-team manager and Chris Hutchings was youth team coach and they said they wanted me, but I reported back to my parents and they didn't know what to make of it. For that generation, football was just a game, it wasn't a career. They geared me towards education."
Having gained his coaching badges and a sports science degree, Kawri first got involved with scouting youth team opposition while employed as an academy coach at Rochdale, before working for a company that supplies scouts to most major clubs, then moving on to Barnsley and Notts County. He moved to Wigan at the beginning of the season, thanks to links with their chief scout, John McGinley.
"You've got to be within those professional circles. If you're not, it's very difficult to get in," he admits, but says that needn't be a barrier to those from minority backgrounds. "The professional football industry is not like any other industry. If you're not in it, it can be difficult to understand. It's not a bed of roses. You have to work hard."
To tackle the difficulties involved in getting a foothold in the game, Kick It Out runs a successful mentoring scheme that seeks to pair those established in football with those seeking experience in a range of roles. More players from Asian backgrounds are coming to prominence in the game, but progress has been slow.
The Swansea City full-back Neil Taylor was named Player of the Year at the Asian Football Awards on Tuesday, ahead of Blackpool's striker Michael Chopra and Danny Batth at Wolves.
Off the field, the under-representation is yet more stark. AFA founder Baljit Rihal says part of the aim of the awards was to get more Asians involved in all aspects of the game. "Since our inaugural event last year, the support from across the industry has been astonishing, but we are not just concerned with increasing Asian on the field," says Rihal, who is also a licensed agent. "Our aim is also to help make the hierarchies of organisations that govern football more reflective of the society within which we live."
But, despiteongoing concerns – most recently aired by Sol Campbell – that those from minority backgrounds find it harder to secure coaching positions, Kawri insists that he has not felt impeded by the colour of his skin.
"You can't keep using the racism excuse for why there is such a low representation of Asians in football. I've had a lot of positive experiences," he says. "Sometimes you might get people who in the back of their mind are thinking 'can he really do it?' There are no role models. But it's up to you to get into that person's mind and turn it into a positive."
At present Kawri still does not earn enough from the game to devote himself to it full time. He combines his scouting work with teaching PE and being a father to five-year-old twins, relying on a supportive family to enable him to cram it all in, and his immediate goal is to earn a living solely from football.
"I never set myself specific targets. Things can change very quickly. I'll just keep working hard every day and see where it takes me."