Karan Rai feels that the appointment of Josh Gowling as Hereford manager will have a ‘huge impact’. Below he explains why.

When Malawian born Hereford United captain Tamika Mkanadwire sent a bullet header into the Morecambe net in the sixth minute of the Conference Play-Off Semi-Final in 2006, I along with 6000 other fans in a packed Edgar Street went absolutely barmy. Hereford won the tie in a pulsating affair over two legs and were now dreaming of playing in the promised land of the Football League again after a nine-year spell in the wilderness of non-league English football. That game against Morecambe at Edgar Street was special to me for two-reasons. Firstly, it was my first ever football game. As a ten-year old, many fans will resonate with me when they recall their first-experiences at a football game, gasping at the huge ocean of green under the floodlights, having sensory overload from the inspirational music pumping out of the speakers during the warm-up and the heavenly smell of grilled burgers wafting through the air. The second reason this game was special was that prior to this I hated football, my uncle somehow managed to secure some tickets and took me along with him into the rammed Blackfriars Stand. When Tamika headed that goal into the net, I instantly knew I wanted to be a professional footballer and not just any footballer, I wanted to be like Tamika. I resonated with him, we both had ‘funny sounding names’, were both people of colour and both loved Hereford United. I remember being in my garden or in the playground at school and literally pretending that I was Tamika, trying to be that commanding centre-back and inspirational leader, despite having two-left feet and being overly shy. This game created a worrying obsession with football and support for the Bulls. I remember pleading with my dad to take me to a player book signing for Ron Parrott’s Hereford United: The Wilderness Years at the ‘Legends Bar’ and shaking when handing over a pen for Tamika to sign my book, stuttering with nervousness and feeling the anxiety relieved when he gave me a simple fist-bump as a thank you for coming. When you are young your favourite players often feel God-like. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the month. 

This story is important because of the incredible effect it can have on you when you see someone you resonate with in a position of power. As a young British Asian at the time, there was virtually no-one I knew of that I could see in those top positions. No one looked like me at school, in politics, on British TV, in sport or the city I lived in. Tamika Mkandawire was the first ever person I aspired to be like. When you do not see people like you in an industry, it can make you question whether you belong there. I remember once proudly brandishing a new England kit I received for my twelfth birthday to a family friend at a barbeque and stating naïvely and with pure confidence that I wanted to play for England. He laughed and responded, ‘we will never see a Paki play for England, dream on son’. That completely crushed me and made me realise how much Asian’s have internalised the feeling that they do not feel that they belong in football.  

Hereford is not the most diverse of places, it is 98.2% white and growing up as an Asian here has had its struggles. It is important to understand that people of colour in Britain go through a largely different experience throughout life compared to their white counterparts. My first encounter with racism was in Year Two at primary school. I was five years old and went into the school toilets to be met by a much bigger boy from Year Six telling me that ‘he had a knife in his pocket and was going to stab and kill me because he didn’t like Pakis’. Reading this it is quite laughable now that a kid in Year Six would say this, he did not have a knife, however at that time it was extremely frightening. I remember running out and sobbing relentlessly to my mum when she picked me up from school and pleading with her not to send me back the next day. Walking to school and hearing regular racial remarks casually hurled at me on Whitecross Road lazily through passing cars or kids from other schools passing me was an all too common experience, all purely based on the colour of my skin. The worst thing was that this was before I even hit the age of ten and many of those hurling abuse from the cars were adults. Incidents like this at such a young age affect your self-esteem and the way you view your place in the world.  

It is odd being an Asian fan at Hereford games, you stand out like a sore thumb and I can probably count the other number of ethnic minority fans I have seen at Hereford games on one hand. However, paradoxically it has been the first place I have ever felt a sense of belonging to something much greater than myself. I have made many good friends at the club and have experienced much kindness throughout my time supporting Hereford over the last fourteen years. However, I would be lying if I said I have never experienced racism from fans, even once hearing monkey noises at an opposition’s black player. I also remember being filled with pride as a young boy, seeing fellow Sikh, Jarnail Singh wearing a patka, refereeing a game at Edgar Street. However, I was soon hit with utter shock when he gave a decision to the opposition and someone in the crowd shouted ‘raghead’. I remember my stomach churning, feeling sick and flustered. It made me anxious for the rest of the game and I remember he gave another decision in favour of the opposition team and someone responding with the chant of ‘he’s got a tea towel on his head’, despite tens of thousands of turban wearing Sikhs dying valiantly for Britain in the World Wars. I did not tell my parents as I knew they would not want me to go again.  

Whilst I have so far painted a bleak picture, this has not entirely been the case and for every bad thing I have experienced, I have witnessed ten more good ones. However, it would be wrong to paint over and ignore these cracks. It is important in the current climate of the huge momentum garnered by the Black Lives Matter movement to talk about racism and be more open and honest about things. As I have moved away from Hereford and travelled around a bit, I would be lying if I said I have not started feeling disconnected from the club over the last few years. This is mainly due to not just being further away geographically but becoming more aware of structural racism, which I didn’t really understand as a young nipper, seeing more diverse and inclusive fan bases at Premier League clubs and noticing that I could feel the presence of my colour more in the terraces. Believe it or not despite going to hundreds of football games I often suffer from pangs of severe anxiety whilst walking up to a stadium because of the fear of someone spontaneously shouting something racist or offensive which has happened to me in the past. An example was being at the Euro 2020 qualification game between Bulgaria and England in Sofia last year and having to wait in the stadium for up to an hour after full-time because there were groups of Neo-Nazi’s at the stadium who had been brandishing swastikas, doing Nazi-salutes and made monkey noises at England’s black players throughout the game.  

The appointment of Josh Gowling as manager for me, was a very special moment and meant more than just football. There are only seven managers out of one-hundred and sixty in England’s top six divisions who are not white (4.3%). I often hear the phrase, ‘yes but if you’re good enough, you’ll make it’ and that ‘we shouldn’t see colour’. Whilst I understand where these statements are coming from, they are troublesome and are not necessarily true. Firstly, whether we like to think it or not, the UK is not as much of a meritocracy as we think it is and the Coronavirus death toll disproportionately affecting those from BAME communities have displayed the huge inequalities that structurally exist in the UK for all to see. BAME people are more likely to live in deprivation, work in lower-paid jobs, live in more over-crowded homes and develop more health conditions as a result, thus making BAME people more susceptible to COVID-19. I thoroughly recommend watching David Harewood’s BBC documentary Will Britain ever have a black Prime Minister? Exposing the shocking realities of structural racism black people face. 45% of black people grow up in poverty compared to 25% of white people and just from the ‘lottery of birth’, being born black means you are twelve times less likely to be in the hotseat at Number 10 Downing Street. The stats blatantly show we are not a meritocracy. For anyone who also says that ‘we shouldn’t see colour’, I would like to ask if you would genuinely be happy to swap being white for being a person of colour and the experiences you get packaged with that. If you say you are happy to experience being regularly rejected into nightclubs by bouncers because of trivial things such as ‘you’re wearing the wrong colour socks’ (more like you’re unfortunately the wrong colour skin), being told to ‘go back home’ despite being third generation British, being regularly stopped and searched, having older white people talk slowly to you in a patronising way because they assume you don’t speak English despite having an A* in GCSE English and going to a top-five ranking university, feeling you have to cross the street when you see a white woman walking in front of you to ensure that you don’t make them feel uncomfortable in case you appear ‘threatening’ to them, facing awkward stares and seeing people blatantly whispering about you with quick scornful glances in a restaurant or pub because you are having dinner or a drink with a white female and even worse someone saying something racist with no-one standing up for you. If your answer is ‘no you would not want to swap colour’ then you will see why that statement is troublesome. 

In terms of football, we can look at the case studies of Port Vale who openly stated that they rejected Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink as manager in 2013 because they ‘feared he would get racist abuse from his own fans’; in 2012, a Zenit St. Petersburg supporters group wrote to the club asking for non-whites to be ‘excluded’ from the team, as they said black players were ‘forced down Zenit’s throat’ and Danny Rose stating it would be a ‘waste of time’ to do coaching qualifications as black managers are ‘not given a chance’. Is this true? If we look at two black managers and where they have started their careers, Sol Campbell (Macclesfield and Southend) and Ashley Cole (Chelsea U15’s) who both have had illustrious careers, they have not had the same opportunity to start at top-level clubs such as Steven Gerrard (Rangers) and Frank Lampard (Derby County and Chelsea), with whom they have played in the same England teams and have the same qualifications. Whilst I am not arguing that if you’re black you should automatically manage in the Premier League, all I am saying is that firstly this shows again we are not a meritocracy. Being a player and a manager are two completely different skillsets and for Lampard and Gerrard to be propelled into two high profile roles with little to no coaching experience very early on in their careers and having similar playing experiences and qualifications as Campbell and Cole then this shows there is a problem. This is also compounded by the fact that no Premier League club and virtually no English Football League club has a black owner, chairman or chief executive and that there is only one black board member amongst the twelve biggest sports in the UK. This just shows how the cycle repeats itself: receive racism and becoming ‘labelled’ at a young age, then growing up to not have any relatable role models in positions of power, end up staying in lower-paid roles thus reinforcing the structural inequalities. It is a fact that companies with more diverse boards perform better than those who have people from the same background with similar experiences. 

In all honesty I never thought that in a million years that I would see an ethnic minority in the Hereford hot seat, as far as I know Josh is Hereford FC/United’s first ever black manager and this should be celebrated. For someone like me, this appointment has an impact that goes beyond football. Seeing someone in charge who has gone through similar experiences to me has rekindled a strong connection back to the club which I thought I had lost. The club has done some great work on equality and diversity, especially supporting the fantastic Disabled Supporters Group. Hopefully, we will see a youngster who was like me, who sees Josh in a position of power and feels like they can connect with him and as a result feel inspired to pursue a career in the game and believe that maybe, just maybe it is possible to make it, despite being a different colour to everyone else, just like how my younger self did with Tamika. Josh understands the barriers many BAME people face and will be resilient from incidents that he has experienced in the game and will be empathetic and supportive to black players in that aspect. I am excited about Josh and Steve Burr taking the reins, they are both positive, energetic, and engaging with fans. With them in charge, I feel that there is something special on the horizon and I am proud to see the support shown by the club and fans in challenging racism and discrimination.

Source: Bulls News