How Blackburn Rovers’ push for inclusiveness brought the city’s Muslim community to Ewood Park

Blackburn has long been seen as a city divided by race. In 2007, the BBC’s Panorama program tracked the ethnic divide between Asian and white Muslim residents of Blackburn and concluded that the two populations often lived separate lives.

A decade later, the same program reported the same situation. A 2016 Casey report identified that Bastwell had the highest minority population in the country, with 85.3% of the population being Muslim.

Where there is division, there can be mistrust; where there is mistrust, racism can reoccur. In 2011, a BNP candidate seeking election to Blackburn’s board sparked outrage after disgusting comments were revealed on her Facebook page.

Muslims in the city have explained extensively how Islamist terrorism has influenced members of the city’s white community, making Muslims a target for retaliation and forcing rulers to apologize on behalf of those who do not represent their own beliefs. .

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Three miles from Bastwell, to the south of the city, is Ewood Park. Although Blackburn and Darwen’s population is 31% Asian, the club have historically struggled to attract a significant proportion of that community to games. It’s a crass experience, but look at any photo of a crowded booth at a Premier League or Football League game in the 1990s and count the number of non-white faces.

Football can – and should – be a connector. The Blackburn Rovers understand their unique position as a potential mainstay of every community in their city. In 2020, Rovers appointed Yasir Sufi as the club’s first integration and development manager in order to further develop ties with the non-white community, to involve those who might not be comfortable with attend the games and make the club a real heartbeat for its local people.

“Everything we do is aimed at removing any potential barriers that could prevent the community from attending a game at Ewood,” said General Manager Lynsey Talbot. “Eight years ago we created what we call the OneRovers brand. It was our umbrella of inclusion under which everything could be judged. It wasn’t just about the Asian fans or even all the fans, but also our staff and everything we do. Every project that we undertake, we need to make sure that it is accessible to everyone, no matter who you are.

Over the past few years, Blackburn Rovers has launched several inclusion initiatives. The NextGen program allocates an area of ​​the stadium for a few games each season and invites local schools, mosques and community groups to sit together; it was constantly oversubscribed. They brought together 12 families to fast for one day during Ramadan to forge an understanding between communities of different cultures and customs.

The Ewood Express provides transportation for children to attend games that otherwise would not be able to make it to the ground. The game day staffing and coaching system has been purposefully designed to be multicultural and all staff receive extensive training on the importance of inclusiveness. All the kiosks in the stadium halls now have Halal options and there is an area of ​​the pitch that is designated alcohol-free. Blackburn’s multi-faith prayer hall, established in 2018 and open to supporters, was the subject of a viral tweet last week.

“There was nothing planned about it; that was the most important thing, ”Sufi says. “I have received a few text messages from members of the Muslim community who have contacted me to say that they are considering participating in their very first Rovers match. [Morecambe in the EFL Cup] but didn’t know how they would handle their prayers, not knowing we had a prayer room. At this point we decided to put something on social media to raise awareness and it got a huge response.

“From my perspective, the most important thing was the overall reaction, not just the response from the Muslim community. There has been a lot of negative press, so to see something like that being so well received, it just gives you that positive encouragement that the fans are on our side. It wasn’t just Muslim fans and it wasn’t just Rovers fans. We have had fans from all over English football asking their clubs why they haven’t implemented something similar.

In 2006, the club founded a charity – Blackburn Rovers Community Trust – to examine and maximize the social responsibility it knew it had. Its CEO, Gary Robinson, pursues four distinct goals: health, education, sport participation and inclusion.

“Over the past five years in particular, we have approached our board and other multi-faith charities to work tirelessly on projects to bring different communities together and build commonalities between them,” said Robinson.

“We have white Brits who work in areas with a large Asian population and organize celebratory events where people can come together. Real friendships have been formed through our work. If people get mixed up in their everyday life, it leads them to come and watch their hometown football team peacefully.

“OneRovers is not just a slogan. We are committed to using football and the opportunity to watch football as a way to bring communities together. We believe we are making Ewood Park a place where everyone can feel safe, be themselves and be part of the local football club. And we will never stop doing it. It goes beyond football; the goal is to make Blackburn a more harmonious and prosperous place to live.

Each initiative comes with its own challenges. Not tackling under-representation is the easy option; As more and more non-white supporters attend games, so does the challenge of identifying and rooting out racism and Blackburn saw the need for rigorous procedures. Ewood Park is dotted with posters that inform supporters of the rules regarding discriminatory comments and behavior and include a list of penalties for those found guilty. Education plays an important role.

“If the incidents are serious enough to warrant police intervention, that is clearly appropriate, but we also believe that education plays a critical role in changing that behavior,” said Talbot. “We suggest training and education courses that teach supporters why this is not acceptable in society. At the end of the day, we’re all here to support Blackburn Rovers. When these supporters enter the stadium, there has to be an environment where we are all a city, a team and a club. “

A group of young Rovers fans make their way to Ewood Park (Photo: Getty)

And so in Ewood Park, things are changing. Soufi reflects on a group of South Asian supporters he knows personally and who have renewed their season tickets. They had their eyes open to the power of a club to be a place where you can spend time with your family, friends and children. Going to football has become part of their normalcy.

We must be careful not to fall into the trap of complacency here; recognition of progress is necessary, but the slaps in return do not help anyone. Blackburn is still a town with its problems; in certain circles, mistrust and suspicion surely still reign between the different communities. Blackburn Rovers cannot hope to fix these issues overnight and some issues are too complicated for them to solve. But they can make the difference; they make a difference.

“As positive as the feedback on our work is and as pleasant as the progress is, we also need to be realistic and realize that we have a long way to go,” says Talbot. “Our demographics in the stadium don’t match the demographics of the city; this is ideally where we want to come from. Doing this would not only make the club sustainable, it would ensure that we remain the heart of the community. “

The ultimate dream of Blackburn Rovers, Gary, Lynsey and Yasir, and everyone who works behind the scenes of Ewood Park on their community initiatives, is for it all to become self-fulfilling: communities engage each other to attend matches, supported by the positive experience; they connect with each other to form often unlikely relationships outside of the stadium; songs like this don’t need to be written.

Shortly before our interview, Sufi emails me a link to a comment made on the Facebook page of a Blackburn Rovers fan group. “Another classy thing that I noticed when I came back to Ewood Park today is that every time I go over the past two years I have seen more and more guys Asians arriving at Blackburn’s side singing, supporting the side and feeling welcome when 10 -20 years ago it was virtually unheard of, “the comment read.” Blackburn is a community club and all colors, creeds and races are welcome at Ewood, for my part, I hope our support will continue to diversify.

This is, Sufi firmly believes, what makes all the work worth it.

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