When Neil Taylor watches his son play under-8s matches, the participation challenges become immediately apparent for English football.
“Around Birmingham, I still don’t see enough Asians playing in other youth teams,” Taylor tells The Associated Press. “The higher numbers you have, the more chance you’ve obviously got of creating elite players.”
Taylor knows that all too well.
The Aston Villa defender is one of only 15 British players of Asian heritage in English football’s four professional leagues. And the Wales international, whose mother was born in India’s West Bengal state, is working to grow the numbers of British Asians making it, like him, into the Premier League by mentoring the next generation.
It means making himself available for calls with aspiring players and guiding their parents as part of a Professional Footballers’ Association mentoring scheme.
“It’s about helping them and talking through the process and what they might come across — stuff that I never had as a kid,” said Taylor, who grew up in north Wales.
“I just want to see more people take that jump, enjoy a smile on your face, play football. Don’t be worried about it or have any anxiety.”
Inevitably, the conversations while mentoring can turn to racism afflicting the game still. Taylor will point out the atmosphere around clubs is more welcoming and they are willing to shut down prejudice.
“That bias that you think might be there … about the physicality of South Asians,” the 32-year-old Taylor says. “I think now people realize that they’re being called out on that. People aren’t turning the other cheek now to stuff like that anymore.”
Taylor likes to focus on the gradual growth in fellow British Asians making it as a pro, with the 15 this season in England already a jump from the eight players making the field last season across the Premier League and English Football League. More than 7% of the national population is Asian and Asian British people.
“That sort of that unconscious bias and prejudice that might be there I don’t think is going to be there, especially in the years to come,” Taylor said on a video call from home after training. “I think even now, there’s more participation now than when I probably first started.”
Taylor will also offer tips on the sacrifices that have to be made by youngsters to progress into top-level teams and how to pick the right agent. Preparing kids for not making the grade is also important.
“I prepare them for failure, which is, a lot of the time, unfortunately, inevitable,” he said.
Taylor was released as a 15-year-old by Manchester City.
“It’s that massive hit to the system and the letdown and the expectations you have in the community with your friends of, ‘He’s going to be a footballer, he’s going to make it,'” Taylor recalls. “And then suddenly back down to earth.”
But Taylor seized another opportunity lower down the ranks at Wrexham before earning a move to Swansea. With that, Taylor made it into the Wales squad — scoring at the 2016 European Championship in the run to the semifinals — and also playing for Britain at the 2012 Olympics.
In 2017, Taylor left Swansea, which was then playing in the Premier League, for second-tier Aston Villa but he helped the central England team return to the top division.
Playing in the Premier League makes Taylor a rarity as a British Asian, but he doesn’t want to dwell on that. He sees the PFA’s Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme as a necessary long-term strategy, compared to previous initiatives.
“I don’t think over the years necessarily we’ve changed the narrative at all,” Taylor said. “It’s always been about how the boundaries are there, how there’s always too many problems, Asians face a harder route to the top than your average white male, so to speak. And I think it’s just about changing that narrative.”
The mentoring network of players was established by PFA player inclusion executive Riz Rehman, who played for Brentford. It was his brother, Zesh Rehman, who became the first British Asian to play in the Premier League in 2004 while with Fulham.
“We’ve got to try and really focus wholly on those young South Asian players who have ability and it’s just about harnessing them and sort of supporting their journey,” Riz Rehman said. “We need to celebrate their achievements to really encourage those kids at the grassroots now.”