Zesh Rehman – remember the name?

He’s never been a player I imagined reminiscing about but, almost two decades on from a short-lived loan spell at Norwich City, I have found myself continually intrigued by him, for a pertinent personal reason.

Today, I fly out to Pakistan with three of my best mates to follow England’s cricketers as they embark on their first tour of the turbulent nation for 17 years.

Coincidently, that virtually mirrors the period of time that has passed since former Pakistani international Rehman, 39, donned the yellow and green jersey as City slogged their way to a firmly forgettable ninth-place finish under Nigel Worthington and Peter Grant in the 2005/06 Championship season.  

And those colliding circumstances led to a question I’ve often pondered resurfacing once more - why do we not have more British Asian footballers? 

Rehman remains one of just four British footballers of South Asian descent – constituting Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi – to have played in the Premier League, with Hamza Choudhury, Michael Chopra and Neil Taylor the other three stars to buck the bizarre trend and feature at the highest level.

Despite Rehman’s time at City coming relatively early in his career – he was 22 when he arrived in January 2006 – he had actually already made his Premier League debut by the time of his Norfolk cameo, shattering new ground by becoming the first British Asian to do so after coming on during Fulham’s – his parent and youth club – 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield in 2004.

And after an innocuous five appearances for the recently-relegated City, including a debut in a controversial 2-1 derby day defeat against Ipswich at Carrow Road, the former Pakistani captain has continued to blaze a trail both on and off the pitch.

Rehman, who played 25 times for his country between 2005 and 2019, is now the face of the Zesh Rehman Foundation, an initiative that works to provide sustainable pathways and opportunities within football and the sports industry more broadly across all demographics.

Notions of diversity, inclusion and equality may now be largely widespread across the board, but when it comes to British Asians in professional football, the figures are still concerning.

In addition to the four players to have defied adversity and battled their way into the top flight, just a small handful of others – eight in 2019, according to the Professional Footballers' Association – are active in the English Football League, a disturbing manifestation of an issue still rampant in the British game.

And given around seven per cent of the UK’s population is of South Asian descent – around 3.5 million people in total – those figures become even more alarming.

Identifying the causes of this significant under-representation remains difficult, however.

One factor may be the conspicuous lack of British Asians in high-profile footballing roles, with the overwhelming majority of those in positions of power – managers, administrators and former players – from white or black backgrounds and therefore potentially inhibiting the next generation from pursuing a career in the sport.

Or in an unedifying era of pervasive social media abuse, coupled with the cauldron that is playing in professional English football, perhaps fear of discrimination, Islamophobia and racism remains a deterrent, an issue that reared its head so prominently in the wake of last year’s Euro 2020 final at Wembley.

Discrimination itself may also be a factor, with bright, young Asian talent that emerges at grassroots level not being given the same level of support, guidance and nurture as white or black players of a similar ability.

This idea is only amplified by the fact that a similar percentage of British Asian teenagers play football as their white counterparts, discounting the simplistic suggestion that they prefer other sports such as cricket, hockey and tennis.

Regardless of the root causes, the fact Rehman remains just one of a handful of British Asian players to have navigated their way past the multitude of potential barriers in front of them and scale the professional heights is an issue the FA must intensify their efforts in combatting. 

And it can only function as a significant source of pride that City, even if only for five matches, have provided a home for a player who more than makes up for his minimal Carrow Road contribution with the beacon of hope he offers for the next generation throughout the football community and beyond.