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The Ewood Express

The Ewood Express

Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ shirt has sold for over £7million – and in the process has made former England midfielder Steve Hodge incredibly rich.

Blackburn is a town with industrial roots in Lancashire, just 21 miles from Manchester. 

In the past it produced cotton, but cheaper foreign imports saw that industry go into sharp decline…between 1950 and 1967, 65% of textile jobs had disappeared. 

Over the years, people from countries in South Asia like India and Pakistan came to work in the cotton mills. 

The 2011 census showed that over one-third of the population describe themselves as Asian.

And the town has had its fair share of problems with integration. An issue highlighted by the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2018. 

“Any house in this area that goes up for sale, it’s a hundred percent that it’ll be an Asian that buys it.”

BBC

An article on the subject in the New Statesman says that “Over time, young people in Blackburn have lost their connection with south Asia, and are no longer fluent in Urdu, Punjabi or Gujarati. But this has not always coincided with a strengthening of bonds to Britain.”

“In 2015, Dame Louise Casey was asked by the government to write a review into integration policy.

We are living with the consequences of not managing migration and immigration effectively. We’ve done a bit of it, but we haven’t been on it to the degree that we need to do so, and I think we have a divided country.”

BBC

What’s all this got to do with football?

Blackburn Rovers is trying to improve community cohesion, by making the stadium more welcoming to those who have felt excluded.

And on the 2nd of May, it became the first club in the UK to host Eid prayers on the pitch.

After a month of fasting, Eid prayers like Blackburn has never seen them before. Normally Eid gatherings after Ramadan would take place in mosques across this town, in which more than a third of people describe themselves as Muslim.

BBC North West Tonight

The club said around 2,000 people attended. Its integration and development manager – Yasir Sufi – has coined the phrase “One Town, One Club, One Community.” He says the event shows the huge role football clubs everywhere can play in welcoming people from diverse backgrounds.

And it seems to be working, too. Here are some who attended the prayers speaking to BBC North West Tonight…

Praying on the pitch is quite special, obviously praying at Ewood Park. Yeah just great…I think it’s a great way to bring everyone together.

BBC North West Tonight

It’s been absolutely brilliant, really beautiful if I’m honest. Quite emotional! Absolutely amazing...”

BBC North West Tonight

Events like that seem to be encouraging people from the Muslim community to actually attend the matches. 

Yasir Sufi shared an email he’d received from a man who attended the prayers with his son. He said he’d be watching the team soon…and not just on TV, either.

Long-time supporters of the club are getting behind the drive for inclusion, too. One Blackburn season ticket holder also said it was great to see Ewood Park looking more diverse than it had been in 25 years.

And the work Yasir Sufi has done is getting noticed.

And the winner of this year’s EFL diversity award is… Blackburn Rovers.

Blackburn Rovers

He’s spearheaded the “Ewood Express” initiative… a scheme which sees buses collect local children from deprived and diverse communities and gives them the chance to watch the match for just a few pounds.

And there’s a reason why this work is so important to Yasir Sufi.

I was a young, South Asian kid who couldn’t go to a football game until I was about 14, 15, mainly because my parents didn’t think a football stadium was for me. Affordability, accessibility, was a problem at the time. Ewood Express this season has brought over 2,500 kids from all communities, mainly diverse communities to a football match and the reactions say it all. Some of those kids, when they walk into the stadium for the first time, just that makes it worthwhile.

Blackburn Rovers

Yasir Sufi’s success at Blackburn Rovers shows the huge influence football clubs can have over their local communities and how they can change things for the better.

Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford and mixed by Gemma Newby.