The PFA Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS) has made significant progress in its third year of a five-year strategy aimed at nurturing South Asian footballers and increasing representation in elite football.
Led by Riz Rehman, Player Inclusion Executive at the PFA, the scheme has resulted in a record number of players within the Professional Development Phase and 15 professional players across the Premier League and EFL. One in two professional club academies now has at least one player with South Asian heritage.
Riz Rehman said: "I am extremely proud of the ground-breaking work we have achieved over the last two and a half years – the AIMS network has grown considerably, and it's important to focus on the progress that has been made. We are now seeing more players progress from the youth development phase into the professional development phase. This will give confidence to academy players and their families that there is a pathway for them in football."
"We are continuing to work closely with clubs to boost representation across the younger age groups and have facilitated talent identification events nationwide with Arsenal, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Cardiff City and Manchester United FC. Although there will always be issues and statistics we need to continue working to improve, the important thing is to begin working towards them, and that's what we are doing".
The AIMS programme recently held its second annual 'Player Development Day' at St Georges Park, attended by over 100 players. The day included presentations for parents, a workshop on building resilience, and opportunities for players to connect with peers and receive coaching from professional club and academy coaches.
Riz Rehman said: "From 30 players at our first event in 2021 to now having over 100 players at St Georges Park illustrates the success of the work and the buy-in we've had from players and families. Days like these are not possible without the support from clubs, who excused their players from competitive academy fixtures and encouraged their attendance at the event. I was delighted to see so many staff from clubs in attendance who recognise the additional value the AIMS programme brings to their players' overall holistic development".
PFA members Danny Batth, Zesh Rehman, and Sahil Bashir were among those who praised the initiative and its impact on the development of young South Asian players.
Sunderland defender and PFA AIMS mentor Danny Batth said: "I've seen first-hand the importance of the AIMS programme, and I'm proud to play my part to help the next generation of players through advice and guidance.
"Riz has been very proactive over the last few years in connecting personally with players and their families, and that was evident today with the turnout we've had. When I was coming through, there were less than a handful of players from similar backgrounds and certainly no Asian coaches, and very few support staff within the professional game.
"Today highlighted the different pathways players can take when transitioning out of the game, and Zesh is evident that opportunities can arise earlier if you get yourself qualified whilst still playing".
Portsmouth Assistant Manager and PFA AIMS mentor Zesh Rehman added: "Most of my involvement with AIMS since its inception has been from afar and via Zoom. It was inspiring to meet so many players and families in person, and I'm sure they will all leave enthused.
"The PFA have done some tremendous work in connecting with players, and credit must also go to all my peers and the young professionals who have voluntarily given up their time to share experiences with those coming through the system. Danny Batth, Neil Taylor, Mal Benning, Otis Khan, and others will hopefully stay within the game in some capacity, as they have so much to give back. It's been great connecting with them all today".
Brighton and Hove Albion Scholar and AIMS mentee Sahil Bashir added: "I've been involved with AIMS since I was 15 years old, and I look forward to all the PFA events. As a young player who is still learning his trade, it is like gold dust connecting with senior players who are regular first-team starters. Having the opportunity to join in training with them, ask questions and learn about how they deal with setbacks can only further my development on and off the pitch".