Virtually every club in the region claims to be “The Pride of Lancashire”. Some carry with that claim the weight of history and tradition. Some are throwing the statement out rather like Father Jack at a bottle of whiskey – no more than a drunken slur.
Pride comes in many forms, of course. Burnley might claim pride as the highest ranking Lancashire club with their recent, lengthy Premier League tenure; Preston North End always boast that the PP on their badge could stand for ‘Proud Preston’, as opposed to the original ‘Princeps Pacis’ – Latin for ‘Prince of Peace’; and Blackburn Rovers, of course, have a number of trophies and records to throw into the ring – the first club to win a hat trick of FA Cups (6 in total), the League Cup win in 2002 and obviously the Premier League title in 1995.
There are also many reasons why a fan might feel pride with their club. Championship victories, level of support (both in terms of quality and quantity) and continental notoriety are among the more common ones. However, I feel, community spirit should be as high, if not higher, than many. Through trusts and public appearances, clubs often donate their funds and/or their players’ free time to many a worthy cause and so they should. Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, football clubs up and down the country offered their stadiums as test centres, their surplus food and drink to food banks and key worker sectors.
Blackburn Rovers have recently garnered local recognition for opening Ewood Park to its resident Muslim community. Already in situ within the concourse of the stadium is a multi-faith prayer room where Muslim fans are encouraged to perform their prayers. But in 2022, the club took this to the next level. For the first time ever, Ewood Park’s gates were opened for Eid. To our knowledge, Blackburn are the only club in the country to offer this. Croke Park in Dublin was open during the pandemic as 500 socially distanced worshippers celebrated the Festival of Eid. At Ewood Park, over 3000 Muslims, both local and from further afield, brought their prayer mats onto the football pitch to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan.
Imam Wasim Kempson is quoted as saying, “We’re very grateful for Blackburn Rovers to open their doors, literally, for us to pray on the pitch and it shows the great engagement that the local community has with the football club…this is a good example for all clubs around the country to show that they’re taking on diversity and moving forward.”
Rovers’ CEO, Steve Waggott said, “We’re the first club to ever host the Eid prayer on the pitch which is great but it follows on from the last few years of having a prayer room installed, having alcohol-free bars, having Halal food, launching an Ewood Express service to bring young people and families to the stadium…all the things we have to do to attract a new wave of supporters from our South Asian community.”
All this action taken resulted in Blackburn Rovers winning the Diversity Award at the EFL Awards.
Since then, the stadium has been offered once again but sadly had to be relocated due to the recent weather to protect the playing surface ahead of Blackburn Rovers’ upcoming fixtures. It has been made clear, however, that Ewood Park will continue to be offered as a place of worship going forwards. Another example of Rovers’ embrace of Islam is the home League Cup game versus Hartlepool United during which Muslim supporters would need to observe Maghrib Salaah (Sunset Prayer) which would fall during the second half of the match. On social media, fans wishing to attend the game and not miss their scheduled prayers were invited to locate a steward at the ground for directions to a specific lounge which had been made available and a season ticket holder of Muslim faith would lead the prayers.
Approximately a quarter of the population of Blackburn is of Indian or Pakistani descent, a figure that is mirrored in people of Muslim faith, so it makes sense that the football club, which is the heart of the community in many ways, encourages and embraces their inclusion.
One high profile example of this was the kit release for the 2022/23 season was a short film highlighting many people but predominantly Tez Ilyas, a British-Pakistani stand-up comedian and comic actor born and bred in Blackburn. Through the message of “My Club, My Shirt”, the video promotes the principle of no matter your background, your colours are blue and white.
Although this is a collective effort by the whole community and everyone at the club, one man stands out as a major influence in knitting these worlds of football and Islam together more tightly. Yasir Sufi is Blackburn Rovers’ Integration & Development Manager. As his twitter profile suggests, he is “breaking barriers and changing perceptions” and has become an integral part of this project at Rovers. His efforts have produced a 30% increase in season ticket sales among the Muslim community. Some fans have stayed away from the stadium previously due to lack of facilities and difficulties with certain aspects of the Muslim schedule clashing with football events but all the steps that have been taken at Ewood Park are now allowing them to feel included. One fan claimed on social media, “It’s been two decades since I last visited Ewood Park, so it was a real treat for me and my son to be shown around by Yasir Sufi and to learn about the great stuff he and the club are up to…I wish I could’ve spent more time at the matches growing up but things like seasonality of salaah, madressah every evening, no halal food, couldn’t make it out as much as I’d have liked. This is why I’m super proud that Rovers are leading the way in engaging with Blackburn by tailoring the Ewood experience to the character of its hometown constituency.”
As Sufi himself states, “At Blackburn Rovers, we’re big believers that we’re ‘one club, one town, one community’”
I am a Blackburn Rovers supporter and I am proud of my club for many reasons – the trophies we have won; the Academy that has produced so many good young, talented players; our passion for tradition…but I might just be proudest of our new drive in welcoming diversity and accepting all cultures and values. I am not a Muslim, I am not a follower of any specific religion, but I am proud that we welcome those who are.
So, for me, Blackburn Rovers are the pride of Lancashire.