What was life like for a young British Asian living in the Midlands, where football is prominent with the likes of West Brom, Leicester City, Birmingham City and Aston Villa on your doorstep?
I grew up right inbetween Villa Park and St Andrews. I could hear the atmosphere at the games from my home when they were playing. There were times when me and my brother Riz would stand outside the stadium during a live game to try and get a peep inside because we could not afford to buy tickets for every game.
I was crazy about football even at a young age. My friends and I would play in the streets for hours smashing the ball against the factory shutters opposite my house. Everywhere was a football pitch; the garden, the living room, the bedroom. Absolutely everything revolved around the game.
I grew up in a very multicultural area and mixed with a variety of cultures and religions from a young age which was definitely a positive experience as I learned to understand and respect people from different backgrounds very early on in my life.
The norm in the Asian culture is to pursue a career in business or IT. What was it like going down a different avenue?
My dad being a second generation Asian in England adopted a similar mindset of most Asian parents of his time, which was to emphasise the importance of studying and education. However, the major difference was that he was open minded to football as a realistic career choice and not just a hobby.
My dad made sure we studied hard but never pressured me or my brother Riz to give up playing or just focus on becoming a doctor, lawyer or following him into the business of running a local grocery shop.
How supportive were your family in making that decision?
Football was something that filtered down to me from my dad. He used watch Aston Villa in the 80s when football hooliganism was at its peak and we inherited his love for the game.
My whole family were very supportive of me, including my four sisters who would often make do without new toys so my parents could buy me boots and equipment I needed as well as have enough petrol money to travel to all my training sessions and games. My whole family made huge sacrifices.
At the age of 12 you were spotted by a Fulham scout. Where and how did that come about and did you realise back then that your life would change from that moment on?
My family were flirting with the idea of moving to London and during that time I was playing for a local side when a Fulham scout named Gary Clark offered me a trial for two weeks. It turned out to be a successful trial.
My family moved to London on a permanent basis and I was at Fulham for the next 10 years progressing from the school boys, youth and reserve teams and eventually into the first team.
At the time I did not know it was going to be life changing but I knew that I was going to grasp the opportunity with both hands and be the most hard working player within my age group. Often with young players its the attitude, hunger and willingness that separates the ones who go on to make it and those who fall by the wayside.
You went on to make your professional debut for Fulham in September 2003. How was that as a feeling for you personally but also your family?
My first game for Fulham was special. It was a league cup game away at Wigan. We lost the game but it was a dream come true to put on a shirt for the first team because years of hard work and sacrifice went into it.
After that game I went on loan to Brighton in the old second division to play under Steve Coppell, which was a fantastic experience at 19 to be playing regular first team football. It was a dose of the real world which was to be pivotal when I retuned to Fulham because I came back as a man with a stronger mentality and ready to step up to play for the first team on a regular basis.
Even back then, did you realise what your debut could and would mean for British Asians in football?
I knew my Premier league debut would make some headlines because it was new ground I was breaking and I was aware I was trailblazing but tried not to put any extra pressure on myself.
I was hoping the floodgates would open but it’s going to take a long time before that happens. After my full debut in the 04/05 season against Spurs at home, the national papers the next day gave me a lot of positive coverage so I think it was then that the penny really dropped about how big of a deal it was to play in the Premier League as a British Asian.
How do you assess your time at Fulham and also as a professional footballer in England?
I played 30 games for Fulham at a time when there were some real quality players at the club, the likes of Andy Cole, Edwin Van Der Sar, Louis Saha, Louis Boa Morte to name a few, so it was a fantastic experience to play and learn from them and to play for Chris Coleman who was my role model growing up watching Fulham.
I played 200 games in England and in all four divisions so I look back at that time with fond memories, satisfaction and absolutely no regrets.
You’ve since played abroad with Muangthong United, Kitchee and Pahang FC. Was there any reason in particular you decided to move and play abroad?
The move abroad came about from a random phone call. At first I thought it was a prank call and hung up several times! I was offered the chance to visit Muangthong United in Bangkok, Thailand, and after one hour at the club I put pen to paper. I followed my gut instinct and decided to change direction in my life to accept a new challenge.
I left the UK with just a 20kg suitcase ready to start afresh. I have been playing my trade in Asia now for over five years so I guess my gut instinct was right. I enjoyed one year in Thailand, two years in Hong Kong and am now entering my third year in Malaysia. This season I have been handed the captain’s armband which is a huge honour and challenge.
I have played in competitive games all over Asia playing over 200 games so it has been a wonderful journey, allowing me to make some excellent business and football contacts along the way.
There are now a few British Asian footballers within Premier League academies, with the hope of breaking through at the likes of Liverpool and West Brom. Is that beneficial for progression for British Asians to make more of a break through?
It’s good to see some more numbers in the academy system but the most important thing at that stage for those guys is quality mentoring and mental toughness training. It’s such a vulnerable stage and often the most difficult for any aspiring footballer.
The real progression for British Asians in football will come when there is a greater representation across the board, not just on the football pitch but behind the scenes in areas such as coaching, commercial, financial, media, medical and in the board rooms. There are hundreds of jobs in the game besides playing so there needs to be an increase in all areas in my opinion.
Since you played in the Premier League, many hoped that it would have paved the way for more British Asians in the top flight, but it hasn’t happened. Does that surprise you?
It does not greatly surprise me because there is no one who can give the potential players or the decision makers the real insight that they need in order to break the barriers and overcome the perceptions and misconceptions.
The British Asian kids need to stop feeling sorry for themselves, breakaway from the victim mentality that unfortunately exists and stop blaming everyone else for notmaking the grade. The personnel at the clubs need to be further educated, by that I mean the decision makers like the scouts and coaches.
Unless there is a constructive mentoring programme for both players and clubs we may well have another wasted decade. I want to use my experiences to help in whatever way I can to see the numbers rise.
You’re regarded as highly on the pitch as off it. Was that a goal of yours when you first started this journey; to be equally as influential as possible?
My goal when setting out to be a footballer was to help others follow in my footsteps, help open doors and to be the best possible player I could be.
Knowing many people are looking up to me or that my presence in the game represents hope for them only motivates me to work even harder to prolong my stay in the game, make a difference and give something back along the way.
You also founded the Zesh Rehman Foundation. Was that a big part of your identity in terms of giving back to the local community?
I have always been actively involved with the community departments at all the clubs I have played for and think it’s vital to give something back to the game which has been great to me.
The feeling of knowing my Foundation has helped some kids get qualified as coaches, get qualifications and find employment after their circumstances seemed bleak is just as rewarding as scoring infront of hundreds of fans.
The Foundation has been running for over five years now and impacted thousands of lives in a positive way which is what it’s all about. We work in conjunction with the PFA, the Premier League and several clubs including Fulham, QPR, Liverpool and Crystal Palace. The next step for the Foundation is an international arm starting in Asia.
What has football, both in this country and abroad, taught you?
Football has taught me to embrace life on life’s terms instead of trying make it conform to an agenda and to be open minded, prepared to change course and meet challenges head on.
contacts all over the world, sample different cultures, have a wonderful life experience and appreciate everything in my life.
I think the biggest lesson I have learned is that there are many ways to achieve your goals and the road you end up on may not be the one you initially planned but if your strong enough to overcome physical, mental and verbal barriers you can achieve your goals.
I have been fortunate to have won plenty of silverware during my time in Asia but life is not just about winning. It’s about learning something about yourself and the people around you in the pursuit of winning.
Finally, what’s next for Zesh Rehman?
I am enjoying life in the Malaysia Super League playing for Pahang FC at the moment. I spend my spare time with my family and two young children. They have helped bring a balance and sense of perspective to my life.
I have completed my UEFA B LLicence and will hopefully be A Licence qualified before June 2016. I am on course to complete the Pro Licence by the time I am 35 so I can make a smooth transition into the coaching world.
My aim is to continue to grow my Foundation projects by collaborating with more clubs and in more countries. I have a business in place, which has helped several partnerships form from the UK to Asia and vice versa. Several players and clubs have reaped the benefits of that already so thats something I will continue to work on when the playing days are over. Finally, my iPhone application has been updated with more languages so when I get time I will be looking to add some more languages to it because the game is becoming more and more diverse in all Countries.
Follow Zesh’s remarkable journey:
Twitter: @Zesh_Rehman Instagram: @Zesh_Rehman
www.ZeshRehman.com www.ZeshRehmanFoundation.orgClick here to stay up to date with AtTheMatch