Many immigrant communities in the United Kingdom stretch back several generations. They are an established part of British society, so it is little surprise that some have spawned football clubs of their own. These vary wildly in size, support, finances and following, but each one possesses a distinct cultural heritage and an identity that reflects entwined roots in this country and elsewhere. In an effort explore these identities further, we've spoken with coaches, players and founding members of clubs with a wide range of different backgrounds. You can read the rest of our diaspora series here.
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Sporting Khalsa have come a long way in 26 years. But, in another sense, they have not travelled very far at all. From messing around in local Sunday league fixtures on the playing fields of Willenhall Memorial Park, last season they welcomed FC United of Manchester to their own ground. Known as the Aspray Arena, this is situated just across the road from where the club's journey began more than a quarter of a century ago.
And so what started out as a group of friends from Walsall's Punjabi community playing for fun has become an upwardly mobile semi-professional club, one that achieved national exposure with an impressive run to the final qualifying round of last year's FA Cup. The match against FC United attracted a record attendance of 2,252 – as well as considerable media attention. The experience was a long way from those forgettable Sunday morning encounters.
Manjit Gill, who was one of Khalsa's original players and remains the club's secretary, told VICE Sports: "It raised the profile of the club. Nobody had really heard of Sporting Khalsa up until that time. But it was hectic. Our average crowd is about 70. I think the round before that we got around four or five hundred. That was the biggest crowd we'd had, and from there it went up to over 2,000. We were quite lucky – we got the stewards from West Brom to help us out.
"On the Saturday we had FC United and on the Tuesday we had another home game and I think the crowd was 65. That was quite good, actually, because there was no hassle. As volunteers we'd been quite busy and I think the FC United game took a week's planning. There was also a bit of trouble, which didn't help. As the years have gone on, we've put a bit more infrastructure in place so we can actually deal with a game of that size again."
Rubbing shoulders with the rebel offshoot of Manchester United and the re-formed Hereford FC, who brought another large away following to the Aspray Arena last season, was a reminder of the progress Khalsa have made both on and off the pitch. Their standing has improved and they have the facilities to back it up.
Now regularly competing at the top of the ninth tier of the English game, the Midland Football League Premier Division, and with ambitions to climb higher, the club was founded by a group of friends whose families are originally from northern India, the Punjab, and moved to England in the fifties and sixties. Having met through two local Sikh temples – one in Willenhall, the other in Pleck – the younger generation bonded over football.
"With a few of our mates, we decided to get a bit more organised and started playing Sunday mornings in the Bloxwich Combination League, Division 5 or 6. We also put [together] an under-18s team at the same time. After the first or second year we brought a couple more guys on board and that's when we started getting a bit more professional in terms of the committee and the playing side," says Manjit.
His brother, Raj, who is now the club chairman, joined around this time and a concerted effort was made to improve the way things were run. Originally a recreational outfit, their approach became more serious. Khalsa started playing Saturday football at Cannock Stadium but weren't prepared for the increased time and travel demands, so soon reverted to Sunday mornings. The big push came in 2004 when they rejoined the semi-professional ranks, immediately winning promotion and looking at ways to expand.
"From being a normal Sunday league team, we always looked at some of the local semi-professional clubs and how they stayed in front. Some of them have been going for 100 years. One thing about the Asian-[centric] clubs is that they tend to be run around a pub or a group of friends, and when they get a bit older, or the pub closes down, they move on and it filters out. They tend to just play at a Sunday morning level and keep it like that. Our priority was to have a base so that we could grow the club from there."
In planning for the future, Khalsa's owners looked to their past. Bloxwich Town were one of the local outfits they had admired, but the club had hit financial trouble. When they folded in 2005, Khalsa bought their home ground, Abbey Park, becoming the first Asian semi-professional side in the country to own their facilities. It gave them a solid foundation from which to build, with greater emphasis placed on youth development.
Growth continued as they moved again five years later, this time taking on the former home of Willenhall Town, a few hundred yards from the park pitches where they started out in 1991. Still run by volunteers, with many of the original playing squad among them, the scale of the Khalsa set-up is remarkable, particularly given its humble beginnings. The Aspray Arena is just a small part of a bigger sporting complex – The Black Country Performance Hub – which features 3G six-a-side pitches, a gym and training facilities, all of which are open to the community.
Sporting Khalsa now have 11 junior teams, five women's teams and one senior men's team. Their diversity is a source of pride. "We're still a community-based club. If you're looking at the diversity of our club, I don't think there's another one in the country like it. We welcome everyone with open arms and the players accept that. They realise the environment they're in and that it's a multi-cultural club," says Manjit.
The message is clearly stated in the club's vision, which is outlined on Khalsa's website. Despite their commitment to tackling social exclusion and discrimination of any kind, there have still been issues. As Hardeep Sandhu, Khalsa's youth coordinator, explains to VICE Sports, even some of the under-13s players have faced abuse.
"There were a couple of players on [another] team who went after one [Khalsa] kid. They played in the previous fixture and broke his arm so he had two steel rods in there. Six months later he came back and played against the same team. And again the kids went after him. They were calling him a Paki and saying: 'We're going to effing break your other arm.'
"Thankfully for us, although the referee didn't hear it, the referee's mother and some of the other parents did. The complaints went in, and counter allegations went in saying we called them this and we called them that. We went up to the FA for the tribunal and they only got a £100 fine. They were back playing as normal the next week," says Hardeep.
Dispiriting as these incidents are, Khalsa's owners claim that they are mercifully rare. In contrast to the overt racism that Hardeep, Manjit, Raj and Jaz Dhillon, the club's Development Officer, encountered as players, it can take rather more insidious and institutionalised forms.
"Some of the stuff we used to get is probably not printable. In the Sunday leagues especially, it was predominately white working-class and we were teenagers, playing against grown men, getting chased by dogs and [facing] beatings on the pitch. Yeah, I always used to look forward to Sunday mornings," laughs Jaz. "That was a fairly regular occurrence. It just makes you stronger. It might be a bit more subtle now, if anything. It's not as blatant. Players don't get it generally, although we probably get it behind the scenes."
A notable example came in the way Khalsa were branded 'the club with the curry house' ahead of their tie with FC United. It was a convenient, albeit reductive, hook for coverage. "I think we were stitched up by the FA and the media with that. They insisted on that interview. We were a bit apprehensive and thought 'don't play this angle'. It was a separate entity really but we felt like a bunch of waiters who had turned up. We just felt a bit patronised. [For] the photos they did insist on bringing a curry out. You could see the angle. They came with an agenda. I think we put an email of complaint in afterwards but it just fell on deaf ears and sort of fizzled out."
Once almost entirely Asian, Khalsa's players are now drawn from a far wider demographic, particularly at first-team level. Despite the changes, the original identity endures. The badge features the Khanda – a symbol of the Sikh faith – while the name Khalsa refers to a Punjabi brotherhood that literally translates as 'pure'. These visible signs of the club's heritage and what it represents remain important to its modern identity.
"We decided about five or six years ago that we weren't [predominately an Asian club]," says Manjit. "The name will carry us through. Whether it's an Asian player or a non-Asian player, it doesn't matter as long as they keep to the ethos of the club. Up to under-16s you'll find that the teams will be 60, 70, 80 per cent Asian lads. After that, they'll either filter out or won't want to play at that level. We haven't told [manager] Ian Rowe that we want Asian players – it's up to him who he puts in the first team."
Rowe has been a major factor in the club's recent success. A stalwart of the local non-league scene, he arrived as manager in 2014, leading Khalsa to the West Midlands Regional League Premier Division title with a record number of points and goals scored, as well as winning the Staffordshire FA Vase. They've since finished third in the Midland Football League Premier Division for the last two seasons, reaching the final qualifying round of the FA Cup and the quarter-final of the FA Vase.
The future looks bright for Khalsa and the owners are optimistic, hoping one day to reach the National League. And while they continue to work towards sustainable growth, they intend to do so in a way that won't compromise the longstanding ideals of their club.