Trailblazer Ricky Heppolette has reflected on the crucial role of his parents on his way to becoming one of the first Asian players in the Football League and would love more youngsters to follow in his footsteps.
Born in Bhusawal, India in 1949, Heppolette moved to England with his family at the age of three and it was not long before his talent come to the fore.
Preston were alerted to his quality as a schoolboy and aged 18 he made his professional debut for the club in the 1967-68 Second Division campaign.
A long-standing relationship with football followed and Heppolette would call Leyton Orient home for numerous years, but while the likes of Leicester’s Hamza Choudhury, Yan Dhanda of Swansea and ex-Wales international Neil Taylor have now taken up the baton, the overall participation of Asian footballers in the professional game is spare.
“I would love to see more Asians come through and play football. It is happening but slowly,” the 72-year-old told the PA news agency during South Asian Heritage Month, which aims to commemorate, mark and celebrate the history and culture of British South Asian people.
“I lived and breathed football. It took my imagination straight away. From early primary school I played football and I loved everything about it. I loved being fit, running, the physical side and it fitted in with me perfectly.
“If anyone ever said what do you want to do when you leave school? It automatically was ‘I want to play football’ and there was never a Plan B because I knew I would play football. It was just like breathing for me and that is what happened.”
While the journey from playground to football pitch is well trodden, it is less common for those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
A progress report published in May by the Football Association on their Asian Inclusion Plan ‘Bringing Opportunities to Communities’ showed that while male and female Asian participation within grassroots football is at 10.7 and 13.5 per cent, that number significantly dwindles in the professional game to under one per cent.
Heppolette, who sealed Preston’s Third Division promotion in 1971 with the winner at Fulham, is unsure why there remains a disparity between the 7.8 per cent Asian communities make up of England’s population according to the 2011 census and those who forge a career in the professional game but is well aware who played a huge part in his own journey.
“I always had my parents support which was great,” he said.
“My mum and dad came everywhere with me. Probably even if I played in a junior match, they would come. That continued throughout my whole career.
“They lived in Bolton and when I played for Orient, if I played Plymouth for example in midweek, in an FA Cup round, they would travel to Plymouth in their little Ford Prefect car, watch the match, come back at three or four in the morning and dad would be in work for eight. They never missed one match.”
An all-action style in the middle of the pitch would endear Heppolette to the North End and O’s faithful, where he played 154 and 113 times respectively for the two clubs described as his “main loves”, and in George Petchey’s Orient team he was one of three players from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
To have one non-white player involved in the starting XI during that era was a rarity but the Brisbane Road club helped lead the way in the fight for equality with three thanks to Bobby Fisher’s presence and the rise to prominence of Laurie Cunningham, who would later play for Real Madrid.
Life on and off the pitch was not without its challenges for the trio with racist abuse forthcoming from rival fans and opposition players yet in sticking with Heppolette’s positive outlook on life, he looks back with little bitterness.
He revealed: “We had a little bit of racist abuse but I can’t say I remember us getting a lot. I remember being interviewed by Brian Glanville, Brian was a lovely man and would ask about the racism but I would say I must be so thick it goes straight over my head.
“I didn’t really have that much abuse and when you play football, you are totally immersed in the game.
“Opposition players they would look for something and because I was black, they would use it but again you say things in the heat of the moment and we would have a beer after – a lot of players would say ‘I am ever so sorry I didn’t mean to say that’.
“Again I had little bits here and there and even to this day I get little bits but nothing which I can say has stopped me doing anything. I have always gone forward in life.”
The former midfielder does remember one particular incident which provoked his father Wilfred to stand up to the racists before his mother Irene calmed down the senior Heppolette at the City Ground in 1974.
“You would get racism from the crowd, because you were different, I was a different colour. There was no one else so you would always get it,” Heppolette added.
“Dad was quite a volatile man so believe me if he heard a lot, he would stand up and want to fight the whole stand.
“I got sent off for the first time against Nottingham Forest and you can imagine when I am walking off the abuse I got but dad stood his ground and I think mum was tugging at his sleeve to sit down. It all passed quite innocently in the end.”
After thriving from the support of his parents in the infancy of his career, Heppolette would return the favour when he retired following a successful spell with Eastern Athletic Association where he won the Hong Kong FA Cup and worked with Bobby Moore.
While life halfway across the world perfectly suited the adopted Lancastrian, the deteriorating health of his mother and father saw him return to England and over time he has collected enough football memorabilia to fill a warehouse plus developed a thirst for education with the 72-year-old studying for his A-levels.
Despite little Asian representation in the professional game, Peterborough-based Heppolette is pleased players such as Choudhury, Dhanda and Taylor continue to inspire the next generation.
“It’s always good when people are coming through and can be role models for the youngsters. It’s so important to see other Asian footballers and know you can aspire to be them,” Heppolette said.
“More than anything you have to have the passion to play sport at the top level. Whether it is the Second or Third Division, you have to make scarifies and I tell everybody you have to want it.
“People need to be pushed and people need to have the wonderful ability to keep getting up and achieve what they want to achieve.
“It doesn’t matter really if they are Premier League or not, as long as they do the best they can. It is great we now have South Asian Heritage Month.”
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