Playing in the 7th tier of English football on a pitch more suited for a blue run at a ski resort than a football pitch, to playing in a world cup qualifier in a 25,000-seater stadium against a team managed by Roberto Mancini the next week, whilst also studying for a computer science degree, wouldn’t be considered an ordinary day-to-day life of a 22-year-old from Chertsey. 

Well the story of Imran Shahid Kayani is far from ordinary. The talent the forward has shown was hard to ignore even at just 11 years old, when he was scouted by Chelsea and joined their elite academy at the same time current first team players like Reece James and Conor Gallagher were also coming through the ranks. He was also selected to represent England Schoolboys where he scored on his debut against Wales. These experiences were where he really developed the desire and drive to want to make it professionally, “Being in the academy for Chelsea allowed me the opportunity to use the most unbelievable facilities, while also getting a glimpse of first team players training at the time like Lampard, Terry and Drogba” he told me,“these things in tandem really inspired me and gave me the hunger to keep pushing so one day I can be in the position they are”.

Yet, the road to making it professional in football is never a smooth one. Getting released at the age of 16 by Chelsea could’ve spelled the end, but for Imran it was only just the beginning. After completing his A-levels at Royal Russell, where he was offered a scholarship through representing  Surrey County, Kayani signed for Sutton United’s youth academy in the summer of 2020. However the setbacks were yet to be completed, as he picked up a foot injury which kept him on the side-lines for nearly an entire season, “I remember, I was flying with the academy, I think I had like eight goals in four or five games and the day I got injured I was actually called up to play for the men’s team, which was heart-breaking and my first real long-term injury”. 

However, instead of letting the injury get to him, he used it as extra motivation to make sure that when he came back he wasn’t just ready, but better than ever, “I think it’s made me much stronger, going through something like that”, he said, `’I did everything in my power to kind of get me fit as quick as possible.I got in better shape than even when I was training because I was so meticulous with things like what I’m eating, how much sleep I’m getting etc. The experience as a whole for sure helped make me the resilient and tireless player I am today”.

This mentality of having to work extra hard to achieve the things you want to achieve have been honed into him from a young age.Due to his South Asian heritage, it’s been tough for him to get opportunities in the game, “I feel like straight away I am at a disadvantage, as since there are so few South Asians in the professional game, coaches look at me and just assume that I am not as good as my white and black counterparts. This is why, I feel like throughout my career I’ve always had to work twice as hard as others to be able to get the opportunities I’ve been given”.  

It’s a tough topic to discuss as to why so few people of South Asian heritage have made it in the professional game compared to other ethnic backgrounds, but when boiling it down there are two main reasons. One is to do with the lack of support from immediate family, since it’s often not perceived as a viable career option. 

Imran thinks that,“I think in terms of my local community or just the Asian community in general, they haven’t been very supportive. They’ve kind of looked down upon it (a career in football) saying that ‘he’s a smart kid, just send him to university, he can get a good degree and a job, no Asians make it in football’ and I think that really hurt me and my family”.

Imran’s parents have been extremely supportive of him throughout his footballing journey. “When I was younger, at Chelsea, my dad would drive me up and down the country three or four times a week and he’d come straight back from work and have to leave.

“He must have been so tired, but he never complained. I think I can probably count on my hands how many sessions I missed since I was a kid, so that’s testament to him, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. My mum has also always been so supportive of me. She said even if it wasn’t football, whatever you wanted to go down, you’d have my full backing, and that’s really powerful to hear”.

The other reason as to why so few South Asians have made it in the professional game is to do with the lack of funding from governments in academy and grassroots football in South Asia as a whole. Imran wants to do something to change that “I have always dreamt of setting up some sort of academy back home (Pakistan), giving kids a platform to do what they love and progress into the game because there’s so much talent, and they’ll have a much better opportunity of making it if there’s a bit of infrastructure for them and that they know that if they work hard they can achieve their dreams”. 

Another way he is planning on promoting football in Pakistan, is by representing the national team. He takes “great pride in wearing the green shirt, because I know I’m representing a whole country, and I want to make them all proud. I’ve always wanted to represent Pakistan and, like I said, it’s a true honour that I’ve been able to do so recently”. 

Imran got his first call up for Pakistan last November, playing two world cup qualifier games against Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan, the latter in which he played the full 90 minutes up front. Despite a rocky start to their qualifying campaign, he still has big ambitions for the future of the team “Obviously we’re in the qualifying stages right now and that’s the furthest round we’ve ever got to in 75 years, but I want to take it one step further and try and get into the main competition and see how far we can go, because I know it would be a huge win for everyone in the country and really help provide exposure of the game to the people of Pakistan and encourage more people to take up the sport from a young age”. 

As you’ve probably realised, this isn’t a typical footballing story of a so-called ‘local lad’ making it through the academy ranks to play for their boyhood club. This is a story of someone from an unfamiliar background in the game trying to make it to the top despite facing adversities that not many people have experienced. Not after personal accolades, Imran aims to be a pioneer for a whole new generation of players, who may now realise their dream is a possibility and will follow in his footsteps. 

The story of Imran Kayani may resonate with many other students at Sussex, where they want to go into an industry where they may not be represented or feel like they’re being looked down upon solely due to their physical appearance.

 “Obviously it’s very tough, no one should have to go through that, but you just kind of have to use it as motivation, in terms of working two times harder than your opponent. I always say control the controllable, so in a footballing sense, are you doing more than your opposite number in terms of training hard, eating right, getting enough sleep? 

Despite receiving full-time contract offers from clubs all over the world spanning from Belgium, Australia, and numerous places in the Middle East, Imran has decided to continue his trade in England while making sure to complete his degree, and he now finds himself playing here in Brighton for Whitehawk FC. So, if you ever want to watch the left footed playmaker work his magic (while supporting non-league football) then just hop on the 23 bus down to the marina on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening. Or catch a flight to Pakistan on Wednesday 20th March, whichever one’s more convenient.

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