By Arvind Grover
September 2003 will forever be etched into the history books as the month in which not one, but two players of Pakistan heritage made the breakthrough in the ultra-competitive world of English football.
Some 12 years on and there have been a sprinkling of professionals to follow in their footsteps, while the non-league ranks in England have seen the emergence of several performers capped at senior international level.
It is, however, Adnan Ahmed and Zesh Rehman who remain the standard bearers.
The latter holds the honour of being the first British Asian to compete in the Premier League, having made his bow for Fulham against Liverpool on 17 April 2004.
No-one can take that away from him and the now Pahang FA defender – at the age of 31 – is still going strong on the field while immersing himself in issues of equality as an ambassador for Asian football off it.
His path to this point all started, though, some seven months prior to his historic outing at Anfield.
Having been nurtured through the youth ranks at ambitious west London outfit Fulham, Rehman was handed his debut in a League Cup tie against Wigan Athletic on 23 September 2003 – a competition widely recognised as a breeding ground for up-and-coming talent and one that can be followed and fluttered on this season within the betting exchanges of Betfair.
Replacing Japan international Junichi Inamoto just before the hour mark in that contest, a man still in his teens at that stage took the first tentative steps in a distinguished career which would carry him to the very top of the game and open doors he could never have imagined walking through.
His first month in the spotlight proved to be a busy, but hugely productive one as shortly after his cup outing for Fulham, he was sent on loan to Brighton & Hove Albion – for whom he netted his first professional goal on debut in a meeting with Rushden & Diamonds on 30 September 2003.
Rehman would later tell the Daily Mail of that occasion. It is, however, interesting to note that these exploits – from the man now most noted as the face of Pakistan football in Britain – came about after the Birmingham-born utility man had been pipped to a competitive debut by a future international team-mate from Burnley.
Six years on from severing ties with Manchester United, having spent two years on their books as a trainee, Ahmed also found himself thrust under the first-team microscope at his respective employers.
In what turned out to be quite a week for Pakistan football, seven days prior to Rehman’s appearance for Fulham against Wigan, Ahmed was handed an unexpected bow for Huddersfield Town in a 1-1 draw with Rochdale.
He told the Huddersfield Examiner at the time: “It was a total shock to be on the bench because I’d had no indication beforehand. I’m just glad I took my boots, because I hadn’t expected to be involved at all!”
Rehman and Ahmed were sporting pioneers of their day and have helped to pave the way for future generations to one day follow in their footsteps, with the young hopefuls of today hoping to emulate, if not surpass the achievements of those that have gone before them.