Harsimran Virdee, advocate for Asian football representation

Harsimran is a Business Executive at Southall Athletic Football Club (SAFC). The former UCFB student has an accolade of experiences that he shares in this interview, including winning various sponsorship awards, his passion for enhancing equal opportunities and his winnings tips for other sports enthusiasts wanting to break into the industry.

Q1) Harsimran, thanks for joining me on this exclusive interview, can you explain how your sports career adventure began?

Firstly, I would like to say thanks for having me on Ash’s Sports Talk.

From a young age, I always wanted to become a professional athlete. Unfortunately, things in life change, and so does a person’s perception of life, and I didn’t pursue any sports rigorously in the hope of becoming an athlete. However, I am grateful for my parents for pushing me in combat sports, in particular, Shotokan Karate, where I have achieved a First Dan (Black Belt). 

When I was in high school, I participated in many sporting events for the school, in particular within the football and basketball disciplines. I was always a big sports fan, following significant sports around the globe religiously. I always knew and tried to keep up with the changing sporting landscape, and this fascinated me to a substantial extent. When it was time to pick my A-Levels, I was made aware of a university specialising in the football business, UCFB. I went to a few open days, and that inspired me to want to work and earn a living in the industry as it bought my two favourite passions together: Business and Football. I managed to get decent grades at A-Level, and I was accepted onto the International Football degree program. My family were very supportive of me going down the unconventional job route for us British Asians; they pushed me to follow my passion and dreams, which I am incredibly grateful for.

When studying for my A-Levels, at the back of my mind, I always remembered an inspiring quote by Mark Twain, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” For me, working within the sports industry is that.

Q2) Throughout your University degree, what were the largest ‘reality checks’ UCFB taught you about pursuing a career in sport?

Firstly, for anyone who hasn’t heard of UCFB before, UCFB is a higher education institution based at Wembley and the Etihad Stadium. They offer undergraduate and Master degree programmes in the strategic, operational and business facets of the football business and wider sport and events industries. The unique learning model encompasses two key aspects, the practical knowledge needed within the industry and the experience of working within the industry.

Nowadays, in any sector, experience and extra-curricular skills are vital to success, and in some instances, they can act as leverage for candidates in an identical situation. Getting any experience, especially in the sports industry, is critical, whether that be at your local grassroots club or a multi-million-pound sports company. It doesn’t matter where you go; the only important thing is what skills a person learns during their placement and how they can transfer them to get their dream job. YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO OVERQUALIFIED! In life, people are continually learning daily. The more you do outside of learning, the better it is for the person. It not only allows people to learn new skills, but it also helps to enhance people’s prospects of getting their foot through the industry quicker and eventually it could prove beneficial once you are employed in your dream job. Whether you learn a new language, undertake in a coaching award or learn photoshop, they are all as useful as each other.

Communication is also vital in succeeding in any industry. Before attending university, I don’t think I would have had the ability to speak in front of a broad audience. Through my time at university, I have built up the confidence and my strength in public speaking. The biggest test of this ability I had was when I participated in the UCFB Entrepreneur Award in 2019, for anyone that doesn’t know, this is a dragon’s den competition where candidates present their business ideas in front of a panellist of professionals. We were successful in winning a cash injection, but the whole experience benefited me and took me out of my comfort zone. I would advise anyone to brush up on their communication, and public speaking skills as these are some of the most fundamental industry-skills.

Q3) I understand you’ve achieved multiple football agency and sponsorship awards throughout your time at UCFB and your ASA agent training. How much do these achievements mean to you, and has it left you hungry to achieve more sporting success?

Success has a different meaning to different people; there is no clear, definite definition of what success looks like. Once you achieve something, nobody can take that away from you.

For me, success is about accomplishing things in life, whether that be a course, job promotion or something else. The achievements which you have pointed out mean a lot to me and they have made me hungrier than ever to achieve more in life. I always want to push myself in life, and I am forever grateful to people who offer me opportunities to progress. With this in mind, it has left me even hungrier to achieve more, and I will be more determined than ever to succeed in the Sports Industry.

Q4) Before entering SAFC, I can see you’ve had multiple internships across retail. Would you mind sharing how these experiences have leveraged your role at SAFC?  

Indeed, I have had very different experiences during my short-time within the retail industry. I have picked up many transferable skills which can be easily adapted to fit into any line of work.

The ability to work as part of a team is clinical not only to the retail industry but is widely regarded as a critical driver of success for a business. In Sport, working as part of a team or sub-team is a daily occurrence to help meet targets and objectives for the organisation. Having excellent communication skills is also an essential trait that people pick up during their time within the retail sector. In a sporting organisation, you are always communicating with other members of staff, for example, when I was working at a reputable store; I was continually talking to customers and managers alike. Lastly, taking responsibility for your work is key, not only in a working environment but in life as a whole. During my time at retail, I made many mistakes, and with me going through that and taking full responsibility, I was able to learn and not make those same mistakes again.

SAFC gives numerous opportunities to people like myself, to express themselves and to help the club grow. I am very grateful to them for giving me the platform to help kickstart my career within the game. Who knows? Some of my retail experiences may have been a decisive catalyst in helping me to land a role at SAFC.

Q5) If there is such a thing, what does your role as SAFC’s ‘Business Executive’ consist of?

Firstly, SAFC was formed in late 2019 by a group of community and football enthusiasts who identified that the lack of Asian representation in football was not down to a lack of talent. Together they wanted to build a team which would nurture players from the local community into becoming the best players, coaches and referees they could, giving them a platform into football.

As a business executive, my role is to work closely with the owner and the club’s board on the business operations of the club. As the club is exceptionally new within the football ladder, the primary objective we have is to expand and increase the clubs brand awareness within the local community. My role within the club is to analyse strategies and targets, which will help enable the club’s growth both in the short- and long-term future. SAFC follows an extremely professional business model, similar to what you would find to a professional football club. Each member of the team has their unique role to play within the club’s settings, with everyone united, it has reflected the club’s increased growth and popularity since its inception this year.

Q6) In the sports industry, I find it essential to champion a cause that’s close to your heart, whether that’s equal opportunities, driving innovation in sport or similar. Can you share a reason that’s close to home for you regarding your sporting journey?

Equal opportunities are a prominent driving force which I feel the football industry is yet to overcome at the moment.

The UK is one of the most diverse countries in the world; but still, Asians make up just 8% of the entire UK population. Professional football in the UK has only twelve (12) players who identify as British Asian; this amounts to less than 1% of total footballers. There is a distinct lack of Asian representation in professional football. The question is, why?

If you visit your local five-a-side pitches or parks, you will see an unprecedented number of BAME players playing football. So, why are these numbers not reflected in the professional game?

While there is no hard evidence to back this up, from analysing social and cultural influences, we can build an image as to why many players from Asian backgrounds do not or cannot succeed in professional football.

With each generation, the Asian community has become more integrated into society; this includes sport. Currently, we are seeing more Asian parents in the UK changing their attitude and becoming more receptive towards football by way of attending football matches, sometimes with their families, and allowing their children to participate in football outside of school. Many British Asians take up grassroots football in favour of traditionally favoured sports such as cricket.

Good initiatives are being pursued to help improve diversity within the game from the likes of the FA, Kick It Out and Sporting Equals. Having more top-level role models within the industry, whether that be on the playing side or the business side, is a robust catalyst which I feel will help the game progress further and reflect the UK’s multi-cultural demographics well within the sport.

Q7) To wrap this up, what is your key piece of advice for someone wanting to pursue a career in sport?

The best advice I would give to anyone would be to never give up on your dreams in life. If you work hard enough, you will most certainly reap the rewards of your efforts. Persevere, and if you fail, get back up and learn from those mistakes. Remember, a winner is just another loser who tried harder one more time.

Another piece of advice I could give to anyone who wants to pursue a career in sport would be to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Similar to what was mentioned previously, learning new skills and doing extra things will always help you stand out that little bit more from the next person.

Amazing, Harsimran has outlined some truly spectacular insights about the sports industry in this position. He’s right; the sports industry should be viewed as a passion rather than a job, considering it’s a sector that doesn’t sleep!

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Published by Ash

I'm a First-Class Graduate in Sports Business Management who has worked across Local Government, Sport and the Third Sector. Throughout my career, I've developed a thriving passion to promote sport being used as a tool to bring positivity to the world we live in. This ethos has inspired me to create a website which champions this value through comprehensive online content for you to gain value from. Join me on this journey of discovering what sport can do to enhance society.

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