Ratcliffe from Leeds scoring against Warrington at Headingley Stadium, 7th October 1961
Name: Ratcliffe from Leeds scoring against Warrington at Headingley Stadium, 7th October 1961
Description: Ratcliffe from Leeds scoring against Warrington at Headingley Stadium, 7th October 1961
Collection: Photopress
Location: WYAS Leeds
Reference: WYL500/WYAS30
Contributor: West Yorkshire Archive Service
Rights: West Yorkshire Archive Service
Ikram played for Leeds Rhinos (then Leeds RL) during the 1990s. In 1995, he became the first South Asian England International player. He currently manages the Connecting Communities project for Leeds Rugby Ltd.

How did you first get into rugby?

Well I got into rugby [through] quite a natural process really. I grew up in the heart of Leeds, a stone’s throw away from the famous Headingley Stadium, and my older brother was playing rugby. The local school that we went to – Brudenell School, initially, primary school – everyone loved playing rugby in the school yard. We didn’t have an actual team but we were playing rugby at playtime as well as other sports like football, cricket. But rugby was very prominent because of course in those days Leeds Loiners, as they were known then, in rugby league were very successful on the TV, on the radio and in the local papers, very much in everybody’s minds. So it was a case of being invited, encouraged to take part within school environments and I don’t think I’ve stopped playing since.

You were the first South Asian player to play internationally for England, in the 1990s. What was that like?

Prior to becoming the first, the fact that I was given the opportunity to represent my country – a tremendous achievement and feeling of excitement, honour, prestige. The whole build up to the occasion was a great success indeed and to actually put the jersey on amongst my England teammates, some that I used to look up to and now I’m playing alongside them. It’s such a memorable occasion and one of the highlights of my career when I look back.

When you were playing, was it apparent that there were very few south Asian players in the sport?

When you look back and when I’m asked that question, quite clearly the simple answer to that is yes. Throughout my career, whether it be in the amateur ranks or the professional ranks, very few south Asian players played rugby league. Never mind on the playing field, there were very few on the terraces. Although I must say things are slightly improved on the terraces, particularly at Leeds Rugby games. You can see more people from a south Asian origin coming to observe as spectators and there’s a trickle of players coming through the grassroots game, and that’s improving slowly but surely. However, we would like to see a lot more considering the south Asian population within the West Yorkshire region. It would be nice to see more people coming though the ranks.

Did you come up against any prejudice?

At a time when I was playing and again I think we’ve already mentioned there were very few Asians playing. There were one or two and there has been some pioneers. Prior to even me taking steps onto a rugby field, players from a south Asian origin who had played but hadn’t progressed to a level I was very fortunate to have done so, but they were recognised as gone by the weigh side. So, yes, when I was playing there were elements of prejudice and discrimination and even racism. Most of that boiled down to ignorance, lack of awareness and understanding. If you look back then and where we are now, the governing body, the Football League and the professional clubs have come such a long way encouraging, being more open and implementing strategies to ensure that people from south Asian and the wider BME [Black, Minority Ethnic] communities felt part of the sport. So, yes, the simple answer to that question was yes there were elements of prejudice.

Can you describe your time playing for Leeds Rhinos?

It’s Leeds Rhinos now but still when people mention to me about Leeds I have to think twice because they’re still known to me as Leeds Loiners. I grew up in the city of Leeds and Leeds were great in ‘70s, particularly that’s what I remember. That was my era growing up so to sign professional forms for your home team was a dream come true. Again, when I look back, one of the highlights of my career [was] to put on the blue and amber jersey and I’d already done that prior to representing my hometown when I was an eleven year old. So I’d already experienced wearing the blue and amber jersey but to actually wear the professional blue and amber jersey was a dream come true and going out on the field. Not only that, when I signed pro, I was in the environment of the heroes I used to look up to – the late, great John Holmes, a hero of mine. I was fortunate to, in my early days, starting out in the reserves, John used to come down to help the youngsters come through and he used to play a few games with us to learn that experience. That was another milestone in my career to not only get to play alongside one of my heroes, also to learn a great deal from him and to be able to call him a great friend, as somebody who had a huge impact and development upon my career.

What has been your favourite match that you have played in?

There were a number of different games that would stick out to mind, for different reasons. When I used to play for Featherstone, we went to Wigan in the top eight playoffs and we were at the bottom and they were at the top. We beat Wigan at Wigan and no one gave us a chance so that was a massive achievement. There were some great players playing that day. My debut for Leeds Rhinos or Leeds Loiners, it was Castleford away. I was on the bench so I came on for half a game. Probably got beat that day. That sticks out to me in my mind. I was lucky when I was at Leeds because we had development. We had a great reserve side so we won practically everything that was on offer – the league, the Challenge Cup, the reserve Challenge Cup, the Yorkshire Cup. Any competitions that we entered, we won so it was quite successful. I was unfortunate not to progress to the senior level on a regular basis but there were reasons for that. When I signed, the great Peter Fox was a coach but sadly after three weeks he moved on to different pastures and there was a change of coach Maurice Bamford, a former Great Britain coach. He lasted a year and we had another coach Malcolm Reilly, another hero of mine and then he moved on and we had Dave Ward, another hero of mine, a Leeds legend. Through that transitionary period, it was difficult for my development to progress because the first team coach was always under pressure, the expectations from the fans and for Leeds side who were always successful, second best wouldn’t be accepted. That’s one of the reasons I believe my progression to the senior ranks was hampered. However, I got an opportunity to go to Featherstone. I got an offer to go to Australia for six months so I took that opportunity to further develop my career. If you ask most people they’d say you’ve not played rugby until you’ve gone to Australia although it’s a different type of game altogether. While I was there, I got an opportunity to go back to Featherstone from my previous coach who I still consider my great friend and my great mentor and put me back on the ladder of my rugby league development. It was while I was at Featherstone I got the opportunity to play for England. After all that, we had some great games at Featherstone against Leeds and other teams. I scored five tries once. It was in the Yorkshire Cup against Bramley. I say that because we were in division one and I think they were in division two. I was fortunate to score against all the senior teams. The only team we didn’t win against was St Helens. We beat, we beat Wigan, we beat Widnes. We went to St Helens once and we put forty past them but they put fifty past us.

Signing on the dotted line has got to be one of the most memorable occasions. But in regards to playing I think it has to be putting on the England jersey, representing your country and going out with other legends of the game. That’s got to be the highlight of my career.

You mentioned John Holmes as a hero of yours. Are there any other players you’d list as your favourites?

Indeed I think you can go through the whole Leeds Loiners team in the 70s. They were a great, great team. As a young kid, you wanted to be aligned with success and heroes. They were my heroes along with my colleagues and friends. You wanted to be part of that group. We used to come I remember [as a] ten/eleven year old. We used to walk ‘cause we only lived down the road to the games. We used to come at half time. At half time they used to let us in free. We were well known bunch of kids. They used to let us in.

John Atkinson, flying Great Britain winger, one of these heroes. I know John quite well now. In a working capacity, he sits at the Rugby Football League in the panels. I’m one of the members there too. At one stage you’re on the terraces observing these guys and they’re your heroes and you think they’re untouchable, and then I’m fortunate to consider him a good friend. We talk and he tells me tales of the past. It’s just inspiring and you just want to listen to him talk for hours.

David Ward, Great Britain hooker and Leeds legend, [he was a] touch, tenacious player. He was one of my coaches at Leeds and Featherstone ‘cause he came to Featherstone. I see him now. Actually, I see a lot of him now ‘cause when we have the Leeds Annual Players’ Association dinner, we meet all the legends even prior to my time. You only find out when you read about the history of Leeds Rugby and the game full stop. Bev Risman [is] another legend. Joe Coleridge, who I’m fortunate to know quite well. Les Dyl, who’s moved to the sunny seaside now. I think it’s Bridlington. Paul Dixon, Kevin Dick – both the lads. Because at that time – the great Leeds team in the 70s – the majority were local people from Leeds or around the West Yorkshire area and they’re still about. We still get together and I still consider them as my heroes – a huge amount of respect – and whenever we get together, it’s such an enjoyable environment.

Then you’ve got the current squad now. When I look at them, they’re a great bunch of lads. They’ve been successful over the past ten years. Even though times have changed, within their era they are great players. We talk about the change of the game from winter to summer and it’s very difficult to categorise how good it was then and how you compare players. But I think within their own right, these players are just as good as the previous players.

Can you describe the work that you do now for Leeds Rugby?

I can. I’m currently employed by the Leeds Rugby Foundation and the majority of the funding has come from Sport England with further funding from other partners – for example, Leeds Metropolitan University inject a large amount of funds financially and in kind as well as other partners such as Leeds City Council, Hamara Healthy Living Centre, Hunslet Hawks Rugby League club. The project, which I manage, is called Connecting Communities. It’s trying to make sport, rugby and Leeds Rugby more inclusive with the wider communities. Getting them to engage, empower them to feel part of the great game and this great club, and invite them, give them the opportunity to take part in sport and physical activities – primarily rugby league but we will offer and deliver other sports as well.

There are three aims of the project – sport, education and health – and that’s a great way of engaging with all sections of the community. I like the idea of Leeds Met being a major partner of ours because what we find, when I was playing, there’s still a lack of understand and awareness how some of the communities engage. I have to say at the same time that some of the communities need to link to some of the mainstream activities more than they are doing. So I think there’s a double-sided coin there. I think it’s a case of bridging that gap. However, that’s not been done before because of the lack of understanding and education is a key to getting out there and finding out about these communities. Where we’re sat now [Leeds Rugby café at Headingley Stadium), this is a community café open to the public but a lot of people are not aware of that. They probably think it’s just for the club or the university. However, it’s open to the public. Simple things like that.

One of the things that the club’s doing a lot more with the project is reaching out to the communities. So it’s not a case of: well this is where we are, if you want to come and see us, come to this club. I think they’re going out of their way and beyond boundaries where they’re actually going in to the inner city areas ‘cause that’s where most of the BME communities are and engaging with them on their doorstep. So that enables a more comfortable environment for these communities and the club is building up a lot of trust and a lot of confidence. From that, it has a really positive, knock-on effect where these members of these communities will then come to the stadium to watch the Rhinos play. Also to get involved in all the other activities that the club has to offer and it’s not directly just sporting activities, education activities. We do know that there’s a massive issue with anti-social behaviour. A section of children at school find it difficult to learn in that environment. Well, the club can offer an alternative environment through different activities where the children can get back into mainstream learning. So the club does play a big role in educational achievement.

The main objectives of the project are quite simple. Connecting Communities is the biggest project to date for the Leeds Rugby Foundation. The aims are to engage those [aged] 14 plus. I say 14 plus because there’s generally a pro-active system in primary schools but there’s a huge gap within the 14 plus years – both males and females disengaged in sport full stop and not taking part. Also, you can actually go into schools and do activities. It’s pretty simple and straight forward ‘cause you’re in a classroom environment. However, after-school activities are with the ones who are more adventurous, who want to take part. Then in the local community settings: that’s when it’s hard to engage with those communities and that’s where we come in to bridge that gap to offer them the opportunities to engage and encourage them to take part. A lot of it’s building confidence, raising aspirations, providing some strong, positive role models ‘cause there’s very few out there.

If you look at sport full stop across the board – that’s any sport – there’s very few South Asians taking part, never mind the BME communities. You could argue there’s Black footballers and there is. I’d like to see more but there’s quite a few. But then when you go up the ladder, there’s very few in the coaching environment and the board levels. So there’s not enough of them. If you put that into a South Asian origin, as we speak now there’s nobody playing in the Premiership of South Asian origin. There have been. I remember Zesh Rehman who was the first British Pakistani to play for Fulham a few years ago – a massive achievement. Then you’ve got Michael Chopra who was at Newcastle, who’s come down a level. There’s a number of South Asians in the lower ranks. There’s very few taking part. If you look at the sport of rugby, as we speak (if I’m correct) there’s nobody in Super League teams. There’s one or two in the lower divisions. There’s a few more spread out sporadically over the amateur game. Again, in the West Yorkshire region – we’re talking Leeds, Bradford, Dewsbury, Batley – where you have densely populated Asians, the stats don’t add up.

So the aim is to engage those [aged] 14 plus in sport and other activities, wider participation, sport and community cohesion, gender equality, and promoting health standards. At the same time, the project also encourages volunteers, which is key to our success and any sort of programme of volunteers in coaching and education, which plays a large part. We need to certify these volunteers then equip to deliver activities. That will enable them to widen their other participants’ horizons, encourage learning, improve their life chances and heighten their aspirations. How’s that for a statement?!

What are your hopes for the future of rugby league in the light of projects such as Connecting Communities? Do you think we’ll see more of a balance?

We hope so. The project, just to clarify, reaches out to all communities. It’s inclusive. Yes, it has a large part to play in the wider BME communities but we work with any communities to engage. This is a three-year project and we are making inroads slowly but surely. I think the club has a massive part to play, as has the famous brand. The players are public role models and they’re going out to schools and community settings at all times, raising aspirations and inspiring young people to take part from all communities, and they do that quite well. If you look at the team, we have a decent mix of people from the wider community background and local people as well, which is really important. The club have done extremely well where they developed young people from the local area. However, to expect the wider communities to automatically get involved in the game is not going to happen. What we have to do is lay the foundations and plant the seeds for it to grow and develop, and have consistent activities like the Connecting Communities project – and in partnership with all the other partners that we’re working with – to enable a smooth process of coming through. So it will take time. However, with positive initiatives and actions like Connecting Communities, we’d like to think that would be sooner than later.

It’s going to take generations. I’ll tell you why it’s going to take generations. When we talk about the issue of South Asian communities in particular and you’re talking about the matter in West Yorkshire, they play a huge part. Bradford outside of London have the highest population statistically of South Asians living in the area and they have a Super League club in Bradford and there’s nobody coming through the ranks there. I think there’s a wider matter there. If I just go on my own experience, when I was playing as a young kid and growing up, even as a professional, whenever I was mentioned it was ‘Ikram Butt Asian player’, which I didn’t mind at all. However, in the light of 7/7 and 9/11 it was changed to ‘Ikram Butt Asian Muslim player’. So from that changeover in terminology and the perception of the majority of Asians ‘cause if you look at West Yorkshire, the majority of the Asians are from a South Asian/Pakistani/Indian migration. But some, like myself, who are second generation, who were born and bred here, we’re still termed as ‘migrants’ although we were born here. With the perception of Islamophobia, that has hindered the progression. I would say that the South Asian communities are in progress themselves. As I mentioned before, they need to link into mainstream a lot more than what they’re doing.

I think you’ve got to be very careful how you get that message across ‘cause a lot already are. If you look, the facts are that South Asians have contributed immensely to British society in lots of different areas, even in the sporting arena. As I’ve just mentioned, Abdil Rashid came onto the scene as a young kid. You’ve got Ajmal [Shahzad] – both representing England in cricket. I’ll mention Kiran Matharu the professional golfer, Bobby Bhogal the hockey coach who represented England at the Olympics – just to name a few. There’s loads more. It’s important that initiatives like this will provide recognition and awareness about these individuals.

We set up the British Asian Rugby Association a couple of years ago, a dual-code initiative, an inclusive organisation. However, we purposefully called it ‘British Asian’ just to raise a few eyebrows that British Asians are just as enthusiastic about sport, like rugby, than anybody else. In doing so, we’ve been able to engage with lots of different people who’ve played rugby for years – people who’ve played and moved on, brought back into the system and given confidence to people who want to get involved in an environment where they could get involved, learn and share other experiences from other people and to continue their development. In an ideal world, there was no need for an organisation like that ‘cause in theory the governing bodies and institutions would be doing that themselves. However, they’re not and rather than being critical, we would like to see the association as a support mechanism for these institutions to enable them to smooth the process and to maybe learn from us how to engage. I’ve come through the ranks as a development officer working on the streets, in the communities. I’m the first one to say that we need to be more reflective of the communities that exist in this country. If you look at the stats of the bodies and institutions, there are very few South Asian never mind Black faces there. And even look at national teams – they don’t resemble of reflect the communities that live and work in this country. So there’s a massive issue there.

But in reality you don’t have to be Asian to work in an Asian community. You have to be an individual who is good at what he or she does, has an understanding of the type of work that they’re doing and surely if they’re good at what they do, their work and project will develop, get more people involved. But we’re not at that stage. I feel that there is still a lack of understanding and awareness. We talk about equality. Equality’s not about treating everybody equal. Equality’s about adapting to each individual’s needs and I think there’s still a large educational process – again, from both sides of the community – to enable more progressive nature of development.