Meet the lawyer and Liverpool fan who wants to see football break down barriers

Depending on your perspective, the sports world’s collective decision to take a knee can be regarded as a source of pride or shame.

Yunus Lunat
Yunus Lunat

The sight of the biggest names showing solidarity with victims of racial injustice might indicate a tidal wave of opinion is forming to sweep away decades of bigotry and racism.

However, Yorkshire lawyer Yunus Lunat who was the first Muslim to take a seat on the full FA Council, believes this is no time for football’s leadership to become complacent.

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“If I go to a match, and I’m not racially abused, football pats itself on the back,” he said. “My frustration is that it’s not enough to keep taking the knee. We need action plans and measurable targets and outcomes.”

A grassroots football enthusiast – he coaches Mount Pleasant Juniors in Batley – employment lawyer Mr Lunat has spent his career breaking down barriers.

He has advised the Football Association on race equality matters since 2004 as a member of the Race Equality Advisory Board, which he has chaired since April 2013. He also advises Liverpool FC on equality and diversity as a member of the club’s official supporters’ committee.

It was another pioneer – the late player and coach Julie Chipchase – who played a significant role in ensuring Mr Lunat’s talents were employed by the world of sport.

Ms Chipchase joined Doncaster Belles as a player in the 1970s before going on to manage the side and become director of football, as well as coaching the England youth team.

“Julie, who passed away last week, was one of the people who encouraged me to get involved with the FA,” said Mr Lunat. “I had acted as a mediator in a dispute and the county FA asked me to get involved.

“Julie encouraged me to apply to join the Race Equality Advisory group that was being established. She was a pioneer for women coaching in football. At the time, she was the only woman coach that I knew.

“She was really genuine and had a caring and inspiring personality. I was aware of the journey she had had in a male-dominated environment.”

A minute’s applause was held at all Women’s Super League matches in memory of Ms Chipchase, who inspired many people to get involved in the game she loved.

Former Manchester United boss Casey Stoney said she had been a huge influence on coaches and players.

“One of the problems people from ethnic minorities face is they lack an awareness of how the system operates and how to access opportunities,” Mr Lunat said.

“I had no role models in the early stage of my career. It’s only now I’m involved at a strategic level that I have become aware of opportunities and processes.”

Although the Black Lives Matter protests have raised awareness about injustice, the focus has been largely restricted to tackling abusive behaviour rather than employment opportunities, he said.

"We need people from minority groups at the boardroom and executive level,'' he said.

“To give credit to the FA, which gets a lot of criticism, the workforce has become much more diverse,” said Mr Lunat. “What is never really scrutinised is the fact that the biggest employers in football are the clubs themselves.

“If young people from ethnic minority groups don’t see role models in leadership positions, they just think it isn’t for them.

“Historically, If you asked somebody how they got a job in football, they would say, 99 times out of 100, it’s because they knew somebody who was already in the game.

“The biggest barrier to people from ethnic minority groups working in football is the lack of relevant experience. They never have the chance to get that first opening in the game.

“In the early 1990s while sitting my referee’s assessment at the County FA, I remember asking a council member how to go about getting a place on the council. I was told it was a case of dead man’s shoes.”

Although he welcomes the steps being taken to improve gender diversity in football, Mr Lunat believes it’s important that other groups aren’t left behind.

He added: “If you analyse the workforce, there are more women in football performing almost every individual role – take for example human resources – than there are Asians in the whole of football. We need Asian role models.”

The failed attempt to set up a European Super League is leading to greater engagement with fans. However, Mr Lunat is worried that diverse voices are simply not being heard.

“Every club should have a diversity champion as a non-executive board member to ensure clubs are proactive rather than reactive,” he said.

His work as the head of employment law at Yorkshire law firm Ison Harrison provides him with a ring-side seat on recent controversies relating to discrimination.

“In general cases, despite the #metoo movement and Black Lives Matter, employers are still able to use and continue to strongly employ technical loopholes to stop discrimination complaints reaching a hearing which calls into question the veracity of a commitment to zero tolerance and a change in attitude,” he said.

“It is difficult enough to prove discrimination as it is.”

He has encouraged non-Muslim employees at Ison Harrison to take part in a one-day fast to mark the end of Ramadan and shine the spotlight on food poverty. The Ison Harrison Empathy fast also raised cash for FareShare, the UK’s national network of charitable food redistributors.

“I’m passionate about community cohesion and inclusion. We have a society that’s fragmented and the workplace is the best place where people can learn about different faiths,” he said.

“I’m really passionate about inspiring young people. It doesn’t matter that you come from a little town like Batley, if you do the right thing and work hard, in a fair and equal society it should be that the opportunities come to you.”

This philosophy underpins his approach to football coaching.

“I would like to think these young people will have been inspired and have the confidence to say, ‘I can’ rather than ‘I can’t’ and not allow someone else’s opinion of them to become reality.”

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