Besides ‘Nessum Dorma’ and Gazza’s tears, the 1990 World Cup is probably best remembered as the tournament so dull and so cynical that it drove FIFA to introduce the back-pass rule. But like any modern World Cup, the finals of the 1990 edition were merely the tip of the iceberg, with its 52 matches and 24 participants dwarfed by the schedule of fixtures contested by 114 countries across the globe over 19 months during the qualifying competitions. Whether played by part-timers in front of hundreds, or footballing icons watched by tens of thousands, each of the 314 matches during the qualification stage has its own heroes and its own stories. Perhaps one of the most intriguing is that of Jawaid ‘Jimmy’ Khan, a semi-professional footballer from Lancashire whose visit to Pakistan to become engaged in 1987 ultimately led to him playing for the country of his parents in front of 50,000 people in Islamabad two years later.
The son of Pakistani immigrants, Jawaid Khan was born in Darwen in 1963. While the neighbouring towns of Bolton and Blackburn were the destination for large numbers of Asian families attracted by the prospect of work in the Lancashire mills, the population of Darwen was almost exclusively white, which as well as making the Khan family something of a novelty, served to cement the inevitability of Jawaid, the third of their five children, becoming part of a generation of British Asians with an alternative, Christian name. Hence, Jawaid became better known as Jimmy.
Jimmy’s story was first told in the 1998 Asian football book Corner Flags and Corner Shops. He was the only Asian child at his primary school, where he played in goal for the school team, and he credits his love of football for the ease with which he settled in with his classmates. As he got older, Jimmy began playing outfield, and it became apparent that he was a particularly talented sportsman, as he captained both the football and cricket teams at his high school, as well as being chosen for the Darwen boys’ football team.
It wasn’t long before some of the biggest clubs in the country began to notice. When he was 13, Jimmy began playing for a team in a local Catholic league, and with him averaging around five goals a game it was inevitable that he began to attract the attention of scouts. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur were among the clubs who monitored his progress, but after numerous trials, Jimmy opted to stay closer to home, signing associate schoolboy forms with Blackburn Rovers.
Jimmy played against the likes of Mark Hughes and Paul McGrath in his two years as a schoolboy at Blackburn, and while his ethnicity made him a target for predictable taunts and occasional rough treatment from opposition players, he remembers his days at Rovers as some of the happiest in his life. But despite being a consistent performer in the club’s youth teams, Jimmy was not offered an apprenticeship at 16, leaving him with the choice of staying at the club on a non-contract basis where only his expenses would be paid, or going elsewhere.
Jimmy was devastated. “Perhaps for the first proper time I actually saw things in a different light,” he says. “My friends, family and even my PE teacher said the decision may have had something to do with me being Asian. I just felt confused and hurt.”
Jimmy’s development had been monitored by Bury, who invited him to play in a trial match, which also included boys released by Manchester United and Liverpool. Jimmy’s father had only occasionally watched him play in his Blackburn days, but spurred on by his presence in an otherwise almost empty stand, Jimmy impressed in the game. As at Blackburn, though, he was offered a place only on a non-contract basis. But encouraged by his father, who offered to drive him the fifteen miles to Bury and back to train during the week, Jimmy decided to sign.
But after two years in the youth ranks at Bury, with occasional appearances for the reserves, Jimmy was offered only a continuation of non-contract terms on his 18th birthday, as the club sought to recruit from professionals released elsewhere rather than promote within.
After two summers playing in Finland for a side called Jankoski Purkva, where a notional warehouse job was cover for the fact that he actually spent all his time either training, coaching or playing in matches, Jimmy acknowledged that the writing was on the wall as far as his hopes of professional career were concerned. He continued to play as semi-professional after his return from Finland in 1984 while taking the first steps towards his eventual career as a sports development officer by coaching on a sessional basis in the Blackburn area.
Though he had been born and brought up in England, and had visited Pakistan only once for his elder brother’s wedding when he was 10, Jimmy was happy to go along with his parents’ wish that he marry a woman chosen for him, and in 1987, at the age of 24, he travelled to Rawalpindi to become engaged. Having heard about his footballing exploits in England, Jimmy’s nephews were eager to see him play, and persuaded him to take part in a match at the nearby headquarters of the Pakistan army.
Jimmy recalls a match in which the poor facilities were matched by the limited skills of the participants: “It was like playing on a dirt track, with no proper markings,” he remembers. “There were some posts, but they had no netting. The standard was basically quite bad.”
But while Jimmy was underwhelmed by the experience, the nine goals he scored made an impression on the senior army officials looking on from the stand, and he reluctantly accepted a personal request from a local colonel to play again two days later, scoring a hat-trick despite stronger opposition, and thinking little more of the experience before returning to England.
Jimmy was unable to secure the time off work to travel to Pakistan in January 1989 when his younger brother was to be engaged, but when his brother and father arrived in Rawalpindi, misinformed word began to circulate that the outstanding footballer from England was back. As the visit of his brother coincided with the first phase of the Asian Football Confederation’s qualifying tournament for the World Cup the following year, word among the army officials reached the Pakistan footballing authorities, who were keen to assess Jimmy for a place in the squad.
Jimmy’s father explained to the German coach of the national team that he was still in England, but was asked if he could persuade Jimmy to travel to Pakistan to take part in trials for the squad. While playing on a dirt pitch at the army barracks had been a reluctantly fulfilled obligation for Jimmy, the opportunity to represent his parents’ country was an entirely different proposition.
“When my dad called and explained the situation he didn’t need to persuade me,” Jimmy recalls. “I couldn’t come out quick enough. It never entered my head that I could fail the trials and not even get to play. I was just so excited that I took the first plane out.”
Though he was unable to do more than a few light training sessions after contracting the flu upon his arrival, the coach was impressed and asked Jimmy to stay with the squad. He would not be sufficiently recovered to take part in the away fixtures against the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait the following week, but with the return match against the UAE taking place four weeks later, he extended his stay in Pakistan by a month and worked on building up his fitness.
Jimmy’s morning runs made him something of a spectacle on the streets of Rawalpindi, where the sight of a man in trainers, shorts and a t-shirt running was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and amusement. “I don’t think the locals had seen anyone running up and down the streets,” he says. “As I ran, car drivers would beep their horns and wave.”
The Pakistan team returned from their away fixtures having suffered two defeats, and relocated to their training base in the capital city of Islamabad, where home fixtures were played at the 80,000-seater Jinnah Sports Stadium. Though he enjoyed the build-up to the UAE match, Jimmy was underwhelmed by the standard of playing and coaching, recalling that the German manager never discussed tactics or set-pieces, and that the footballing ability of the squad as a whole was barely comparable with the semi-professional players he came up against in England. As de facto professionals only nominally contracted to employers like Pakistan airlines, or the national rail or electric companies, the one respect in which the regular players did excel was in their fitness.
With Jimmy an outsider, and able to speak only limited Urdu, he was initially viewed with suspicion by his team-mates, a situation not helped by the fact that his footballing ability made him a threat to the starting places of some squad members. He was eventually taken under the wing of a fringe player who spoke good English, and this together with his insistence that he had no plans to stay beyond the UAE fixture saw the rest of the squad warm to him.
The German head coach was unceremoniously sacked just two days before the UAE match, but with the language barrier removed as his Pakistani assistant took over as caretaker coach, the effect was largely positive. Jimmy especially was delighted, as the new coach valued his European know-how and sought his assistance in the final training sessions.
Though normally prone to pre-match nerves, Jimmy was unusually calm in the hours leading up to the game. That all changed as the team emerged from the tunnel to be met by a crowd of 50,000, and Jimmy’s nerves were compounded as he realised he did not know the words to the national anthem: “I thought, ‘am I really here? What am I doing here?’ I just stood there with my hand across my chest and my lips sealed!”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the magnitude of the occasion, the game, which ended in a 4-1 defeat, seemed to pass in a blur for Jimmy. “I can remember phases where I did something good, but the match seemed to last only a few minutes before we were back in the dressing room,” he reflects.
Though his performance was lauded by the press the following day, and Pakistan International Airlines offered him a ‘marketing’ position combined with playing football, Jimmy declined.
“Although I played football for Pakistan, I saw myself as British,” explains Jimmy, who today works as Head of Sport and Recreation at Preston City Council. “England was where I lived, it was where I was brought up, where my family and friends lived. I had assumed English values, and thought more like an Englishman than a Pakistani. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pakistan, but it has more for my parents than it has for me. Besides which, I couldn’t live out there, it’s too hot for me.”