I recently met Jhai Dhillon to reflect on the many aspects of his life including his football career, his business career and his position as a role model in the Asian community. Jhai does not fit the stereotypical profile of a footballer. He is educated, articulate, driven, modest and is a credit to his family.

Jhai was born at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage and grew up in Hitchin where he still lives today. He attended Hitchin Boy’s School and up to the age of 13 played his football for Hitchin Town Youth. He then competed in Chelsea Football Club’s ground breaking Asian Soccer Star competition in 2009. Chelsea had teamed up with The FA, Kick it Out and the Asian Media Group to launch the competition, with the most talented players in each age category offered a three-day residential trial at the club’s world famous academy. Hundreds of youngsters were judged on a series of matches and specially designed tests. A host of Chelsea players including Nicolas Anelka, Petr Cech, Florent Malouda, Solomon Kalou, Deco and assistant manager Ray Wilkins went along to watch.

Jhai overcame all the competition to become the under 14 winner. His prize was to join the Chelsea Academy, going on to train and play at their training ground in Cobham throughout the 2009/10 season. It was a great experience for Jhai who continued to attend Hitchin Boys School. Unfortunately Jhai suffered a number of injuries that restricted his appearances for Chelsea and was therefore not able to do himself justice.

In 2010 Jhai was selected for the Khalsa Football Academy’s futsal senior side making him the youngest KFA futsal player to play in the first team at the age of only 15 in an international futsal tournament. He played an important role in their tournament victory against Valencia CF’s men’s Futsal team. KFA’s Bal Singh said Jhai was a great role model for all KFA futsal students.

After his year at Chelsea he then had a trial at Stevenage and was taken on for two years. He captained the under 16’s and often trained with the first team then managed by Graham Westley. Jhai was at the time the only Asian player at Stevenage. He was then offered a further two years at Stevenage and went on to captain the under 18 side. When he was 18 he was offered a one year professional contract by manager Graham Westley. At the time of his signing Jhai said: “Both my parents installed a great work ethic in me from a young age, not only in relation to football but in my approach to life. Without the influence of them and my brother I wouldn’t be where I am today”. His father Chunky said: :’Football is a great sport and very positive in getting youngsters off the streets. It is important for parents to be good role models.”

Unfortunately, Jhai did not make the first team and joined Hitchin Town on loan where Carl Williams was manager. He made his debut on 12 January 2013 at St Albans City and only Dan Webb and Josh Bickerstaff remain at Hitchin from that side. Jhai made 11 appearances and scored one goal at Weymouth. He made one further appearance in August before going to Royston on loan. At the end of that season, Jhai’s contract was not renewed and he left Stevenage. After leaving he had trials for Leyton Orient, Kidderminster Harriers, Tottenham Under 23’s and Nottingham Forest but to no avail.

Jhai started the 2013/14 season with Royston before moving to Barton Rovers in 2014, after which he then joined Hayes and Yeading who were then in the Conference South. Next stop was Slough and then Dunstable in the Southern League. His job then took him to the midlands and he spent half a season at Redditch before spending a full season at Chesham in 2017-18. He started the 2018-19 season back at Royston but was finding it increasingly difficult to devote time to football because of the growth of the family business and decided to take time away from football to concentrate on his business.

Jhai did not expect to be able to return to football until next season, however earlier this season, he felt the business was in a position that would enable him to return to football as the business now had sufficient staff. He contacted Mark Burke who gratefully signed him on. He has made an immediate impact and is already an integral part of the team and Hitchin is the ideal fit for Jhai with his business based in the town. He is enjoying playing for Hitchin and feels we should be higher in the table with our current squad. Jhai is now playing at either left back or left midfield but he actually started out as a centre back.

Another interesting fact about Jhai is that he has played in two world cups! He has represented Panjab in the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) World Cup in 2016 and 2018. Panjab represents the Panjabi community of both India and Pakistan and they were accepted in to CONIFA in 2014. The 2016 competition was held in Abkhazia which is between Russia and Georgia. Twelve teams entered and Jhai’s team, Panjab reached the final where they lost to the hosts on penalties in front of 11,000 spectators. It was a great experience for Jhai who was the highest level player in Panjab’s squad. However, players representing other countries in the tournament played their football in the Russian and Austrian premier leagues.

The 2018 World Cup was held in London with games taking place at Sutton, Enfield, Haringey, Carshalton, Slough, Bedfont, Bracknell and Bromley. This time there were sixteen entrants and Panjab were beaten in the quarter finals. Jhai also played for Panjab against England C at Solihull Moors in a narrow 2-1 defeat. Panjab also played in a friendly against Liverpool U23’s which ended in a 3-1 loss. Jhai played 90 minutes against Curtis Jones (who recently scored the winner for Liverpool in the FA Cup against Everton). The next CONIFA World Cup takes place in Skopje the capital of North Macedonia this year and Jhai will almost certainly be part of the Panjab squad.

The family business is Rice n Spice and was the brainchild of Jhai’s brother Simmy who started the business in 2017 whilst in the first year of his economics degree at Bristol University. Simmy cooked up his first batch of Rice n Spice in his university halls kitchen. It soon developed in to a fully-fledged meal preparation business and a branch was set up in Hitchin. Jhai joined the business and is the CEO with his brother concentrating on marketing while their mother also joined the business. Customers vary from professional athletes and working professionals to students. Among the high profile clients are Leicester City’s Premier League winner Demarai Gray and Wycombe Wanderers’ striker Adebayo Akinfenwa (known as ‘’The Beast’’). There are now 16 employees as Rice n Spice continues to expand.

Jhai does not believe in an easy life and still works full time as a tax consultant for EY Accounting, whilst he spends his evenings and weekends working at Rice n Spice. He then manages to fit in his football and on a match day he will work at Rice n Spice from 7.00am until 1.15pm when he leaves for Top Field. After games he will return to work and put in further hours until close —I think it can be safely said that Jhai is not a typical footballer! Rice n Spice is continuing to prosper and both Jhai and his brother have the drive and determination to ensure the business will continue to expand.

As I said at the beginning of this article Jhai is also a role model. There are very few high profile Asian footballers in England with no Premier League representatives and all too few in the EFL. Jhai felt he was a role model to the younger Asian generation during his time at Stevenage, purely because of the lack of other Asian players in the EFL and he still remains aware of his responsibility to the Asian community. He has interesting views on the lack of Asian representation in football. He feels a high profile Asian in the Premier League would have a great affect as there would an iconic figure for fellow Asians to look up to. He cites how so many Egyptian fans now follow Liverpool because of the success of their fellow countryman Mo Salah. If an Asian player became successful in the Premier League it would undoubtedly serve as an inspiration to Asian footballers to follow in their footsteps.

Jhai does wonder if he would have had greater success in his career if there had already been a breakthrough high profile Asian player already playing in the Premier League. It is a sad indictment of the football community in this country that there is not. However Jhai was adamant he did not want to use this as an excuse and he has never faced overt racism but there are unfortunately many stories of Asian footballers being racially abused during games. It will never be possible to prove if Asian players have been unfairly overlooked by coaches in the past, but it would appear there has been subliminal racism as the numbers of young Asian players participating in the sport have not yet resulted in a single premier league player. Hopefully lessons have been learned and positive strides have been made. I would like to think Jhai should be known as a successful footballer rather than a successful Asian footballer.

From a cultural point of view Jhai has noticed a change within the Asian community. He thinks that his grandparent’s generation would have been very reluctant to encourage their children to embrace football, while ten years ago he thinks it had changed to such an extent so that 50% of Asian families were fully supportive of their children embracing football. He thinks now that percentage would be nearer to 95% and each future generation is likely to be even more supportive. Jhai himself was fully supported by his family and is very grateful for this as this support was needed to help get to training sessions and games. Jhai hopes that by playing at a good level it will encourage Asian supporters to come and watch. But again good Asian role models really will make such a difference and this was certainly the case when the likes of Cyrille Regis proved the focal point for more black footballers emerging in the 1970’s.

To conclude I have to say that Jhai is a very impressive individual and has worked especially hard at both football and business whilst never shirking the challenges he has faced. He remains ambitious and at only 24 he still aspires to play at the highest level of football possible. If you are interested in having your meals prepared by Rice n Spice, there is more information on their site: www.RnsMeals.com – Meals can be portioned to suit your goal, whether that be weight loss, muscle gain or simply eating a healthier balanced diet.