Watford welcomed more than 35 Blackburn supporters from diverse ethnic backgrounds to Vicarage Road as the Ewood Express rolled into town for the Championship clash between the two sides at the weekend.
It marks the second time the clubs have come together this season in the name of inclusion in the ‘Beautiful Game’ after previously linking up through the Sky Sports and Sporting Equals partnership in a show of support for Blackburn side Euro Garages FC, whose players were the target of some unsavoury treatment during a local league game last year.
The Ewood Express aims to create generational change by making it affordable and accessible for children from diverse communities to watch live football, with the service usually taking youngsters from local grassroots clubs, mosques and schools – along with their teachers – to Ewood Park for only £8 a child.
Transport is provided by the club and their partners and to date it has brought over 3500 children to games at Ewood Park, proving invaluable for the local community and for Rovers.
Blackburn has a 35 per cent South Asian Muslim population, but the community are nowhere near as visible in the stands. Rovers have taken a progressive attitude towards addressing this, becoming the first league club in the country to host Eid prayers on the pitch in May 2022, and actively promoting the use of their multi-faith room on match days.
Halal food has been rolled out at Ewood Park, with one of the stands designated as alcohol-free, while the club is working closely with the Fans for Diversity campaign to launch a new ‘Rovers SAS’ supporters’ group.
Working in partnership with Watford’s Equality Diversity and Incluson (EDI) team, Rovers executive Yasir Sufi created an away day experience suitable for some of the club’s Muslim fans.
Children as young as 10, and the leader of Blackburn with Darwen council, Phil Riley, were among those that travelled to the game, which included a pit stop at the famous Cambridge Central Mosque to allow for mid-afternoon prayers to be observed.
Watford also made arrangements for travelling supporters to able to observe prayers at the stadium before the 1-1 draw.
Both clubs cemented their friendship with a post-match meal attended by both sets of supporters, Rovers chief executive Steve Waggott, and dignitaries including Watford MP Dean Russell and local councillor Asif Khan.
“It was an amazing day, and the hospitality was something else,” Rovers’ Sufi told Sky Sports News.
“It was like a home away from home, and sharing bread together and eating together with our Watford friends and family was a real highlight.
“Just three of our group had ever been to an away game before. It was the first time they’d experienced an away day environment, and the atmosphere – which is always a little bit special. And that doesn’t happen without the Ewood Express away day.”
Watford Head of EDI, Dave Messenger, told Sky Sports News: “We share values as people and as clubs. There is so much work going on in football to try and combat discrimination and to try and make everybody feel welcome, and people like myself and Yasir are at the forefront of that work.
“We absolutely share values, and the clubs do as well. I go around the league and see an awful lot of clubs working in this space and to partner with Blackburn, with some of the fantastic things they’ve done for their Muslim community, is an absolute pleasure and an honour.
“It makes a statement that clubs are willing to do this type of work for their supporters and it also says that where you have two clubs that have shared values, then why wouldn’t you work together to make a brilliant experience for people, and why wouldn’t you do everything you can to make people feel welcome in your stadiums.”
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Watford strike late to hold Blackburn
Watford and Blackburn saw out a 1-1 draw at Vicarage Road that did neither side any favours in the race for the Sky Bet Championship playoffs.
A first-half opener from Rovers’ Bradley Dack was cancelled out by a debut strike by Wesley Hoedt in the second period.
Apart from a first start for the goalscorer, Watford awarded a home debut to Ryan Porteous, who netted at Reading last week. Blackburn made two changes, with Tyler Morton and Tyrhys Dolan starting the match.
Watford’s Slaven Bilic:
“I’m pleased with the performance, not just possession. We were constantly in a good situation, on the wings or the final third. It was just a lack of quality – when it came down to crosses, when it comes down to reactions in the box, that was lacking. Then we conceded a goal from their only attack that looked dangerous. But that didn’t kill us.
“We made some changes at half-time, and we continued to play well. All that was missing was goals. It’s going to take a little bit for Pedro to last 90 minutes. He was excellent, and we know what he will bring.”
Blackburn’s Jon Dahl Tomasson:
“At the end of the day, coming away from Watford with a point, when you see their squad and the players they have at Premier League level, I think it’s OK. With their quality it’s a big compliment to our players, the team spirit, the work rate, and how they were fighting, it was extremely good.