As one of only a handful of professional footballers of Indian origin, Mansfield Town’s Mal Benning is helping to blaze a trail he hopes many young British-Asians will follow in the future.
The exciting 21-year-old left back, who joined the Stags from Walsall in the summer, also hopes to be allowed to play for his country one day if the Indian government loosen their restrictions on who can play.
“It is a hard profession to get into, I’ve got to say that, but I would like to see a few more Asians involved in the game,” he said.
“There are a couple involved here in the first team squad who haven’t quite made the breakthrough but I hope in the years to come there will be many more.”
Benning said he didn’t believe the lack of Asian players was because football was not part of their culture, saying: “I think that’s a cliché to use. Nowadays it’s become much more of an Asian game.”
But his ambition to play for his country is being stifled for now by red tape.
“It’s a bit difficult,” he said. “I have always wanted to play for India but I think you need to give up your British passport to get an Indian passport to play for them.
“Many Asians that are British haven’t had the call-up. We are all itching for that rule to be changed by the Indian government, but there is work being done on that and, if it does change, then yes I’d like to play for India.”
Benning, who was born in Sandwell and played for Walsall from U8s upwards, became an instant hit with the Mansfield supporters after marking his debut by scoring a stunning 30-yard free kick against Carlisle, let alone filling a problem position in recent seasons with some great attacking play.
“I am thankful of that to be fair,” he said. “But it’s the early part of the season yet and it’s up to me to keep up the good work and, hopefully, I can do that by working hard on the training ground.
“I will keep my feet grounded and keep working hard.
“My main aim is to try to play a full season. There is no guarantee, it’s up to me to put in steady performances each week and keep my place in the team. Hopefully I can do that and play as many games as I can.
“It was getting frustrating at Walsall but I can’t thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to make my debut and get into professional football.
“I did have good times there, but it was a dark place for me at other times and I am happy to be at Mansfield now and hopefully I can kick on.”
He added: “There is plenty I can improve on. Defensively, I think I can get more alert and stay more alert during a game. I think there is a lot more from me to give attacking-wise and I don’t think I have done that much in games I’ve played so far. I am here to learn and improve.
“I have to remember in my head that I am a defender first and attacking is a plus point.
“I started out as a left midfielder as U13 at Walsall, but I reverted to left back as I was a bit chubby back then and didn’t have enough pace. To be fair for a bit I did play left midfield at Walsall last year, but full back is my main position.
“I was at Walsall from U8s. I wouldn’t say I got emotional. I had been there for so long but I was glad to get a fresh start.”
While at Walsall, Benning has had a couple of loan spells away including last season at Saturday’s opponents York City.
“I spent, I think, two months on loan there last year,” he said. “They are a good club with a good manager, but we are going there for three points as we need to win, which I am confident we can do.
“To be fair they are a disciplined team, well-organised, and their defensive record is quite good. So we are going to have to be on top of our game. If we are, we can win the game.
“As a team I think we’ve done well, we are gelling as quickly as we can. We should probably have more points than we have, but that will come in time I think.”
Then on Tuesday the Stags head back to Meadow Lane in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy less than three weeks after the 2-0 League Two win there, Benning thoroughly enjoying his first taste of local derby success with the Stags.
“You enjoy it at the time, but straight after you have to get your head down,” he said. “We were warned about Accrington on the Tuesday, but things happen like that regularly so it’s one of those things.
“We were all focussed not to make it happen, but it did happen and we have to move on from it. I thought it was a good reaction on Saturday against Oxford. They are a good team and it was a good point.”