Shairoze Akram, 2016 U21 All-Ireland winner with Mayo, explains how playing Gaelic football helped him settle in Ireland after moving from Pakistan at a young age, and discusses what more can be done to encourage more diverse groups to get involved in GAA
By Brian Barry and Mark Worsley
Not every Gaelic footballer has as interesting a back-story as Shairoze Akram.
Born in Pakistan, he moved to Ireland – and more specifically Ballaghaderreen – when he was four years old. Initially unable to speak English, he communicated by nodding his head and using hand gestures until he learned the language.
Fast-forward 20 years and his sporting achievements have propelled him forward in life.
An U21 All-Ireland winner with Mayo in 2016, Akram has gone on to get a degree in sports science having being offered a scholarship by DCU. He is currently pursuing further studies at TU Dublin in business and entrepreneurship.
Five years on from that U21 final win over Cork, he is finally beginning to appreciate the scale of his achievement, as someone of Pakistani heritage to win an All-Ireland title.
“I didn’t really pay much attention to it [at the time]. In Mayo, All-Ireland medals are hard to come by so I was just privileged to be part of that group like anyone else,” he acknowledged, speaking to Sky Sports.
“Looking back at it now, it helped not just Asians but other minority groups, help them get into the game and help them see, there is a way you can actually do well. GAA is for everyone. There is a place for everyone. You just have to work hard. If you put in the work and you’re willing to work, there are people there willing to help you develop.
“It’s a bit of a cliche, but the sky is the limit. That’s how I took it, and thankfully for me, it has worked out. Hopefully, now I can open up a doorway for people to look up to and use, and motivate them for their own journey.”
Moving to ‘a new world’
It has been quite the journey for Akram, looking back on his arrival in Ireland in 2001.
“It was quite daunting, a young person coming over to a completely new world as such. You don’t know anything different bar the sands of Pakistan and the desert area where we were,” he said.
As he settled into a new country and culture, sport helped him find his feet.
“Around fifth or sixth class, Andy Moran – a Mayo legend – used to come in and do PE lessons,” he explained.
“He encouraged me to take up GAA. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Andy. I didn’t know how involved he was with Mayo. All the other kids would be looking up to him, whereas he was just a normal person to me. He encouraged me to pick up GAA, so I picked it up with a school team.
“I went from the school into the club scene.
“Originally, I was no good. I didn’t understand the game. I only did it because of the social aspect; to meet my friends, to be able to talk about it.”
He played the waiting game before he eventually found his feet on the field of play.
“In Ballaghaderreen, there’s not a lot of players on the youth team. You just have about 15, 16, 17 players,” Akram outlined.
“The first couple of years, I was the only sub. So I used to get the ‘sympathy minutes’ in the last five, 10 minutes to get on.
“Even at that, I didn’t grasp the point in putting your toe under the ball to pick it up properly. I just picked it up straight off the ground. So I used to be giving away frees the whole time.
“At the start, I was very poor. But I developed over time.
“It was U12s when I picked it up. I went from not making my club team at U12s to captaining the Mayo U16 team that won the Connacht title. Well, I was vice-captain.
“It was quite remarkable. There were a lot of mentors that helped me along.”
‘You don’t see people of my colour on the TV regularly in the sport’
However, GAA role models from minority backgrounds were in short supply when he first took up the sport.
“You don’t really see people of my colour or my skin in the media. You don’t really see people of my colour or my skin on the TV regularly in the sport.
“You need to get minority groups [more visible] so people, especially young people, can see people of their descent or of their colour, and be able to say ‘I want to get there one day’.
“When I was growing up, there was none of that.”
‘A two-way street’
While he feels there is an onus on the GAA community to be as welcoming as possible, it is also up to others to take a leap of faith.
“I think it’s a two-way street. You can’t just depend on somebody to get you involved. Luckily for me, they encouraged me. But at the end of the day, it was my decision to get involved,” he explained.
“If you’re passionate about something, or even if you just want to do it for the social aspect, there has to be a 50:50 thing where you reach out to the community, and the community helps back.
“When you’re coming to a new area, you’re not very known. You don’t know the sport or the organisation. So you need the locals to reach out and invite you to the club. But the onus is then on you to make yourself available, immerse yourself in the culture, and be a part of it.”
The next step
Akram featured for the Mayo senior team in early 2018, appearing in both the FBD League and National League. But at 24, he has big ambitions.
“Hopefully I can go on to represent Mayo in the near future and see where that goes,” he noted.
“I was involved in the panel in 2018.
“Hopefully in the near future, I can get back in there. I have a number of years to go, so hopefully I can play a part in helping Mayo push on and succeed in the future.”