Mal Benning begins each day with a prayer to express how grateful he is for everything he’s got in life.
The Shrewsbury Town wing-back is one of only a handful of Indian Sikh players in the professional game.
And he hopes his story will inspire more youngsters in both the Sikh and Asian communities to believe they too can become footballers.
Today marks the start of the EFL’s inclusion campaign – with the governing body determined to help more Asian players make it in the game.
Only 17 of the nearly 4,000 professional footballers in the UK are British South Asians - less than half of 1%.
And Mal hopes by hearing his story, more youngsters like him will believe they too can make a career for themselves in the game.
“I’m really proud to be one of very few Sikh players in the game,” the 29-year-old said.
“It is something I hold very close to me and it has made me even more determined to have the best career I can have and the longest career I can have.
“I want to be here for any young lad coming through, if they need a shoulder to lean on or if they need any advice then I am here.
“It’s so important to me that all young Sikh players know it is possible to have a career in the professional game.
“It’s not just the fact I am Sikh, it’s being Asian as well because there are not many Asian footballers at all.
“Throughout my career, I’ve started to see more and more Asian players come through.
“There are lots of Asian inclusion programmes now and you are seeing more young Asian players in the academy system which is great.
“It’s about representation and that’s why I want to stay in the game as long as I can – so I can help the young lads coming through.”
Mal believes his faith is a key reason why he made it as a footballer.
“I've been brought up from a young age practicing my faith,” the defender continued.
“While my mum and dad aren’t baptised Sikh, they are very religious.
“As Sikhs, we believe God is one. Every faith has their own way of going about it. But we believe God is one and is in everyone.
“I firmly believe that and I make time twice a week to go to the temple, the gurdwara, and practice my faith.
“It helps me de-stress and switch off from the world. It allows me to meditate and have my time with God.
“I practice my prayers every morning and most nights as well. I do that to show I am grateful for what I have got and grateful for what I do because I love playing football.
“I thank my faith for everything I’ve got because without God you don’t get those opportunities.
“I’m very grateful for what God has given me.”
Born in West Bromwich, it was Mal’s dad who encouraged him to get into football – even if his old man isn’t the best with a ball at his feet!
“My Dad was born in India, he came over when he was very young with his two brothers and his sister,” Mal said.
“My mum was born in Birmingham and they met and had me. I have also got one brother; he wears a turban, but he isn’t fully baptised.
“It was actually my dad who got me started in football. He can’t kick a ball but he had me playing from a young age.
“Growing up I would get scouts at my Sunday league games. At the time there was a lot of rejection.
“Then I was lucky enough that one day Walsall picked me up and took a chance on me when I was eight years old. I then came through the system there.
“Football doesn’t run in my family but my dad put a lot of time and dedication into it. Even now he comes to every game I play and does what he can to support me.
“I’m really lucky to have that support behind me both from my dad and from my family in general because we’re all very close.”
Sadly, Mal believes, even in 2023, Asian players have to work harder if they are going to make it in the game.
“I’ve said in interviews before that we have to be 25% better if we want to stand out and I still believe that is the case,” Mal said.
“The 25% message is something my dad instilled in me from a young age. I knew I had to work even harder, just to get on that level playing field.
“I have always had that in my head. Hopefully, the more Asian representation we get in the game the more it becomes a norm, and it will be a fairer chance.
“What I will say, though is that every club I have been at has been class.
“I’ve always been very lucky in the sense that the changing rooms I’ve been involved in – I've never felt I’m the only Asian lad. They have all been great.”
One of the biggest moments in Mal’s career so far was when he scored in a play-off final at Wembley when his Port Vale side beat Mansfield to clinch a place in League One.
That goal made him the first Punjabi Sikh to score at the home of English football – and it’s a moment he admits made him incredibly proud.
Mal said: “It wasn’t about me that day – it was just the fact it was at one of the biggest stadiums in the world, a big stage and a really big game with it being a play-off final.
“To have an Asian lad there representing, scoring and then being interviewed afterward – it got the word out there to Asian lads that it is achievable to play at Wembley, to play in a play-off final and to score.
“It wasn’t about me; it could have been any Asian lad. I’m just grateful I got the chance to get that message across.
“Now I’m desperate to see more Asian lads make it to the very top of the game.
“There are some very good players coming through at the top academies. And one day, hopefully, we’ll see an Asian player right at the top and consistently performing at the highest level.”