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When Sunny Singh Gill blows the whistle at London’s Selhurst Park Stadium on Saturday, he will become the first person of South Asian origin to referee a match in the English Premier League. And in doing so, the 39-year-old will be carrying forward the family legacy.

Sunny’s appointment to officiate the match between Crystal Palace and Luton Town was announced Tuesday by the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), which appoints referees for Premier League games.

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While the game itself might not be a marquee clash for a majority of football followers beyond those of the two clubs, for the Gills, from Iver near London, it’ll be a moment for generations.

Sunny is the elder of the two sons of Jarnail Singh Gill, 62, who remains the only referee to have worn a turban in the English Football League or EFL, the division below the Premier League.

“It’s a very proud moment not just for the family or me but the whole Sikh and Asian and Indian community in England,” Jarnail told The Indian Express.

“Many of us will be seeing one of our own officiating as a referee at the highest level of football in England.”

The Gills are trailblazers of sorts when it comes to people of Indian descent officiating in English football. The family has its roots in Kokri Beniwal village near Moga in Punjab and moved to England when Jarnail was just three.

At 20, Jarnail officiated his first local league game and it wasn’t before long that he discontinued his mechanical engineering diploma to join a cab rental service at Heathrow Airport. Then for five years, he worked with the Metropolitan Police before returning to his passion — refereeing, which he did 150 EFL matches until 2011.

Sunny’s brother, Bhupinder, is also a referee. In fact, the siblings became the first South Asians to officiate in the same EFL match in 2021. And last January, Bhupinder became the first Indian-origin person to officiate as an assistant referee in a Premier League match (Southampton vs Nottingham Forest).

But Sunny has reached where no one from his family – or the South Asian community in England – did.

“I will be emotional as a father,” said Jarnail, “Seeing Sunny achieve more than what I did and there will be some tears while watching and cheering him on along with 30,000 odd fans (in the stadium).”

According to Jarnail, Sunny’s love for football grew when he would take the two boys to be his linesmen in local tournaments held by the South Asian community. The brothers then played football at the local level, with Sunny even appearing for trials for Queens Park Rangers at the age of 14.

When he was 15, Sunny did a refereeing course and two years later, officiated in a Sunday league match. “Both Sunny and Bhupinder were very young when they started refereeing local matches. Due to lack of life experiences, they struggled to cope with the pressure from eager parents as well as fans and went back to playing football at the local level. I always told them that whenever they were ready, they could rejoin,” Jarnail said.

The decision wasn’t easy, though. Sunny faced a tough call having to choose between refereeing and his job as a prison officer in the London Borough of Hounslow. He quit last year.

“It was tough, doing full-time shift work during the week then going off officiating at the weekends… you have to think how it will affect your life but I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Sunny was quoted as saying by the EFL website.

“I asked my family to just stick with me because I knew it would be worthwhile one day when I could have a professional career in football and I did,” Sunny said.

According to Sunny’s father, one reason why Sunny could afford to leave his job and focus on refereeing as a profession is the ecosystem now in place for match officials, with more opportunities for people from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

In 2019, the England Football Association reported that nearly 2,000 (9.4 percent) of registered referees in England were of BAME background.

“The Elite Referee Development Plan by PGMOL supported by Premier League, FA and EFL has acted as support to referees like Sunny and Bhupinder. It has meant that Sunny could leave his job last year and the efforts are to get at least 1,000 new referees from the BAME background in the coming three years,” Jarnail said.

For now, though, Jarnail can’t wait for Saturday. He said he has only this advice for Sunny: “Enjoy the 90 minutes… It’s just the start for him and there will be many more to come.”

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