Professional football's net profits and amen corners
Two new books explore the Jewish infatuation with football
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Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up/ By David Conn/ Quercus, £16.99; Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?/ By Anthony Clavane/ Quercus, £17.99
King George V meets the Manchester City players in the 1934 FA Cup Final
Why are Jews so addicted to football? Apart from boxing, where Jewish lads have often excelled in both Britain and America, participation in professional sport has not been a Jewish speciality. It’s very different when it comes to supporting or even managing clubs and, in more recent times, organising the financial take-over, or survival, of top British soccer clubs.
Football appeals to the Jewish community spirit that, at one level, carries a long tradition of support from working-class Jews. At the other end of the social scale, the game has a seemingly irresistible attraction to global wealth that can provide a new platform from which to exercise unusual power and influence.
There is, to be sure, also a touch of showbiz involved, always an area where Jewish talent shines. As the late, great Danny Blanchflower observed when he captained Tottenham Hotspur in their prime years, soccer is essentially a “glory game”. Danny was not Jewish but he hit the right note — as do these two splendid books.
David Conn’s is the longer book and uses one club, Manchester City, to demonstrate how the great game has been transformed not by Jewish wealth or influence but by Middle-East oil.
Conn, a distinguished sports writer for the Guardian has analysed, probed and dissected the motives behind the manner in which Abu Dhabi’s vast oil wealth has been used by Al Mubarak, Sheikh Mansour and the other ruling brothers to set up “wealth funds and huge investment companies” whose job, Conn writes, “is to find somewhere to sensibly invest the riches relentlessly gushing into their hands.”
In doing so, they have transformed Manchester City from a struggling club with the usual internal squabbles into a global football power — from which they can exercise political along with sporting influence. This has helped football to become a big financial business.
David Conn’s book is also the autobiographical story of a young Manchester Jewish boy devoted to City, not United. Like Anthony Clavane, Conn had to be careful not to upset his rabbi. After all, the traditional soccer day, before television altered the culture, was Saturday — Shabbat.
Clavane’s brilliant documentary tells how Jews assimilated into the English soccer scene — so much so that an area of North London, dominated by Jewish allegiance to Tottenham Hotspur, was called “Little Russia” since it was the adopted home for many Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia.
Something similar could be claimed for other great soccer cities — Leeds (Clavane’s own patch), Manchester and Liverpool, along with London. But Manchester is probably a special case, or at least is regarded so by me having been an early product of what David Conn describes as his “football religion”, which he ventures to suggest “is stronger than real religion”.
I know what he means. As a youngster, I too was devoted to “the blues” of Maine Road — Manchester City — before the family moved to London and I joined the Spurs’ fan club from “Little Russia”.
What sticks indelibly in my memory are my Sunday-morning cheders when our teacher, Rabbi Abrahams, fought gallantly to keep us boys on track with Hebraic history while we insisted on replaying the day before’s match at Maine Road. My generation, a lot older than David Conn’s, recalls our heroes in the 1934 City side that beat Portsmouth 2-1 at Wembley to win that year’s FA Cup.
Back to an immortal half-back line of Matt Busby — yes the Matt Busby — Sammy Cowan and Jackie Bray; a great young goalkeeper, Frank Swift, and Bobby Marshall pushing a ball to Eric Brook on the left wing for Brookie to complete the magic with his lethal left boot.
David Conn is right. It was a religion — and probably still is.
Geoffrey Goodman is a former assistant editor of the Mirror and industrial editor of Mirror Group Newspapers