We do do football... Jewishly

By Anthony Clavane, July 11, 2011
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Jews don't do football. We are people of the book not people of the penalty shoot-out. And yet we are approaching the 20th anniversary of the most popular club competition in world football. And without the Jews, there would have been no Premier League.

You could say the same thing about a number of English institutions, from fish and chips to Marks and Spencer. As the Jewish Museum's latest exhibition reveals, the nation would have been far less entertained over the past 130 years if Tsar Alexander II hadn't been assassinated back in 1881, provoking a sequence of events that eventually delivered the likes of Maureen Lipman, Sid James, Peter Sellers, Simon Amstell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amy Winehouse and Mike Leigh into our midst.

But, for some reason, the massive Jewish contribution to the People's Game has been ignored. We seem, as Jews, to be uncomfortable with this story. Perhaps it is fear of antisemitism; as the Baddiel brothers' brilliant Y-word film recently confirmed, racist abuse remains a problem.

Or maybe it's embarrassment that we have achieved prominence despite producing so few high-profile footballers; to adapt the famous Airplane joke: Something light to read? How about this leaflet: Famous Anglo-Jewish Soccer Legends?

Scholar and Dein were part of a new breed of young, dynamic Jewish entrepeneurs

When my Promised Land: A Northern Love Story was published last year, a number of friends and relatives dismissed it as a niche book. Why would anyone outside of Leeds 17 be interested in a history of the Jewish community's involvement with Leeds United?

Much to their surprise (and mine) the book won two national literary prizes, the Football Book Of The Year and the Sports Book Of The Year, and appears to have struck a chord in its depiction of an immigrant community's fight for acceptance.

The Leeds story is hardly unique. A similar book could have been written about several clubs, including Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester City and Leyton Orient.

Over the course of 130 years, football has deeply penetrated Jewish society. In four generations, we have gone from being ghetto outcasts to FA insiders. From Harry Abe Morris, the Swindon Town legend who scored 229 goals in seven seasons for the club in the 1920s, to current FA chairman David Bernstein, the game has been shaped by what David Peace in The Damned Utd called a last lost tribe of self-made men in search of the promised land, of public recognition, of acceptance and of gratitude.

Peace was referring specifically to the six-man Leeds board - Half Gentile, Half Jew, he called it - which contained Manny Cussins, Sydney Simon and Albert Morris.

A far more important Gang of Six, however, changed football forever on the night of 23 September 1991. At a secret dinner in a plush London restaurant, a group of powerbrokers met to discuss the breakaway of the top clubs into a new super league: half-Gentile Martin Edwards, Noel White, Sir Philip Carter and half-Jew Irving Scholar, David Dein and TV mogul Greg Dyke.

In the 1980s, the game had hit rock bottom. The Bradford fire and the Heysel and Hillsborough tragedies sent shockwaves through the country. Conditions at grounds were primitive, refreshments and toilet facilities were disgusting and there were outbreaks of terrifying violence. Scholar and Dein were part of a new breed of young, dynamic Jewish entrepreneurs who swept aside the old, conservative, reactionary regime. Up until their revolution, football administration had been a bastion of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. Both were passionate fans; as Scholar was floating his beloved Spurs on the Stock Exchange, Dein was thrusting his beloved Arsenal into the modern age. They were part of a commercial revolution which included other Jewish outsiders like Alex Fynn whom the Sunday Times dubbed "the spiritual godfather of the Premier League", merchandising guru Edward Freedman, Lord Justice Taylor whose post-Hillsborough report legitimised the move to all-seater stadia and Bernstein, who masterminded City's move to the state-of-the-art Eastlands.

These grandsons of East European immigrants are just as much part of the Jewish success story as Maureen and Marks. With respect to Airplane, their pivotal role in the transformation of English football is worthy of a heavy tome rather than a thin leaflet.

Promised Land: A Northern Love Story (Yellow Jersey Press. £8.99) is now available in paperback.

    Last updated: 4:35pm, July 13 2011