A Kopul of sporting heroes
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Very soon it will be the 50th yahrzeit of Rabbi Kopul Rosen. He was an awe-inspiring man, dead at 48. Unforgettable to pupils of Carmel College (the Jewish boarding school he founded), I'm sure he's remembered by almost everyone who met him. There will be many tributes but here is a story you will get only from me.
It starts with my greatest sporting moment but, like many people's, it had nothing at all to do with any sporting prowess of my own. I was playing for the school's football XI against the teachers. I was right-half, as it was called in those days. It wasn't easy playing for Carmel, especially when Kopul was watching. He liked football but he didn't always like what he saw and would boom out withering criticism from the touchline. I remember him coming on once at half-time and saying: "Ackerman, you're playing a very fair game. Half the time you're playing for our side, half the time you're playing for their side."
The teachers' centre-forward was Mr Bloch, more scholar than striker but, to his left, there was a gap. Where was the man I was supposed to be marking? Then I saw him, spotted him a hundred yards away. He was unmistakable. My God! It was Jackie Milburn, late of Newcastle United -wearing his England shirt. Jackie Milburn, the greatest-ever Geordie number 9,239 goals for the club, a hat-trick for England - with a hero status not even Shearer or Keegan could match.
Mr Bloch tapped the ball to him. Milburn pulled it back behind the half-way line with his right foot and struck it with his left. It hit the crossbar! It would be nice to say that I tackled him once or twice. I didn't, but I had played against him and once a week through that winter he came down to coach us.
It would be nice to say I tackled him but I didn't
Kopul and he were both great men. The scholar and the scorer. Lehavdil, you may say, but I do not. Jackie had a special aura about him. The statue near Newcastle's ground is tribute to his goodness as well as his goals. By the time Milburn arrived at Carmel, Kopul was already very ill. Clearly he admired the footballer. In an obscure biography that I have seen, Milburn recounts a visit to Kopul's study.
The rabbi invited the footballer to come and live at the school with his family, teach PE and become a housemaster. His son would be educated free. But, says Milburn, Kopul stressed that "I had to make a quick decision because he didn't have much time left." He describes the scene; the wood-panelled room, the massive desk and Kopul sitting in near-darkness behind it, a large, bearded, extraordinarily handsome man with a remarkable, sonorous voice.
"I am not religious," writes Milburn, "I don't believe in God but, if there was a god, that is what he would sound like." If you knew Kopul, especially if you were a small boy, you'd probably have agreed. And I don't think Kopul would have minded. Jackie Milburn didn't stay at Carmel. He became manager of Ipswich Town before returning to Newcastle. Kopul died and was buried in the school grounds. His grave could be seen from his study window.