We’re football mad, so where are our players?
The third round of the FA Cup takes place this weekend. It’s a showpiece of the English game. Plenty of British Jews will be watching but none will be playing for the top clubs. Why not?
No British Jew has played top flight football since Barry Silkman played 29 years ago
Jews love football. Hundreds of young Jewish men turn out every week to play the game, most of them in the Maccabi League in London and Manchester, but some for non-Jewish amateur teams in other leagues. The owners of many of the country’s biggest clubs are Jewish. Some of the top football writers come from Jewish backgrounds. Even the chairman of the Football Association, Lord Triesman, is a Jew.
In fact, virtually the only area of the sport in which Jews do not play a significant role is as professional players.
In the past, it could be argued that the rewards available to footballers paled in comparison with the money that could be earned in the professions Jewish men tend to choose — law, accountancy, medicine, finance.
That is certainly not the case any more, with contracts worth millions available to the best players. Yet we are still waiting for the first British Jew to make his debut in the Premier League. Why?
“Quite simply, it’s not a game Jewish kids are encouraged to play when they are young,” says Jewish former Tottenham Hotspur manager and ex-player David Pleat.
“And even if there are boys who are very talented, they probably pursue other career opportunities. I believe that football has got to be in your blood. I came from a working-class family on a council estate and all my spare time was taken up playing football.”
Pleat, who now commentates for ITV and BBC Radio 5 Live, notes the profusion of Israeli players in the Premier League and argues that a lot of it is down to desire.
“You look at Israel and you see hundreds of kids who come out of schools early in the afternoon because of the lovely weather. They go to clubs and they practise for an hour and a half at a time. The facilities are superb. That is probably why the national team is improving,” he said.
“It is quite incredible to see so many players coming through. In this country, youngsters have to have the same mentality — they need to love it and want it so much that they are outside practising day and night.”
Barry Silkman agrees. Now a football agent, he was the last British-born Jewish footballer to play in the top flight of English football, turning out for Manchester City in the old First Division in 1979.
Silkman, who is 56, was brought up in the East End of London and believes that today’s generation of young Jews, growing up in comfortable middle-class homes, are too soft to become professional players.
“To be honest, they are not born into a situation where they are hungry to be footballers,” he says. “It’s not an easy profession — the training is very hard, there’s a strong work ethic. In many ways, it’s no different to being a boxer. Thirty, or 40 years ago, if you looked at the boxers who were around in London, they were nearly all Jewish.
“But as the years have gone on, Jewish people have come out of the East End and are now brought up in the suburbs.
“It creates a different breed of person. When I was a young boy my parents were football mad and my mum took me to games nearly every week. I was brought up on it and all my family and I wanted was for me to play the game.
“Today, parents want their children to go into what they regard as a proper profession. The Jewish community is a lot wealthier now than when I was a child in the 1950s. But I wanted to be a footballer and worked seven days a week — that’s how committed you needed to be.”
Silkman doubts another Jewish professional footballer will follow in his footsteps and play in the top division. “You’re may get one come through in 10 or 15 years but I honestly don’t see any chance at the moment. In my era, you had Jewish sportsmen and women who were determined to succeed and I think those days have gone.
“Jews are no longer brought up in a culture of being professional footballers. When we talk about being a footballer or a boxer, it’s more physical than mental work, so somewhere along the line someone has to come out from a family and that person must be strong enough to want to go and do it. I don’t think that is going to be easy.”
One man who has bucked the trend is 21-year-old Joe Jacobson, who plays for League One side Bristol Rovers and has captained Wales at under-21 level. He always wanted to be a footballer and his decision to turn professional with his hometown club of Cardiff when he was 16 was backed by his parents.
“Of course, I always had the support of my parents, but along the way I had to make a lot of sacrifices and one of the biggest was education,” he says. “I suppose that’s a worry for other parents because when you start playing football you are taking a big risk, and, in some cases, it doesn’t always pay off.”
His ambition, of course, is to play in the Premier League. “I think that with more experience and if I keep working as hard as I have been, I could definitely make the step up,” he says.
That there are none of his fellow British Jews he attributes not to lack of ability or determination but to a failure of clubs to scout for fresh talent in the Maccabi League, where most Jewish amateur footballers play.
“I think the Jewish leagues need to be highlighted more by clubs. I have been to some of the games and the standard was decent — there are obviously players who are good enough to progress.”
Josh Kennet is also a Jewish professional player but, having had a spell playing for non-league Oxford United, he now plays in Israel, turning out for Premier League club Maccabi Herzliya.
He points out that it is becoming more difficult for any young British player to break into the first team at a Premiership club.
“Regardless of ethnicity or religion, the number of players passing through youth academies is probably at an all-time high.
“This, coupled with an influx of youth players from abroad, has raised the standard to levels not seen before. In my opinion, the Premier League is the best in the world and you have to be the best to play in it.”
He adds that Jewish players do not lack talent but possibly do lack the “commitment, drive and determination” required to be successful.
But he also argues that there may be more Jewish players in the professional game than is generally thought.
“I believe there might be players playing in and around the Premier League who are Jewish but we aren’t aware of them, as they might not have come from the more established communities,” he says.
Perhaps we should lay claim to Theo Walcott? Or Jonathan Woodgate?