Nathan Abrams talks to author Anthony Clavane about the love affair between Jews and English football.
We have yet to feature any sport in JewThink which, unfortunately, upholds the old stereotypes about bookish, weak, effete Jews being no good at physical pursuits.
To rectify this omission, I spoke to Anthony Clavane, a self-described ‘Jewish lad from Yorkshire’, and journalist who has written two books about Jews and football. They are Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United in 2010, followed two years later by Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here: The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe.
Clavane describes himself as ‘a tribalistic football fan. My tribe is first of all Leeds and then a secular Jewish tribe based on an orthodox tradition, and then the tribe of Yorkshire.’ A third book in 2016, Moving the Goalpoasts: A Yorkshire Tragedy, completed this trilogy. ‘Leeds, Jews and Yorkshire are the three tribes to my identity’, he says, although ‘I now live a very secular existence in Essex’ where he is a lecturer in multimedia journalism at Essex University.
Now that his beloved Leeds United are back in the topflight of English football, I asked Clavane how he was feeling, but also to reflect on the decade that has passed since the first book was published. ‘I’m shocked that it’s taken another ten years to get back’, he replied. (At least it wasn’t forty years of wondering in the wilderness, I thought.)
In Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? Clavane charts the journey from Yiddish-speaking immigrants to anglicized football-loving Englishmen. He describes the Jewish love affair with football in the context of the journey that Anglo-Jewry has taken since the late nineteenth century.
‘I hope the title will make people laugh. It was a song that was actually sung to Spurs and Leeds fans because they also had a reputation for being Jewish. Should Jews be playing football, on a Saturday, when they should be at shul, or resting, or taking a moment out of their lives to reflect?’
But since it was published eight years ago, I asked him if he was to write a postscript today, what he would add.
‘When I wrote Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? antisemitism wasn’t that big a deal. The issue of antisemitism has raised its head in different ways. I’m reeling from it. The issue of antisemitism hasn’t gone away from English football grounds or outside football grounds.’
‘I’d been too optimistic in my conclusions in the 2012 book, writing our work here is done. We’re very integrated into British society and football is one of the ways we’ve been integrated into that success story. Now I’d have some very difficult questions to contemplate.’
‘The idea of Jewish involvement in football is still very secure but if you wrote a book about Jewish footballers it would be the shortest book in history. Where are the Jewish players in elite football? You can count them on the fingers of one hand.’
‘When I researched the book, at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jewish boys were playing football and quite a few broke through to elite level. The idea that Jews don’t play football is completely preposterous. Of course, we play. But, there’s been a steady decline of Jewish footballers. I’d need to reflect on this lack.’
‘Despite the large Jewish populations in the United States and Israel, there have been very few Jewish footballers from either of those countries, especially recently. As the Premier League has become wealthier, all the recruits are from other lucrative leagues in Spain, Italy and France.’
‘There are also hardly any homegrown Jewish footballers coming through because there is no imperative to transition nowadays. The imperative to transition had driven the amazing kind of love affair that Jews had with English football.’
‘Second generation Jews became fanatical about football in order to transition from their Yiddish speaking Eastern European alien parents. Second and third generations wanted to belong. And one route to do that was through entertainment and another through sport, especially boxing and football. It’s a desire to prove oneself, that one isn’t weak, effete, intellectual group of people. That you are just as physically up to scratch as your English neighbour or friend.’
‘It’s more acceptable to be involved in football than it was 50 for even 20 years ago. Jewish fans, owners, administrators, bureaucrats are very identifiably Jewish. There are no apologies about being Jewish. They are taking a pride in their Jewishness. But in the pre-war period, there was more hostility and antisemitism.’
‘Jews lack that sort of motivation. Jews literally used to fight their way out of the ghetto both physical and psychological, but that drive isn’t there anymore.’
Thinking that Jews often talk a better game than they play, I asked Clavane if there a Jewish style of football.
‘In boxing there was the idea that if you use your brain you can outthink your opponent. Daniel Mendoza, for example, invented a scientific form of boxing.’
‘Marcelo Bielsa at LUFC is considered to be one of the best coaches in the world. He’s influenced Guardiola, Pochettino, Zidane, Mourinho. “Football is played in the head”, he says. He’s not Jewish but comes from an academic, intellectual background.’
‘The top coaches are praised on their intellectual approach combined with physical attributes that go with playing sport. But if it’s just one or the other, you lose out. You need to balance the two.’
‘If there’s been a Jewish approach to football, it was in the context of the 1920s cosmopolitan, continental intellectual café culture of Mittleuropa. The former Spurs manager David Pleat was considered to be cerebral.’
Off the Pitch
I asked him if the former Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, who had the reputation for being a very intellectual, professorial type (possibly because he had a degree in economics and wore spectacles), if he was Jewish. No, is the answer. But he was ‘brought up in a very Jewish environment with a lot of Jewish friends.’
Wenger wasn’t Jewish but was brought in by a very visionary Jewish chairman. David Dein was a Jewish outsider who came from very humble origins and broke through. An outsider like Dein gave an outsider like Wenger an opportunity.
Dein comes from a long tradition of Jews who have long played an off-field role in football. Dein at Arsenal and the Football Association (FA), Manny Cussins at Leeds, David Bernstein at Manchester City and the FA, Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, the Glazers at Manchester United, Irving Scholar, Alan Sugar and Daniel Levy at Spurs (you can currently see the latter on the Amazon Prime documentary, All or Nothing).
Clavane explains how ‘Jewish owners got involved twenty years ago as part of a new wave where football went from local businessman made good to more global phenomenon of oligarchs or international capitalists.’ But he ‘tried to avoid the story of Jewish owners because it helps to reinforce stereotypes.’
Returning to where we began, I asked Clavane how he thinks Leeds will do. ‘They’ll win every match 4-3 or lose every match 4-3.’ Will you stay up? ‘Yes. Fingers crossed they could be a mid-table team. It’ll be a thrilling ride.’
I wished him and Leeds the best of luck but not at the expense of dropping points to my beloved Arsenal.