Nathan Abrams reviews a new book by Jewish football executive David Dein.
Ken Bates, then Chelsea chairman, who was known for being quick-witted and acerbic once invited Arsenal executive David Dein around for lunch. ‘The first thing he said to me was, “Mazel tov”’, Dein recalls in his new autobiography, Calling the Shots: How to Win in Football and Life. ‘What for?’ he countered. ‘Isn’t that what your people say?’ Ken answered. While Bates was trying to be funny, he missed the target by a mile.
Before rising to what former Arsenal striker Ian Wright called ‘football royalty’, Dein rose from humble origins. His ancestors were working-class Jewish immigrants who arrived from eastern Europe around the turn of the century with only the clothes on their backs. His grandfather was a master baker from Poland. They settled in Forest Gate, East London, where his dad Isidore supported Leyton Orient. His father ran a tobacconist shop opposite Leicester Square station and frequently didn’t come home until 9 p.m. His mother ran a food store in Shepherd’s Bush.
Dein grew up in Alyth Gardens, North London. He attended Orange Hill School in North London. His family was not particularly observant, but he was proud to be Jewish. ‘We flirted with religion. I had my bar mitzvah at thirteen and that coming-of-age ritual was an important day of my life. I went to synagogue once or twice a year, but I never really became attracted to the rituals.’ His Jewishness was expressed in his choice of a football team: He acquired his love of Arsenal from his Uncle Issy who took him to his first games. It was also expressed in playing for the Golders Green synagogue team in Dunston Road, in the Association of Jewish Youth League, every Sunday.
Dein’s career began in business. After school, and following in his mother’s footsteps, Dein decided to become an entrepreneur. He had helped by selling damaged cans of Christmas pudding and dented tins of beans. He had sold Pez sweets at school after which he joined forces with his brother Arnold and traded in international foods and then sugar before becoming involved in Arsenal almost by chance.
The rest of the book is taken up with Dein’s time at Arsenal where, among the many highlights, he helped to set up the Premier League, oversaw the appointment of Arsene Wenger and brought in those players who would become known as ‘The Invincibles’. He also later worked for the FA among many other roles.
Apart from when talking about his upbringing, Dein’s Jewishness must be read between the lines. For me, it is expressed in his instrumental role in bringing the most intellectual Arsenal manager in the modern era, Arsene Wenger (whom I’ve long suspected of being Jewish and not just because he studied economics and medicine). And, for helping Arsenal to win the prize of best toilets in any sports ground. Were the bagels at The Emirates also his idea?
Dein has chutzpah which comes across in the book. He stole Emmanuel Petit from Spurs and even ttt chairman Alan Sugar to pay for his taxi over to Arsenal! When Dein argued about extending the half-time break at football matches from ten to fifteen minutes and meeting unexpected opposition, he told a joke. ‘Look, I’m at a game, at half-time, and I’m standing in the queue and there’s a guy in front of me hopping from one foot to the other. He turns to me and says, “I’ve got to have a pee, I’m bursting, I’m bursting.” So I say, “Why don’t you pee in the bloke in front’s pocket?” He says, “Pee in his pocket? Won’t he know?” So I reply, “Well I’m peeing in your pocket and you don’t know.” When Dein went to how new French signing Patrick Viera was getting on, he asked how his English was going and if could he say something. He replied, ‘Oui, Monsieur Dein: Tottenhaaaam are sheeeet I said to him, ‘Qui t’as dit ça?’ (‘Who told you that?”) He replied, ‘Ray Parlour.’ Ray had been giving him English lessons.
Dein is also keen to stress his sense of fair play and justice and in his telling, he comes across as a mensch, making decisions in the best interests not just of the club but of its fans and sometimes the other teams.
Going back to Ken Bates’ misjudged quip, how much was this reflective of Dein’s boardroom career in football I wondered? Not much, it seems, at least not in the way that Dein tells it. If there was antisemitism in English football over the years Dein was involved in it, it does not come across. There are, though, many Jewish names scattered across the pages of this new autobiography but, as befitting a book aimed at a general audience, this is not really probed.
One final note: you don’t have to be an Arsenal fan to enjoy this book but I’m sure it helps. Come on you Gunners!
Calling the Shots: How to Win in Football and Life by David Dein is published by Little Brown, priced at £22.