In English soccer, Tottenham Hotspur and their “Yid Army” of fans are known as the Jewish club, but in the middle of the last century, Jewish owners helped establish a legacy in the northern city of Leeds that went on to define the local team for almost 40 years. Today, though, Leeds United is one of the more unfortunate sides in the game, having suffered financial and managerial misery over the last decade. Their season ends tomorrow against rival Rotherham, but no matter the outcome, they’ll end the campaign besieged by instability and middling in the standings. A new owner, Massimo Cellino, will do little to dispel the gloom: He was banned from running the club after being found guilty of tax evasion in his native Italy. (He could be in attendance for the first time in months this weekend—as a spectator.) His club has burned through three coaches this season, and Cellino has little support among the team’s fans.
This quagmire of bad management comes in contrast to a previously glorious past, when Jewish business savvy transformed a football town. While Leeds now ply their trade in the second tier of the English game, in the 1960s and ’70s, they were widely regarded as one of the best teams in Europe. They were also innovative and advanced in ways that modern sports franchises would recognize.
Part of the success came as a result of the heavy financial and emotional investment put into the club by the city’s sizable Jewish population—the third-largest in England—which numbers in the thousands and is a rival to Manchester. But it wasn’t always so: Prior to the late 1950s, the city’s Jews associated little with their soccer team, founded in 1919. The community preferred, much like the rest of Leeds, the local rugby side.
That all changed with two important events. The first, and most discussed, was the appointment of Don Revie as manager of the club in 1961. Revie’s incredible influence on the history of the team cannot be understated. (His statue, Lombardi-like, now stands outside the team’s stadium.) Prior to his time in charge, the club had never won a major trophy and were of little note, except for the fact that John Charles, widely considered to be one of the best British players of all time, spent the majority of his career playing for them. It took very little time for Revie to revolutionize the side.
However, integral to Revie’s success was the second event that occurred at the start of the 1960s: the restructuring of the club, which saw Jewish directors Manny Cussins and Sidney Simon join the board. As the Jewish community moved en masse from a self-created ghetto near the city to the northern suburbs, they became more involved in the sporting concern on the south side of the River Aire.
Jews began attending Leeds games far more regularly, despite the fact that football fixtures traditionally take place on a Saturday. As Rabbi Anthony Gilbert remembers, it became such a key part of Jewish life in the city that “Shabbos stopped at three o’clock because they went to the match at Elland Road,” the team’s stadium. “Maybe the fact that they went to Elland Road was part of the Shabbos as well, as far as they were concerned.” The popularity reached such heights that the Jewish Chronicle newspaper complained at the time that rather than focusing on more important matters, the community’s “sons speak with pride of Leeds’ prowess on the football field.” The extent to which Jewish fans have a presence on the terraces can be seen by the fact that past players have had their names sung, in the manner of English football crowds, to the tune of Israeli folk song Hava Nagila.
The new board had a role to play in the surge in popularity among the Jewish community. They would also go on to form the basis for Revie’s redefinition of what Leeds United was, providing him with a solid and sensible foundation for building his team. Along with chairman Harry Reynolds, Cussins and Simon allowed Revie the time to completely alter the English game. United developed young footballers, such as future captain Billy Bremner. Revie introduced scouting and prepared “dossiers” on opponents and brought other modern methods to the sport.
Revie benefited from the board’s willingness to back him and his footballing ethos. His appointment came at a time when the club was in significant debt, but he was given time and money to craft a side regardless. He signed both Johnny Giles and Bobby Collins, with the former costing the then-not-insignificant sum of £33,000 ($50,000). Giles and Collins were matched with young home-grown talent to form the backbone of a team that went on to win promotion to the top flight of English football in 1964. This would not have been possible without the financial and managerial support of the increasingly Jewish board, and just five years later, in 1969, they captured the First Division title, making Leeds champions of England for the first time in their history.
In 1972, Manny Cussins took over as chairman and continued to support Revie, who brought Leeds the FA Cup, then considered to be the most prestigious domestic trophy in football, in the competition’s centenary year. In 1973, showing the commercial understanding that had previously given him success as chairman of the furniture business Waring & Gillow, Cussins negotiated a deal with Admiral Sportswear to have Leeds be the first side in the top division to wear a branded uniform. Despite Revie leaving the club to manage the English national team in 1974, success continued, with Leeds reaching the final of the European Cup (now known as the Champions League) in 1975, only to lose to Bayern Munich.
Cussins was the starting point of a long spell of Jewish ownership at Leeds, one that causes Dan Moylan, editor of Leeds United fan magazine The Square Ball to recall that, “In my mind growing up, Leeds were a big Jewish club. Manny Cussins’ sale to Leslie Silver was almost, in a completely non-derogatory way, like passing it down the family.”
Silver joined the board in 1981 and became chairman in 1983. After their spell of success, Leeds were again struggling, back in the second division and going nowhere fast. Silver, who died just after Christmas in 2014, had made his money in the paint industry but set his sights on bringing United back to prominence. If you speak to those who knew him well, they’ll tell you that Silver wanted to achieve things at Elland Road because of the nachas it would bring to the community, the pride that would be derived from achieving at something that meant a lot to them.
When Silver took over, the situation was not great for Jewish fans of Leeds. Far-right sentiments, taking advantage of the general socioeconomic misfortune of the 1980s in Britain, established themselves in pockets on the terraces of Elland Road. The National Front, a fascist political party, sold their magazine The Flag outside of the ground, and racist chanting was commonplace. Silver was not frightened away by this, despite the obvious concern.
The chairman pushed further. He and his managing director Bill Fotherby were well aware of the importance of the affluent Jewish community to the club’s possible success. A year ago, Fotherby remembered the role they played in Leeds’ commercial strategy: “The Flying Pizza was a restaurant on Street Lane in Roundhay [in the north of the city], where there was a big Jewish community, and I realized that if I wanted success, I had to make sure that I was giving this Jewish community as much backing as I could. If I wanted a dinner at Elland Road and I wanted to raise money, these were the boys that were first in with the £1,000 for a table.”
Together, they brought Howard Wilkinson to the club as manager, and with Wilkinson and a defined commercial strategy centered around connections with the Leeds Jewish community, to bring quality soccer players to Elland Road, they went from consistent underachievement in the second division in 1988 to First Division champions of England in 1992. Silver sold the club in 1996. Thanks in part to the Silver-built youth academy for player development, the team reached the Champions League semifinal once more before plunging into its recent sad decade.
Moylan believes that Silver, like his Jewish predecessors, was as important as the manager: “I think he knew what he was doing, and it culminated in 1992. It was all done on a deal-at-a-time basis, with the plan reliant on all three of them. Wilkinson always gets the credit, but you can’t forget that Silver said ‘Yes.’ ”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.