Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Boyhood heroes

When I became captivated by football, watching the Crystal Palace side of the late 60s, I, like most young fans, had a boyhood hero whose memory has stayed with me. Mine was Mark Lazarus. He had joined us late in his career after scoring the winning goal for third division Queens Park Rangers in the 1967 League Cup Final.

I loved his flamboyance and skill, but most of all it was his goal celebrations that made him my all-time favourite. Modern footballers have their awful choreographed routines, but nothing has even beaten Mark Lazarus'. You willed him to score, simply so you could see it again. After a brief celebration with his team mates, he would set off on a lap of honour round the whole ground, waving and shaking hands with the fans. The teams were lined up for kick off, but had to wait as Lazarus jogged round the pitch, milking the applause before taking his place out on the right wing. These days he would probably be booked for 'over-celebrating'. Modern football takes itself far too seriously.

Lazarus was the obligatory 'character'. Every team had one. They were the flair players, usually tricky wingers or flashy forwards. Fans loved them and some of the names still flow off the tongue; Frank Worthington, Rodney Marsh, Duncan McKenzie, Stan Bowles - great players who were never allowed the international honours their skills should have won them. They were distrusted entertainers in a pragmatic sport. But in those innocent days I was unaware that there was much more to Mark Lazarus' story and have only just discovered it by reading a fantastic football history, Anthony Clavane's Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?: The Story of English Football's Forgotten Tribeabout the experience of Jews in British football. A section of the book is a profile headed, Mark Lazarus: The Tough Jew.

Clavane also had his boyhood heroes. Growing up in the Jewish community in Leeds, supporting Leeds United and facing some pretty unpleasant anti-Semitism, both on the streets and on the terraces, he idolised three Jews who fought back.
"My number one Jewish strongman was Samson, whose doomed heroism particularly appealed to me. In second place I selected the biblical warrior Judah Maccabeus, whose followers, the Maccabees, … founded the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled from 164 to 63 BCE … And third was Mark Lazarus ..."
He quotes Rodney Marsh.
"For me the hardest player [of my era] may surprise you – Mark Lazarus the former QPR winger … He didn't look for trouble, but when it came his way, look out, Lazarus could stand up like one of the old-fashioned bare-knuckle fairground fighters".
Lazarus came from a large, East End family of fighters. He had been a boxer as were two of his brothers, one knocking out the gangster Charlie Kray in a bout. His mother gave him sound advice:
My mum always said to me that if anyone called me a 'Jew bastard' I should go up and smack him on the chin …
It seems he did precisely that. There are lots of stories in the book; Lazarus knocking out one of his team mates in training because of an anti-Semitic remark, getting away with punching abusive players behind the referee's back, including a big centre-half at Scunthorpe, and tales of how he handled some appalling crowd abuse:
During one match at Sunderland home fans called him a 'Jew bastard', said he should be sent to the ovens and informed him he was lucky to be alive. Those who visited the Den in 1971 will never forget the vile, anti-Semitic abuse he received. At Shrewsbury, Lazarus responded to racist heckling by flicking the ball up and juggling it from one knee to the other - then turning to his abusers and waving at them. The referee booked him for inciting the crowd. Perhaps it should have been for chutzpah.
And this is where there is another side to his lap of honour. It wasn't just showmanship. It was pride. His own supporters may have adored him, but in away games it was a way of sticking two fingers up to the racism and the hatred that poured out from the terraces and beyond.

A lot has been written on the struggles of black footballers for acceptance, but anti-Semitism is the forgotten, hidden racism and, whilst reading Clavane's book, I was shocked by how widespread it was in the game and in broader society.

The book is a classic example of how important sporting history is to social history. It is a field of human endeavour that is often ignored. Yet Mark Lazarus' story tells us so much about prejudice and about how people fought back. Lazarus wasn't religious. He is an atheist who married out, but he was never apologetic or furtive about his background, unlike some of the other figures in the book. He was pugnacious in the defence of the people he came from. He always was my favourite player and now is even more so.

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