In the late seventies, the Jewish Chronicle rang Bob Paisley to enquire whether his new signing, Avi Cohen, was orthodox. "Orthodox what?" the Liverpool boss replied. "Orthodox midfielder? Orthodox defender?" If Avi was an orthodox Jew, the journalist explained, he couldn't play on a Saturday. "But I've got half a dozen like that already," quipped Paisley.

The Israeli defender was so unorthodox he actually turned out for Liverpool on Yom Kippur — to the horror of his country's media. Some Jewish writers even invoked the concept of divine retribution to explain the goal he gifted Southampton on the Day of Atonement with a badly misjudged backpass. I have always felt bad about watching football on that day. In fact, despite not being religious, I still suffer slight pangs of guilt watching football on a Saturday. As my old headmaster once explained to me, Saturday is the Day of Rest, not the Day of the Match.

But maybe that's part of the attraction. Like eating bacon, or sleeping with a Gentile, it's a deliciously illicit activity. And, like driving to the synagogue on Shabbat, we all do it — but don't like to talk about it. "It is virtually impossible in Britain," David Baddiel once wrote, "to be Jewish and male and not interested in football."

There have always been religious and cultural pressures on Jews not to play football. But Jews have been kicking balls around ever since Norwood Jews Orphanage thrashed Endearment 11-1 in January 1901, one of the first matches played in the Sunday Football League — a competition set up by the Jewish Athletic Association to increase interest in the game. In the first half of the twentieth century, when the community was predominantly a working-class one, several pioneers emerged. Like the black pioneers of the 1970s and 1980s they were held up as an example of integration. To the Jewish community they were a symbol of belonging — but, 80 years or more later, they have become forgotten figures. 

Take my favourite ever Jewish player, Leslie Goldberg, who played for Leeds and Reading. I never saw him play, but my dad did — and I have seen a 1938 British Pathé newsreel clip featuring his exploits. In the clip, a plummy voice announcer says, "And we introduce, on the left, Leslie Goldberg, right-back. A footballer, first of all, must be fit, and PT and shadow boxing both help to that end." Goldberg's widow Peggy, who is not Jewish, met him when he was a PT instructor stationed in Kent during the war. "He did not conform to this ridiculous image of the Jewish weakling," she said. "When we first met, he believed that the more Jews exercised, the more they would be accepted. But later on he didn't think in those terms any more. He didn't really think about being Jewish even. When he came from Russia, his grandfather couldn't speak English. The chaps at customs couldn't speak Yiddish. So they gave them the name Goldberg. It sounded Jewish. It was easy, they could spell it. Their actual name was Gidanansky, which they couldn't spell." 

Sixty years later, in The Definitive Reading FC, the authors David Downs and Leigh Edwards inserted a note on players' name changes. There are two. "Goodman changed his name to Getgood in the 1920-21 season," they inform us, and "Goldberg changed his name to Gaunt in the 1948 season." The note provoked the following exchange in a Reading fans' forum:

"I'm intrigued as to why Gaunt changed his name – Goldberg is a name which might of [sic] aroused anti-Semitic feeling, that's the only thing which springs to mind…"

"No, nothing to do with the move (from Leeds). I remember him here as Goldberg before the name change." 

"I have just had the honour of speaking with club historian David Downs. So overawed was I at speaking with the great man that I forgot to ask about Les Goldberg/Gaunt's mysterious name change." 

There was no great mystery. It was, indeed, as one of the fans surmised, a reaction against anti-Semitism. Unlike their US counterparts, many first and second-generation Jewish immigrants anglicised their names upon arrival in Great Britain. What's in a name anyway? "If a Cohen wanted to change his name to Cornwallis," wrote Howard Jacobson in The Mighty Waltzer, "that was his affair. It was no mystery to any of us how come Hyman Kravtchik could go to bed one night as himself and the next morning, wake up as Henry Kay De Ville Chadwick. Enough with the ringlets and fringes. Enough with the medieval magic." 

Name-changing was especially prevalent among those who sought advancement outside the clothing industry. For Jews who entered the exciting worlds of sport and entertainment in the twenties and thirties, it was virtually compulsory. British boxing world champions like "Kid" Lewis, born Gershon Mendeloff, and "Kid" Berg — previously Judah Bergman — adopted English names. The most surprising example of all, perhaps, is the film star Leslie Howard, who specialised in portraying stiff-upper-lip English aristocrats; the son of Jewish-Hungarian émigrés, he had previously been known as Lesley Steiner. 

But what made Leslie Goldberg wake up one morning as Les Gaunt? For Goldberg's generation, football had been one of the ways of escaping the old ghetto, a slum just outside the city centre and becoming part of Leeds. Seeing one of their own rise to the top had given "great nachas" (joy) to the city's Russian-Jewish immigrants, most of whom were employed as tailors. Like the London and Manchester rag trades, they had lived and worked in a squalid New World shtetl, suffering the appalling conditions and poor pay of the notorious sweatshops. Sport had always offered immigrants and racial minorities not just a way out but, more importantly, a way of gaining acceptance. In his performances for Leeds and, at various levels, England, Goldberg had become the repository of his rapidly-integrating community's dream of belonging. Leslie was born in 1918, a year after a notorious mini-pogrom in Leeds; a 3000-strong mob rampaged through the Jewish ghetto, smashing windows, looting shops and beating up anyone who got in their way. The mob had been fired up by a newspaper article accusing sharp-suited "Hebrews" of parading in the town centre while brave young Loiners laid down their lives in France. The ghetto-dwellers, in fact, were a patriotic lot, a higher percentage of Jews than Gentiles enlisting. And nothing gave them more pride than Goldberg's brilliant career. In becoming the first Jew to play for England Schoolboys, he joined a growing canon of Famous Jewish Sports Legends: Ted 'Kid' Lewis, Harold Abrahams, the amateur golfer Lionel Leonard Cohen, the England rugby union international John Raphael and Nathan Rothschild, who played county cricket for Northamptonshire. 

The son of an immigrant boot riveter, Goldberg went to Lovell Road School and joined the Leeds Jewish Institute. The declared aim of both institutions was to disprove the charges of disloyalty, cowardice and unmanliness that were the stock-in-trade of anti-Semites. Jewish youths were inducted into the world of sport and taught to admire the host country's imperial grandeur. Max Freeman, who went to school with Goldberg, recalls it promoting "PT", as the Pathé newsreel announcer had called it, as a pathway to integration. At Lovell Road, as at the Brady Boys Club, the Free School in London and the Jews' School in Manchester, physical recreation of all kinds became an integral part of the pupils' daily life. Goldberg's much-loved sports master Nat Collins, who became his mentor, urged pupils to shed their parents' Old World habits and attitudes — but also taught them to stand up for themselves and fight back if they were attacked. 

Collins's influence on Goldberg was described by another school friend, Izzy Pear, as "quite astonishing really… he coached him from the start, taught him everything he knew. He was a nice fella, a good teacher, stern and strict. Mr Collins was a good lad, no question about it. He was Jewish and he wanted the school, which was 95% Jewish, to make a good impression on the outside world. So he entered us for the Leeds Schools' Cup — and we made it all the way to the final." Goldberg made his first appearance for Leeds, who were then in the top flight, in 1937, replacing the England full-back Bert Sproston. He was strongly tipped to replace Sproston at international level; he'd already represented the Three Lions as a schoolboy, making his debut at Wembley in 1932 against Wales. A reporter at that match described him as possessing a "very brainy game, depending upon clever anticipation, sure tackling and strong volleying". As a columnist in a Jewish newspaper wrote, "It is the sincerest hope of Leeds fans, and I have no doubt Jewish football followers throughout the country share this wish, that Leslie Goldberg will one day play for Leeds United and England and if this does happen may he serve as magnificently as a man as he did as a schoolboy international." 

The Second World War changed everything. The Football League was suspended with Goldberg having made 21 league appearances. During the conflict he guested for Arsenal and saw service in India before being stationed at Hythe, where he met Peggy. When the league began again after the war, he played a few games for Leeds but, with Jim Milburn and Eddie Bannister now the favoured full-back pairing, he was transferred to Reading in 1947. He changed his name to Gaunt a year later. Such an act of reinvention, as George Orwell had wryly observed in his 1945 essay, "Anti-Semitism in Britain", was easier than undertaking speech therapy or removing an unwanted mark on your skin. "It is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase," wrote Orwell, "that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. It does not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle and law-abiding), but it is ill-natured enough, and in favourable circumstances it could have political results." At public school, Orwell remembered, a Jew could "live down his Jewishness if he was exceptionally charming or athletic but it was an initial disability comparable to a stammer or a birthmark. Wealthy Jews tended to disguise themselves under aristocratic English or Scottish names and to the average person it seemed quite natural that they should do this, just as it seems natural for a criminal to change his identity if possible." 

When Goldberg played for Leeds, he had been insulated by a tight-knit community; located in one of the biggest cities outside London, it numbered around 30,000 in the 1930s. At Reading, a town populated by only a handful of his co-religionists, he and Peggy felt painfully exposed. He had tried his best, all his life, to fit in. Not to be different. Peggy revealed that he had once turned away a group of rabbis from the Elland Road training ground — they had been asking for a contribution to their charity — because he didn't want his teammates to see him as "not one of us". In Leeds, he had been feted as the latest in a line of local-Jews-made-good: first Michael Marks (of Marks & Spencer), then Montague Burton (the tailor) and now Our Les. He had been the first to play for England schoolboys, to captain Yorkshire Schools, to play for Leeds United, to appear on a cigarette card and feature in a British Pathé newsreel. Leeds United were keen to attract the-then predominantly rugby-supporting Jewish community to their stadium. In 1932, a Yorkshire Evening News reporter wrote, "The United would dearly like to have in their first team a member of Leslie's faith who was an outstanding performer. Such a player, opine the Peacocks, would increase the gates at Elland Road by several thousands every game." His old headmaster at Lovell Road agreed. "A couple of thousand extra supporters will go down to see Leslie play," predicted Collins. "He is extremely popular." But when he and Peggy moved to Reading they began, for the first time in their marriage, to experience anti-Semitism. "The manager of one shop used to shout loudly every time I came in, 'Good morning Mrs Goldberg,'" said Peggy. "Every time I came in — and everyone turned around to see who this foreigner was. He never said anybody else's name. And there were other, worse, incidents. And in games Les started being verbally abused." 

In 1950, after 71 league appearances for Reading, Goldberg's career came to a premature end when he broke his leg in a match against Norwich. "They went for him deliberately," said Peggy, "or so I was told. It was a bad break. His friend, up in the stand, heard the bone break. There was anti-Semitism involved." In his column in the Jewish Gazette, my great-uncle, Louis Saipe, remembered how Leslie had been hailed as a shining example of modern Judaism. As a schoolboy he had been a sporting all-rounder, excelling at swimming, cricket and athletics. Being a good sport, my uncle warned, was admirable — as long as you didn't, in the process, shed your identity. When I read this column in research for my book, Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?, I began to understand why Goldberg was no longer talked about when I was a child. The community had either forgotten him or else deliberately chosen to ignore his career. 

Goldberg's brothers had been close and had lovingly documented his rise in a scrapbook of cuttings. The scrapbook doesn't include any references to the one goal he scored in seven FA Cup ties for Reading, nor his management of the non-league team Newbury Town. He went on to scout for Reading and Oxford United and then returned to the Berkshire club in 1969 as an administrative and technical assistant to the manager, Jack Mansell. As Peggy says, "He moved away from Jewishness when we moved away from Leeds. He'd been in the army for six years. So he lived among non-Jewish people. That was his world. The football world was the same. He never wanted to go back. He was a good scout. He discovered Steven Death, who holds the appearance record for Reading. And he looked after the third team and was scouting as well. He could sort out a good player immediately. The thing is, he'd lived in the 'English' world more than his other brothers. When we moved to Reading there were no Jews. Well, a few young Jewish men chased him up — but they, like him, married out and drifted from the faith."

When his scouting days were over, Goldberg worked his way up through the ranks of Crimpy Crisps, becoming their London and south-east area manager. Then he moved to the Fuller-Kunzle company, which made cakes, and ran a restaurant in a casino for a while, mixing with an upper-middle class social set. "They didn't know about his footballing past," said Peggy. "One of them turned out to be a crook, but we had some marvellous times with them. We went to very posh dinner dances with them. We weren't following any religion then. We didn't really fit in." 

Goldberg is one of the many who disappeared. Other pioneers like Louis Bookman, Harry Morris and Bert Goodman did something similar. There was anti-Semitism, especially during the 1930s, but it was more an attempt to shed their ethnicity and fit in: in the period leading up to the Second World War, Jewish footballers were outsiders trying not to draw attention to their outsiderness, Europeans adopting the outward trappings of Englishness.


Anthony Clavane's book Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here? was published in October 2012 by Quercus.