Joe Jacobson: 'I don't think about religion, I just get on with the football'

Bristol Rovers' Joe Jacobson is the first British Jew to play professional football for 25 years. James Corrigan asked him to explain that baffling statistic
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There is at least one factor to dissuade that ever-swelling legion of FA Cup junkies from mainlining all the magic should Bristol Rovers defeat West Bromwich Albion and make it to Wembley tomorrow. After all, unlike four of the other quarter-finalists, the League One dreamers have already appeared at the new stadium.

But should the Gasheads bring down the Baggies – in an encounter that sounds like it should be a running battle on an Irvine Welsh council estate – there will, of course, be so many other reasons to let forth the tear ducts. Not least the tale of Joe Jacobson, an unassuming 21-year-old who has something of a score to settle, both for himself and for his people as a whole.

In August 2006, the left-back became the first British Jew to play professional football in more than 25 years, a startling statistic considering the passion the 300,000-strong community holds for the game. In this time, British Jews established themselves as owners, agents, writers and, more to the point, fanatical followers of football, but not since Barry Silkman shouldered his mighty afro through the top divisions in the early Eighties did one of their number take centre stage. Why? Earlier this week, Jacobson tried manfully to answer this imponderable.

"You know, since I became the first when making my debut for Cardiff, I have been asked that plenty of times," he said at the training ground Rovers share with the army just outside Bath. "I'm glad to see that there are a few others who are playing professionally now and that Sam Sloma, in particular, is doing well at Dagenham. There should be more coming through, but why has it taken so long? I don't know, but I do have few theories."

His first has, over the years, become the most widely accepted. "Football's not a really a stable career path, is it? And in the Jewish community the philosophy really is to 'get on'," said the Wales Under-21 captain. "Most Jewish parents want their kids to go to university and from there go into professions like banking. For me it was the same. But as a young boy watching footie, that's all I ever wanted to do. As soon as it was clear I had the chance to make my living as a footballer, my family and friends were so supportive. There was no pressure. But then, I was given the opportunity and I'm sure a lot of other British Jewish lads would have a go if they were given a similar chance."

Jacobson suspects he was so fortunate because of geography as much as his sweet left foot. "In Cardiff there is only about 400 of us, so it was never a case of me playing in the Jewish leagues – I just got involved with the local club," he said. "Obviously, most of the Jewish people live in London and, like I say, there are specific leagues up there. They play on Sundays, for obvious religious reasons, and maybe scouts just don't get down to see them because it's not at the traditional time. Recently I went to London to see a game which a few of my friends were playing in and it's quite a decent standard. Perhaps there have been a few undiscovered gems over the years. As it is, the names of those who have made it are few and far between. Like, we've all heard of Mark Lazarus?"

It was the 1960s when the winger burst into FA Cup folklore and became famous for an incident which remains a one and only. In an early round against Poole Town from the Southern League, Lazarus ran over to the touchline to replace his torn shorts, but as he threw them to the bench a team-mate passed the ball to him. So off, Lazarus trotted, down the right wing, wearing only his jockstrap. "I hadn't heard that," laughed Jacobson. "I have seen his goal, though."

That came in the 1967 League Cup final when he completed a stunning QPR comeback with the winning goal in the 3-2 victory. The opponents? West Bromwich Albion. Across four decades, the portents ring.

For Jacobson, though, there is a more personal void to put right first. "To be honest, I don't think about the religious side much, I just get on with the football," he said. "I've been to Wembley before; in May when Rovers got to the play-off final [winning 3-2 against Shrewsbury]. The trouble is my loan period had run out a couple of days before. I wasn't allowed to play. I did still go and got involved before kick-off, but in a way that made it more frustrating. Trolls [Paul Trollope, the manager] came up before the game and said, 'Joe, you would have been playing today'. It was nice of him – but it didn't half rub it in."

This time, Jacobson would be free to play, having joined the Memorial Ground on a permanent deal last June – and he does indeed feel there will be a "this time". "Why not? We've come this far," he said. "And this game ticks all the boxes of the Cup clichés. A big club coming to a small club on a dodgy pitch on a drizzly Sunday night. I'm going to enjoy it, whatever." So long as he holds on to his shorts.

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