1 August ~ By anyone's standards, the 2010-11 season was a remarkable one for Wingate & Finchley FC. In winning the Isthmian and London Senior cups the club ensured their first silverware for 15 years and, even more significantly, a last-minute play-off win meant the Blues were promoted to the Ryman Premier League for the first time in their history. For a club which averaged 130 spectators last campaign and operates on a modest budget, the biggest challenge of all will be off the pitch. Formed by the merger of Wingate FC and Finchley FC in 1991, the issue lies in the club's ostensibly Jewish profile.
Referred to colloquially in the local and wider press as Wingate, there are obvious connotations with the original Wingate FC (named after pro-Zionist British Army officer Orde Wingate) a Jewish club set up to counter anti-Semitism after the Second World War. To compound matters, the current Summers Lane ground – and original home to Finchley FC – is now owned by the Wingate Youth Trust, a charity set up to support social welfare among Anglo-Jewish youth through the provision of leisure facilities. To many observers, the Finchley aspect of the club now exists in name only.
Given this precedent, there are legitimate claims for Wingate & Finchley to be considered the leading Jewish club in the country, although this largely depends on how you define "Jewish". While the Star of David forms part of the club's badge, there is little on the playing side which actively acknowledges this heritage. Of the current squad, only ex-Dagenham & Redbridge midfielder Sam Sloma is of Jewish descent and any addition to this number would be based more on coincidence than quota-filling.
Off the pitch matters are different. There is a strong Jewish presence on the committee and many involved with the running of the club are directly related to the founders of the original Wingate FC. Perhaps of greater significance, the Isthmian League grant dispensation to move the Blues' fixtures should they fall on Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, this only muddies the waters where the press and local community are concerned. The Jewish newspapers are largely indifferent, either through the club's lack of Jewish players or because the team play on the Sabbath, while many of the local Jewish population aren't interested for exactly the same reasons. Paradoxically, many of the non-Jewish community still regard Wingate & Finchley as "a Jewish club" and, for reasons that can be only speculated on, have little or no interest in supporting the side.
Just how aspirational an exclusively Jewish side could ever be is unclear, although a good benchmark can be found a few miles down the road in Goffs Lane, Cheshunt, the home of London Maccabi Lions FC. The Lions play in the Spartan South Midland League Division One (three levels the Ryman Premier) and finished last term in a respectable sixth position. It is widely recognised that the club – in a de facto if not a legal sense – will only allow Jewish players to represent them. Given the limited demographic from which to draw talent, it is unlikely the side could ever progress beyond the top division of their current league, and the management almost certainly know this.
For Wingate & Finchley the priority is progression through the football pyramid. While there is an obvious interest in seeing Jewish players develop through their acclaimed youth team structure, selection will always be based on meritocracy and not sentiment – a club of their nature that names two prominent Muslim players among their ranks can hardly be accused of religious bias. There are moves to emphasise the Finchley aspect of the club name in an attempt to connect with the local population, though this is superseded by the club's continued work with disability groups and inner-city children which has received national acclaim. It is this aspect of the club's guiding principles which should be a measure of their character, rather than superfluous references to religious persuasions. Identity can be fostered in many ways. By having a club that promotes an open-door policy and works with all sections of the local community, it is hoped any lingering preconceptions on what Wingate & Finchley may or may not represent can be overcome. Mike Bayly