Four years ago, after weeks of pleas, Scott Shulton succumbed to pressure from a number of friends and agreed to join England’s soccer team at the Maccabiah Games, a mere 11 days before the event started. That decision, he recalls, “changed my life.”
Participation in the Maccabiah marked the start of a special Jewish journey, in which Shulton went from being a relatively uninvolved member of London’s Jewish community to heading the school soccer program for Maccabi Great Britain and coaching hundreds of Jewish schoolchildren every week. Now he’s set to participate in his second Maccabiah, this time as manager of England’s junior team.
The 23-year-old Shulton grew up in London’s Jewish schools, but dedicated his life to becoming a professional football player. As a result, he told The Times of Israel in a recent interview, he “was never involved in the Jewish stuff outside of school. I had four or five practices a week. I didn’t go on tour [to Israel], because I couldn’t miss practice.” First in Watford FC’s children’s department and later, as a member of Wycombe Wanderers’ youth squad, “I was always training.”
Before the 2009 Games, he was in the midst of contract talks with a number of professional teams, and refused initial requests to join the Jewish team from Great Britain. However, when one of the squad’s members injured himself weeks before the tournament, “I ended up saying ‘Yes’ to something I never imagined happening.”
The Maccabiah “changed my life on its Jewish side,” he says. “To be able to go to Israel for a football tournament couldn’t have been more perfect.”
During the tournament, “I was so focused on what I needed as a player, I didn’t really have time for much else. I enjoyed the trips and sights, but to me it was all about the next match,” Shulton recalls, and is still frustrated that the team ended up losing in the finals, to Argentina, on penalties. The plan for this trip to Israel, he says, is “to take a step back and enjoy being in Israel. Admire the country.”
Four years after that first Israel and Maccabiah experience, Shulton still enjoys playing the game, but dedicates most of his time to teaching it. Not long ago he joined the coaching staff of Queens Park Rangers (QPR), one of London’s oldest and most prestigious clubs. In addition, he’s been coaching England’s junior Maccabiah team — which he led to the gold in Vienna, at the 2011 European Maccabi Games.
“Maccabi GB contacted me about working with them. Two-and-a-half years on, I’m still there,” he says, describing the transition from professional athlete to professional Jewish educator, coach, and mentor. “Four years ago, I would have said ‘No, no chance.’ But since that call, I’ve worked in four schools … teaching almost 600 kids a week about skills, coordination, game planning… Being able to give back to the community is great.”
On Sunday, a plane with dozens of British-Jewish athletes, including Shulton’s team, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. The coach has high expectations of the 2013 Maccabiah, on and off the pitch.
Cautious and respectful of the other teams, he believes his team will make it through the first stage and into the knockout rounds. Most of the squad played together with him in Vienna, and the goal is to “continue to win matches. We’ve proven we can do it.” However, he warns, in knockout stages with everything dependent on one game, “the best teams don’t necessarily win.”
Besides sports, Shulton says, the Maccabiah is about “feeling a connection that is worldwide” with other people. He plans to get to know other coaches, and meet new faces over a cold beer at the end of the day.
At the last Maccabiah, he says, “I made good friends I’ve stayed in contact with — from the US, Israel, Australia and other places. I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”