Interview: The Englishman who won over Jerusalem

Gary Vandemorlen looks back on the great Betar team of the late '80s.

gary vandermolen 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
gary vandermolen 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
When Betar Jerusalem won its fifth league title last year a group of the club's supporters recorded a new version of a classic song to celebrate the achivement. The tune, which listed players such as Aviram Bruchian and Barak Itzhaki who made a significant impact during the 2006/07 campaign, was based on the anthem recorded 20 years earlier when Jerusalem won its first championship. That song highlighted the impact of Betar legends such as Eli Ohana, Uri Malmilian and Sami Malka. While the tune is still played by Betar fans to this day, one other name which was included but has all but been forgoten is Gary Vandermolen. Vandermolen was an English center forward who arrived at Betar in October 1987, a few games into that historic season, and quickly managed to become a fan favorite. While he only started a few games while regular striker Avi Golder was injured, the former Southend resident came on as a substitute on numerous occasions and scored important goals for Jerusalem before abruptly leaving the club, and Israel three years later. Nearly two decades since finishing his short soccer career, Vandemorlen lives and works in Ra'anana and looks back fondly on his time playing alongside some of Israel's soccer greats. "Everyone in the Betar Jerusalem team apart from me was from Jerusalem. There were absolutely no outsiders so I was a little concerned at the start," Vandermolen remembers. "But for some unknown reason I was accepted from day one. Even though I was a white Ashkenazi English Jew I got on with everyone and became a fan favorite." Although Vandermolen made a significant contribution to the Betar team of that year, the stars were clearly Ohana and Malimilian. "I played alongside Ohana. He was really a class player. At first it was great because no one would mark me because they would all go to him. But all of a sudden I got a name so then they came for me. "Malmilian was very serious on the pitch. If you made a mistake when he was there you knew it because he told you. Off the pitch they were all great, really warm-hearted and welcoming." Vandermolen had arrived at Betar in quite unconventional circumstances. Having shown potential playing in England for the Southend and Wimbledon youth teams he followed one of his coaches to America where he played at San Diego University for four years. After completing his education and becoming an All American he returned home and began training with third division Southend. But after two weeks he received a phone call from a Betar representative inviting him for a trial in Jerusalem. It turned out that the brother of then-Betar goalkeeper Yossi Mizrahi had been the Israeli emissary to San Diego and as a soccer fan had seen the young Englishman player and recommended him. "That October the weather in England was terrible, so when I had a phone call from Jerusalem asking if i would like to come for a trial I asked what's the weather like. They said it was bright and sunny so I told them I'd be there tomorrow," he recalls. Aged 25, Vandermolen impressed from the moment he arrived. "I came here and (now current Israel national team coach) Dror Kashtan was manager of Betar. They put me in hotel in Jerusalem and soon I played in a training game, scored a goal and they offered me a $30,000 two year contract. Within seven days I had a new immigrant's ID and was ready to play in the league." While Vandermolen became a cult favorite and scored goals, Golder was Kashtan's first choice to play up front alongside Ohana. That year Betar Jerusalem played its home games at Tel Aviv's Bloomfield Stadium in front of 20,000 fans. "When Golder came back from injury I was put back on the bench. But from the first minute any time he made a mistake the whole crowd began calling for me, singing "Gerry, Gerry," the name the fans had given me. It was driving Kashtan nuts and the more they called my name the more he left me on the bench. "Around 15 minutes into the second half he'd tell me to warm up and I would feel the buzz in the stadium. I ran on the adrrenaline and scored a goal. Nearly every week the same thing happened and I scored nine or ten goals that season." Vandermolen never managed to regain his first team place and was on the bench the day Jerusalem clinched the league with a 2-0 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv. "With 25 minutes to go I was sitting on the bench hoping to come on as a sub. But Kashtan took off the two forwards and replaced them with two defenders to see the game out which was a bit of a disappointment," he says. "The atmosphere after the game was incredible. It took us hours to get back to Jerusalem as the fans had stopped their cars and were dancing in the middle of the Ayalon." The Englishman played at Betar for another two seasons but never managed to recreate the magic of that first year or become a first 11 regular. Betar Jerusalem was a club which had heavy involvment by local politicians, and it was chairman Reuven Rivlin, who later became Knesset speaker, who caused problems for Vandermolen when he tried to move to another Israeli club. "After three years when it was time to move on Reuven Rivlin wouldn't release me to any other team in the country," he says. "There wasn't freedom of contract like there is now. Players belonged to clubs. That was the way it was then." In the end Vandermolen decided to leave the country and moved to England with his Israeli wife Etti who he had met in his first weeks in Israel and their two children. He worked as a physical education teacher but Etti wanted to come back to Israel so they returned in 1991 and Vandermolen opened the building and decorating business in Ra'anana that he still runs today. While he was a mainstay for those few years, he has little connection with the club he played for. "There's no animosity but there's no real loyalty. It was just a job. The people I worked with aren't there any more," he says. While he says he hardly even watches Israeli soccer these days, prefering to focus on the English game, he has seen enough of the current, all-conquering Betar side to compare it to his team of 1987. "Sometimes I think you can't compare eras. Today's soccer is much faster. These days [players] are much fitter but I think our team was more skillful and if we played against the current side we would beat them."