From The Back Page To The Front Room: Extract

In an extract from his book From the Back Page to the Front Room, Roger Domeneghetti takes a look at the career of James Catton, the father of football journalism.

James Catton might have cut a diminutive figure in the Press box, but he stood like a colossus over the early decades of football journalism. At just 4ft 10.5ins tall he probably didn’t need reminding of his height, but his colleagues took pleasure in doing just that with ‘Pigmy’ and ‘Tom Thumb’ being just two of the brickbats thrown in his direction. Catton was unbowed however, and when he died in 1936 aged 76 he was widely acknowledged by both professional colleagues and sport players and administrators to be a unique talent.

Among the eulogies, Trevor Wignall, the Daily Express’ chief sports correspondent, commented that Catton’s reports had been one of the “few things that mattered” for young lads in the early 1900s.

However in 1875, when Catton answered an advert for “a well-educated Youth as Apprentice to Newspaper Reporting” and joined the bi-weekly Preston Herald, all that was in the future. His father, a university-educated classics and maths tutor with a love of cricket his son inherited, had in mind a medical career for Catton, but he had no need to worry as the newspaper industry, both sporting and non-sporting, was in a period of explosive growth. There were just 15 provincial dailies in 1856 but by the turn of the century that number had grown to 171 and there were 101 evening papers on top of that. Between 1861 and 1880 the number of towns boasting one daily paper rose from 16 to 47. It was 71 by 1900.

The growing popularity of regularly organised football was also hard to miss and all manner of people sought to cash in. Firms that had previously produced cricket equipment turned their attention to the fast-growing winter sport and began churning out hand-sewn footballs, football boots and nets. As early as 1880 the discerning gentleman could stroll into Manchester department store Lewis’s to purchase the latest in designer knickerbockers and coloured football jerseys. Manufacturers of medicines and herbal remedies started targeting their products at football players and even grass seed was being advertised with football in mind. Ever keen to turn a fast shilling the newspapers began to use football as a selling point of their product, in turn cementing the sport, and sport more generally, into England’s commercial and leisure sub-cultures.

Although only an apprentice, or perhaps because he was an apprentice, Catton was able to immerse himself in this new urban craze covering a considerable amount of sport in his eight years in Preston, despite the irregularities of the seasons at the time. With few barriers between Press and players he befriended several members of the Preston Grasshoppers rugby team as well as one Major William Sudell who was in the process of building Preston North End’s famous ‘Invincibles’.

Catton wasn’t around to witness their double-winning season in 1889 having qualified six years earlier. He was 21, married to Mary, the sister of a fellow reporter, and they already had the first two of their four children. Catton needed a pay rise so in 1883 he left Preston for the Nottingham Daily Guardian answering an advert for a reporter “of gentlemanly appearance”.

Journalism was still in its infancy; an uncertain career which did not yet have the social standing and respectability, and thus rewards, of other professions. Football too was in its infancy and in 1891 Catton reported on the first use of goal nets “in a public match” at a trial game held at Forest’s City Ground between teams from the North and South.

During his eight years by the Trent, Catton and sports journalism both established themselves and before he left the Daily Guardian he had been promoted to the position of “sporting editor”, a title that was popping up all over the country as it became clear sport had an increasingly large role to play in the paper business.

Something else that was popping up all over the country during the 1880s was the football special. These were hyper-local city or town-specific papers printed on Saturday evenings which became known for the colour of the paper they were printed on, often nicknamed ‘The Pink ‘Un’ or ‘The Green ‘Un’ accordingly. The specials became so ubiquitous that in 1905 an early history of football described how Saturday nights had become “illuminated by innumerable broadsheets in colour like unto the rainbow, devoted solely to the purveying of fact and fancy on the one topic”.

The papers were able to meet this huge demand thanks to the latest technological innovations. By the late-1880s the telegraph was increasingly being supplemented by the telephone (and a few decades later the car) although even in the early 20th Century papers were still using homing pigeons to allow their writers to report in the absence of more modern technologies. In these incidences the reporter would take at least two pigeons with him to the ground in a basket along with a pad of thin tissue-like paper. At the end of the first half the reporter would write his report on the paper, attach it to the first pigeon’s leg and dispatch it back to the office, repeating the process with another pigeon on the final whistle (or after each goal in important games). Almost every paper had a pigeon loft as well as trained handlers and when the birds arrived back at the office the handlers would ring a bell alerting the sub-editors to their arrival, and a copy boy would be sent to retrieve the hand-written notes. Occasionally the system would fall foul of bad weather, predators or pigeons who weren’t very good at the homing part, but as the birds could cover 50 miles in little more than an hour the system was by-and-large a success and popular enough to run in tandem with the telegraph for many years.

For those reporters interested in the new sport, football offered an escape, albeit short-lived perhaps, from the drudgery of courts and public meetings; the chance to mix with sporting heroes and for a writer with flair the chance to inject their reports with a colourful turn-of-phrase likely denied in the paper’s news section. Yet it was also hard, unglamorous work that should have carried a health warning. At least eight of Catton’s colleagues died between 1891 and 1895, one of whom, Tom Sutton at the tender age of just 41, had suffered prolonged ill-health brought on by the harsh weather conditions football reporters had to endure. Catton himself gave a detailed insight of how the facilities available for reporters developed over the decades in his book Wickets and Goals: Stories of Play. In the early days they were virtually non-existent and the reporter would be left to his own devices, free to wander around the pitch or even chat to the goalkeepers. Some clubs put out benches or desks but these would be right on the touchline with no cover from the elements or the crowd. The first Press boxes made their appearance in the 1890s but varied from ground to ground and sport to sport, with some being very opulent (reporters attending The Oval, for example, had the use of a private toilet). By 1899 a committee had been set up to distribute the 150 seats allocated to the Press for the FA Cup Final at Crystal Palace. Catton noted that around that time the telegraph had made its appearance and by the mid-1920s the Press had their own entrance to most grounds and access to a telephone on each desk with a direct line to their office.

In 1891 Catton was on the move again, returning to the North West to join the Manchester-based Sunday Chronicle, thus starting a 33-year association with Edward Hulton’s group of papers. The group was at the forefront of sports journalism but Catton had to join what was, at the time, their only newspaper to step up the career ladder. Census figures detail the general profession’s growth, listing about 2,400 journalists and writers in 1871, about 3,400 ten years later and 5,771 in 1891, yet even in the mid-1890s specialist sports journalism jobs were few and far between. It was at the Chronicle that Catton took on the pseudonym Tityrus in keeping with the industry-wide practice that produced bylines such as The Bounder and the even more intriguing Dangle.

After three years Catton was in charge of the paper’s sports coverage before being promoted again in 1900 to the editorship of another of Hulton’s titles, the Athletic News. In 1887 Hulton cut the Athletic News’ cover price to half a penny and a year later moved publication from Saturdays to Mondays. Both moves were designed to capitalise on football’s growing popularity and both worked a treat. By 1896 it was shifting 180,000 copies a week and had become the country’s leading authority on football. The paper was intimately linked with the sport and Catton’s predecessor, J.J. Bentley who edited the Athletic News from 1892 to 1900, was also the Football League’s chairman from 1893 to 1910, as well as being vice chairman of the FA and  director of Manchester United. Charles Alcock, perhaps the most well known founder member of the FA, along with other key figures such as William Pickford and C.E. Sutcliffe, also all wrote for the paper.

That so many of the game’s early administrators were involved with such a key publication demonstrates that they realised that the Press was vital in helping them to shape and form public opinion as they navigated the choppy waters between the amateur ideal and an emerging professional sport. The Athletic News wasn’t just the voice of football but the voice of professional football ownership, articulating and defending the League’s and clubs’ viewpoints while also reinforcing the sport’s hierarchy as the game was structured.

Catton had reported on the historic 1885 Freemason’s Tavern meeting that sanctioned professionalism and his support for the move may well have come from the kinship he felt with footballers themselves. He was an original member of the National Association of Journalists in 1894 and the National Union of Journalists soon after it was founded in 1907. Like footballers, journalists were trying to gain acceptance in a new and uncertain profession that was erratic and required frequent moves from job to job sometimes to different parts of the country.

Another key change Catton witnessed during his career, and here he was as much an instigator, was the development of reporting style. At the start of Catton’s career reports were long-winded, laborious blow-by- blow accounts weighed down by obscure references to the classics. In one of his early 102-line efforts, the result was buried 12 lines from the end and while working in Nottingham he opened a report on the local derby in 1890 like this:

The fierce partisans of each side rubbed their shoulders together, and as I looked round the parallelogram

the words of Hecate, in Macbeth, were brought vividly to mind:

Red spirits and grey, Mingle, mingle, mingle You that mingle may!

Black spirits and white,

Parallelowhat? It’s doubtful any modern football writer would attempt an opening paragraph as convoluted as that and it’s extremely unlikely it would make it into print if they did. However when Catton started out this was all new, writers like himself were basically making it up as they went along, pioneers in a frontier where no man had gone before. Over the following decades this changed and Catton was one of the driving forces in introducing a chattier style. In the 1920s and 1930s some younger reporters still regarded his writing as slightly old-school but they also respectfully acknowledged that it was he who bridged the gap between them and what had gone before. Catton’s later reports had clearly moved with the times and appeared much lighter, with a more personal style and references to other matches to place the result into the wider context of the sport. A further influence on style was the decrease in both time and space available to the reporter.

As the clamour for the football specials increased editors wanted to pack in more reports without upping the size of the paper, so word counts got shorter and so too did deadlines in an attempt to beat rival publications to the streets and meet the post- match crowds as they came out of the ground. You couldn’t quote Shakespeare when you had to file a match report on the ‘f’ of the final whistle. Yet there was a flip side as the need for speed saw football reporters create a language of their own, incomprehensible to the non-football fan and full of formulaic cliché and stock terminology. In 1959 academics Percy Tannenbaum and James Noah labelled it ‘sportuguese’ arguing that it had by then become an “integral part of the sports writer’s kit-bag, his stock-in-trade” and it’s a language still used by many writers today.

If the style of those very early match reports is antiquated some of the narratives developed at the time are rather more familiar. While the Beautiful Game had quickly become one watched by the working-class masses, cricket was fast becoming the sport of the upper-middle and upper-classes, but like folk football early cricket was a highly violent affair frequently involving death and serious injury to players and spectators. As with football, many of modern cricket’s early administrators were also correspondents of the sport so they cultivated an image of a genteel game unsullied by drinking, violence or gambling. What better way was there to do just that than to deflect the blame for any lingering violence on to the shoulders of the ‘roughs’ who watched soccer? So in 1883 when police had to be deployed at Lancashire’s Old Trafford to quell crowd trouble during a cricket match, The Badminton Magazine blamed the violence on the “football element”.

Football writers had their own concerns lamenting the impact of that thing English football and English football journalism seems to fear the most: the outsider. Prior to a match between the Scottish and English players of Lincoln City in 1893, the local paper wrote: “Ever since the introduction of professionalism, there has been a big demand in England for Scottish players, but football enthusiasts are now beginning to question the wisdom of going across the border for new blood whilst we have promising young players of English manufacture at hand”. To great relief the English players won, leading the paper to contrast the “uncertain foreigners” with the Englishmen who “would try their very hardest to uphold the honour of Lincoln”.

And what about those other great outsiders; women? Written by men and aimed at men, newspapers’ sports coverage was, well, very masculine and didn’t have much room for the ladies. What little there was either focused on body-oriented sports like gymnastics or middle-class sports such as tennis and hockey. When men and women enjoyed the same sport, coverage was skewed towards the former, for example providing reports of male tennis matches but only the results of the ladies’. The prevailing attitude towards women was articulated by Catton (albeit talking about cricket) when he wrote: “Are they not the presiding deities of the tea tent? I am old-fashioned and quaint enough in my prejudices to prefer sport for women as the handmaid of health, and for no other purpose.”

In other matters, Catton wasn’t old school but in fact about 90 years ahead of his time.Following the First World War he urged clubs to remodel themselves along Continental lines by developing feeder systems to train young local players in the arts of dribbling and passing with both feet. In 1928 he criticised the inability of first division players to be able to control the ball and questioned the clubs’ reliance on stamina. Sound familiar?

Ill-health forced him to step out of the editor’s chair at the Athletic News’ Withy Grove offices in 1920 and so he headed south to the capital, but it was a busy semi-retirement for the workaholic and although he was divested of his managerial responsibilities he continued to produce reams of copy. No sooner had he settled in his new Wimbledon home than he was writing for The Observer, the London Evening Standard and All Sports Illustrated News. He briefly held the role of guest writer on the Athletic News but Fleet Street and the nationals was where the action was at and by now he was the widely acknowledged godfather of the Press box. He was an idol to reporters such as Neville Cardus and John Macadam, who would themselves go on to influence subsequent generations of sports journalists.

That the latter stages of Catton’s career were spent in London working for various national titles was entirely in keeping with the manner in which the sports section of the newspaper industry had changed. Indeed his 60-year career serves as potent metaphor for sports journalism itself in that period. He developed from being a wet- behind-the-ears trainee to a qualified writer before occupying newly created and ill-defined roles such as sporting editor on a local daily, and then sub-editor and news editor in the specialist sporting Press before finally gracing the nationals. As he climbed up the career ladder the ladder itself was being built in an emerging section of an emerging industry, which was an inevitable consequence of the twin developments of commercial spectator sport and mass-market media.

From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media by Roger Domeneghetti is available in all formats from Ockley Books

You can read a review of this book here. We rather liked it. 

From The Back Page To The Front Room: Extract
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