James Catton godfather of football journalism

Football sells news. Football sells full stop. It hasn’t always been the case though. Having said that, football’s evolution has as much to do with fans’ needs as well as global communication. Our understanding of the beautiful game has been recorded for posterity in newspapers, journals and periodicals. Our relationship with the game has changed over the decades as the transistor radio has been replaced by Twitter as fans contemplate their teams’ fates.

James Catton wrote all about it

A journalist once told me that his job was to tell people what to think. So, who are the people who tell us what we think about football? Who started reporting those early matches? It was an up and coming writer called James Catton.

In 1875 Catton was an apprentice at the Preston Herald and as such was given a looser brief than his older colleagues. He could develop his love of cricket and football and produced reports on matches. The fact he could develop a relationship with his local club was helpful. He became a close confidant of William Sudell, the secretary of Preston North End. This networking was so invaluable and almost certainly played a part in Catton’s first scoop.

Read it here first

Catton left his native Preston in search of a salaried position. This took him to Nottingham where he wrote for the Daily Guardian. He was able to report on that meeting in the Freemasons Arms where the very notion of professionalism in the game was approved. Catton was a proponent of making the game professional.

It is hard to believe that his writing didn’t influence those who were able to read them. In the following decade, he was able the write in support of the ideas he approved of. He covered the trial match that featured goal netting, he supported it, he reported it and it came to pass.

Meanwhile, football and journalism were constantly evolving. This new outlet for the new game was to be preserved and promoted, so as early as the 1890s teams had special press boxes from which journalists could ply their trade protected from the elements. This developed into mini office suites complete with whiskey bars. As the editor of the Sunday Chronicle, he was certainly entitled to a premium place in the press box. His sports writing lead the way and soon other papers followed suit.

Back up north to the home of football

The Sunday Chronicle was owned by Edward Hulton who was somewhat of a news tycoon. Catton was the leading sports writer and editor. He was eventually given the job of editing the Athletic News, the leading sports paper. Hulton had halved the price and changed the publishing day to Monday. The readership of 180,000 showed how popular the sport was becoming.

The link between the growth in the popularity of football and the expansion of journalism isn’t hard to miss. Catton was well connected to football’s elite as reflected in his friendship with Preston North End’s ‘Invincibles’. The phrase was coined and subsequently used to describe a team that went undefeated in a season.

The merits of the professional game were advocated by the press. Indeed Catton inherited his post from J.J. Bentley who was the Football League’s chairman. Other founding fathers of the FA such as William Pickford and C.E. Sutcliffe were also contributors to the Athletic News.

Breaking news

As readership changed so did Catton’s style. Like all pioneers, there are some hits and misses. Like the trailblazer he was, he battled on like some Shakespearean hero. His initial style reflected his love of the classics. One of his early scribings, for example, contained this lyrical line:

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

It paints a clear picture of some heated moment in a relegation battle, but it hardly reflected the language of the terraces. He soon realised what fans needed and the paper wanted. People were hungry for information on the matches. It shouldn’t take 102 sentences before the result was revealed.

Pen names and fame

“Ubique” became  “Tityrus”. It was common practice for journalists to write under a pen name, even if all the players certainly knew who was who. Charlie Buchan, in his book A Lifetime in Football, recalls a conversation with a colleague called Gladwin who was well known for being oblivious.

“At other times, one would say to Gladwin: ‘You must be on your best behaviour, Tityrus is reporting the game.'” Now Tityrus, the mighty Jimmy Catton, was the outstanding sportswriter of his day and editor of the Athletic News, known then as the “Footballers’ Bible”.

Yet Gladwin’s only remark was: “Who’s Tityrus?” This reflects the power and influence Catton had on the game. Everyone knew his name. Every subsequent journalist reveres him. If today’s influencers had pen names one wonders what they would be. A few come to mind, but it might be best to hold back for fear of being sued.

Those who followed

Buchan reflects on the importance of the written word.

“After one game he (Catton) called me a “sand-dancer”. I was rather inclined to take exception. Remember, I was very young at the time, but a Sunderland colleague, Tommy Tait, a very kindly fellow and a Scottish international, said to me: ‘Don’t take any notice, Charlie.
“And always remember this: while they write something about you, it doesn’t matter what it is, you are somebody in the game. It’s when they ignore you altogether you should begin to worry.’It was sound advice that every player should take to heart. Criticism can be helpful at times.”

At least he was listening.

James Catton certainly was to be respected even if he offended. He recalls in his book The Story of Association Football a potentially explosive interview. When Aston Villa won the double in 1897 he made a remark that offended the players.

“I rashly remarked that I could not help feeling sorry that they had deprived Preston North End of their unique record of having captured both the same honours in 1888-89.”

The players threatened to throw him out of the window. He guessed correctly that 13 strapping players would not take on one diminutive, tubby journalist. Catton continued:

“John Campbell, the Scotsman and the centre-forward, retorted: “Preston? Ha! Football was in its infancy then. They had no one to beat.”

The Opinion-maker

It is clear that the footballing world has much to thank James Catton for. When he retired from the Athletic News in 1925 he was given many gifts from players and management. He was responsible for bringing former players into the field of journalism. As an editor, he filled the demand for information by ensuring there were those in place capable of doing so.

He supported fellow writers’ publications and encouraged journalists to form unions. His retirement was far from quiet as he mentored the next generation. Charlie Buchan sums him up in the way only a professional writer can.

“He was, however, the greatest writer of his day; knowledgeable, benevolent and respected by all the authorities.”

The Athletic news eventually merged with The Sporting Life as football and journalism continued to develop. The national newspapers began to take over as readers’ needs dictated demand. As a freelancer that seemed to be how most journalists plied their trade. James Catton filled his retirement with guest columns and occasional articles in the major daily papers of the day.

Fans seek opinions, and the early opinionators had much to do with how the modern game is recorded. He was an early proponent of following the continental game. He urged teams to train up and coming players so there would be a flow of new talent into the league.

But he could be critical too. He could see that the physical nature of the English game was limiting as he lamented the lack of passing and control in the top flight of English football. He was the first; all aspiring writers can look to him and ought to say thank you. Perhaps James Catton’s pseudonym should have been the Opinionator.