Stephen Tate, Blackburn College University Centre
It’s an irony not lost on me that my book examining the history of the sports journalist was published in the same month that sport went into global lockdown. Athletes were sent home, fixtures suspended and stadiums emptied. Press boxes were under lock and key. To keep the tale going, to maintain interest among newspaper readers and fans in the indeterminate fallow months ahead, those sports reporters not furloughed dug deep, mined press archives, memoirs and their own back catalogues to replay thrilling past encounters – sport’s own version of triumph and tragedy – and to ruminate on what might be in store when restrictions were lifted.
A surprising number of journalists engaged in some soul searching, too, musing on the worth of sport and its place in wider society. With column inches to fill they sought for deeper meanings to the games-playing habits of a nation, imbuing spectator sport, in particular, with qualities that spoke of unity, shared purpose, of both an escape and a coming together. It was ever so.
James Catton, the central character in my research into the trade of the sports reporter in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rarely missed an opportunity to talk up sport. In fact, there’s a sense that Catton felt it was his responsibility to defend the nation’s sporting sub-cultures from those who saw commercial, competitive sport as an unnecessary distraction from the rigours of the workaday world, an unwelcome diversion in the daily business of getting on, especially for the working classes. When opponents threw in gate-money sport’s intimate links with gambling, drinking culture, the potential for crowd disturbances and, in particular, the spectre of potentially dissolute young men paid well to kick a ball about and incite the wilder passions of terraces full of working men, Catton had his work cut out.
Even at the end of a 60-year career in newspapers, stretching from the crisis years of football’s professional player argument in the 1870s and 1880s, Catton had felt it necessary to revisit the thorny issue in a valedictory address to his sporting constituency. His had been a consistent voice in support of the paid player, arguing for just reward for the skilled man in any trade. With a rhetorical flourish and barely disguised annoyance over a question surrounding the behaviour of footballers that would not go away, he enquired:
Where are the loungers and the idlers that were to be created by the ‘new movement’? What harm has the paid footballer done to the sport? Does he not play a game that gives him delight? Does he not try to excel and gain popularity by as decent a kind of life as others in any miscellaneous group of men? Occasionally a superior person in these days says: ‘What kind of fellows are these ‘pro’ footballers? Are they decent?’ That question has been put to the writer within recent years. The instant answer cannot be printed on these pages.”
The behaviour of professional footballers during the 2020 virus lockdown, their willingness or otherwise to play under exceptional circumstances and, for those at the very top, their willingness to forego a chunk of their earnings to help their clubs weather the financial hiatus or simply to be seen to be suffering with so many others, have been regular topics in the news. There seems to be a theme echoing from a century ago . . .
Catton had earlier written of sport in general:
The racial hatreds of the world and the antipathies of nations will probably never be eradicated, but they may be minimised by the universality of sport. The more the people of this planet are brought together on common ground the better for all of us. It enables us to understand one another the more.”
The recent musings of the twenty-first century sports columnists required to fill space and to keep sport in the public eye have chimed with those of the past master, James Alfred Henry Catton. But what manner of man was Catton? And what of his contemporaries?
A better understanding of the career path of the sports reporter was the driving force behind my research for the book, A History of the British Sporting Journalist c1850 – 1939. James Catton, Sports Reporter. Who created the word deluge that typified the news columns of the Victorian and early twentieth century newspaper? The reporter – any kind of reporter – has traditionally been the poor relation when the story of the press and media development have been written. The campaigning editors and leader writers, the great titles, daring war correspondents and literary giants all have their histories. But not so the humble hack.
Researching the sporting reporter’s paper trail took in memoirs, trade press reports, anecdotes, correspondence, family records, newspaper histories, union archives, sporting histories, obituaries, directories and the behemoth that is the nineteenth and twentieth century press in all its guises – weekly titles, morning, evening, general and sporting, local, regional and national. The vast majority of the work of the sports reporters of the period was anonymous – unsigned or masked by pseudonym – at times a significant barrier when piecing together a biography of a trade. But the length of his career and his eventual role as editor and chief reporter of the highly influential Manchester-based weekly, Athletics News, writing under the pen name, “Tityrus”, makes J. A. H. Catton (1860 – 1936) an ideal model, an exemplar upon which to build a twin biography – the man and his trade.
The diminutive scribe stood less than five feet tall in an age that was only slowly accepting the idea that in order to write with authority and insight on sport one did not necessarily need to have been a master of games-playing, to have excelled physically in the sports arena – achievements beyond the reach of Catton. His story, and that of other journalists featured in the book, starts in an era when the sports reporter might well act as judge and ready-money stakeholder in the often disorderly world of pugilism, blood sports and pedestrianism, and ends in the inter-war years with the advent of the professional controversialist embodied by the Fleet Street sports columnist. That self-same breed of columnist busy analysing the worth of sport in the spring of 2020 in virus lockdown.
About the author: Stephen Tate teaches History at Blackburn College University Centre in Lancashire, England. A former journalist, he worked on the provincial daily press across the north of England for 30 years. This is his first book.