In the modern football environment saturated with the opinions of former players, managers and media pundits, it’s hard to imagine a time when football struggled to find it’s way into the newspapers. Yet once upon a time the sport was seen as an oddity by editors, a bizarre subculture with little to recommend itself. In time, however, football would find its way into the world of print in part thanks to the work of an aspiring journalist from Preston named James Catton. 

Born in Preston in 1860, Catton spent his early years studying medicine due to the insistence of his father, a university-educated tutor in classics and maths. Dreams of a doctor for a son were soon forgotten as, unfortunately for Catton’s father, his son had been born into a time of expansion for the English newspaper circuit. From 1856 to 1880, the number of daily newspapers published in England rose from 15 to nearly 200.

Swept up in this expansion was James Catton, the would-be medical student. In 1875 the young man pushed his father’s wishes for him aside and applied for a job with the bi-weekly Preston Herald after coming across an apprentice position for “a well-educated youth”. As an apprentice, Catton flourished. He broke stories on the seedier aspects of Preston life, met with high ranking politicians and, most importantly, was allowed indulge in his love of football and cricket. Given a freer reign than many of the established journalists of the Herald, Catton began to produce match reports on association football.

With relatively few barriers between press and club at the time, it wasn’t long before Catton had carved out several friendships with members of the local football team, Preston North End. In the space of a few seasons he could count Major Sudell, the club’s secretary, as a close confidante as well as several first team players. Catton’s relationship with the side and his coverage of the team’s matches was relatively unheard of in the English media at that time. As the man remarked nearly 40 years after his time in Preston: “In days long ago when association football players wore beards and breeches, instead of being clean shaven and donning shorts or running pants, newspapers, as a whole, took very little notice of matches.”

Circumstances would prevent Catton covering the 1889 ‘Invincibles’ Preston team as in 1883 he departed Preston for the Nottingham based Daily Guardian in search of a living wage. It was a profitable move in more ways than one. Two years later, Catton would catch his first real football ‘scoop’ when he reported on the historic Freemason’s Tavern meeting that sanctioned professionalism in English football. Amidst describing the scene for readers of the Guardian, Catton was steadfast in his belief that professionalism was for the benefit of the English game – an opinion which no doubt helped copper-fasten his close relationship with players of the era.

The eight years following professionalisation would see football come on leaps and bounds, an evolution captured by Catton scribbling away furiously on the sidelines of the action. Most notably, Catton was on hand to report on the radical use goal nets “in a public match” at a trial game held at Forest’s City Ground between teams from the North and South of England. Once more he lent his support to the radical new idea.

During this time period the Englishman’s personal writing style began to evolve from large tomes to snappier insights. For many it was no doubt a welcome evolution as Catton’s match reporting from the early 1890s was littered with references to the classics, often to the detriment of recounting what happened. Take, for example, a match report from a Nottingham derby in 1890, which was 102 lines long and only revealed the final score 12 lines from the end. An excerpt from the report reveals Catton’s more literary side

“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 …”

Thankfully, Catton soon made a point of chiseling away at his reports to produce sharper coverage.

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As he evolved, so too did English football. To his great fortune, Catton was also present for the introduction of segregated press boxes for journalists at football games in the 1890s. This was no blasé affair as previously reporters had been left to brave the harsh English weather unprotected, something that resulted in the deaths of at least eight writers between 1891 and 1895. In later years Catton would bemoan the relative lack of attention that had resulted in the demise of his brothers in writing.

When Catton left his post with the Daily Guardian in 1891 for the Manchester-based Sunday Chronicle, he became the first Sporting Editor in the English media. Soon after he took up his post, sporting editors began to emerge across English periodicals. It was becoming clear that sports writing was drawing in the masses.

It was during his time in Manchester that Catton became widely accepted as the finest journalist English football had to offer. In recognition of this, 1900 saw Catton secure the position of Editor at the hugely influence Atlantic News, a sister periodical to the Sunday Chronicle. The Atlantic has been described by historian Tony Mason as “the voice of football and the paper of the discerning football enthusiast”. It was no coincidence, then, that Catton ended up at its head.

From 1900 until 1924 he acted as both editor and journalist for the Atlantic. As the readers demanded more and more content, Catton’s position seemed an almost Sisyphean task but, remarkably, the increased demands only seemed to spur him on. Catton would hire former players as reporters, lend his support to the publication of several football books and join efforts to form a journalists’ union. A contemporary of Catton, Ernest Edwards, would note in 1921 that “he is a very small man with a huge turn-out”.

It is a testament to Catton’s popularity and influence in the game that when he stepped down as Editor from the Atlantic in 1924, he was presented a gift of several guineas generously donated by officials and players across England. The thought of a modern football journalist receiving a similar token of respect is difficult to imagine.

Following his retirement, Catton would spend his remaining 12 years on Earth reporting for a number of London-based newspapers alongside mentoring aspiring journalists. One such pupil of Catton was Charlie Buchan, the man who later co-founded the Football Writers’ Association. Buchan later wrote of Catton:

“When I moved my home to London towards the end of July 1925, one of the first people I met was the late Jimmy Catton, former sports editor of the Athletic News, the greatest sporting paper of all. He was working as a freelance in London. He called at my home for an interview and I was pleased to give it to him.

“It was an uncomfortable business, though, because he arrived just as our furniture was being carried from a removal van into the house in Mayfield Gardens, Hendon. We sat on two packing cases in the bare room and talked. Jimmy was a little tubby fellow, not five feet in height. He was, however, the greatest writer of his day, knowledgeable, benevolent and respected by all the authorities.”

The first of a new breed in English football, James Catton helped pave the way for today’s modern football writer. He was enthusiastic, hard working and possessed an incredible eye for detail. His reign at the top came at a time of great change in the English game; a time when goal nets became the norm, a time when footballers earned a living wage and a time when the term ‘Football Journalist’ began to take hold. Luckily for us in the modern era, the would-be doctor, James Catton, was there to pen it all down.

By Conor Heffernan. Follow @PhysCstudy