Peter Catt: From 60 words to 50 years with Doncaster Rovers
Fifty years is a long time in football.
The landscape of the game has changed beyond anything that could have been imagined half a century ago and the rate of evolution continues to gather pace.
Doncaster Rovers themselves are a testament to that.
The club’s journey over the last 50 years has been one of widely fluctuating fortunes, particularly during modern times.
One man has witnessed all the ups and downs and committed those stories to newsprint throughout the last five decades.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Peter Catt covering his first Rovers game as a journalist.
His milestone is one that few will match in the future, given the nature of modern journalism.
Whether the manner in which clubs are reported upon currently will remain the same in ten years, let alone fifty, is doubtful.
So it is unlikely journalists will become woven into the fabric of their assigned clubs quite the way Catt has been.
“Rovers became my life,” the former Free Press sports editor said.
“I’ve covered many other sports, of course, and was also a news reporter in the early days.
“Reporting on the Dons was another big part of the job.
“I was there during the ‘Another Bloody Sunday’ days when they were virtually a joke team that lost 40 games in a row but then had a remarkable rise to play in what has now become the Super League.
“I covered parts of the Doncaster Knights success story, the Belles in the old days and lots of boxing.
“I was there when Jamie McDonnell made his debut and later became world champion, and further back saw big local heavyweight Neil Malpass beat Tyson Fury’s dad ‘Gypsy’ John at Brodsworth.
“But Rovers was always the main event and it became my life reporting on them home and away, hail, rain or shine, seeing all the ups and downs and sometimes what went on behind the scenes that never got reported.”
The fact is Catt was barely a journalist at all when he first picked up a notebook in the autumn of 1966.
“It was quite by chance,” he said. “When I was younger I think I quite fancied being a sports reporter, for some reason.
“My brother-in-law was a decent footballer in local circles and I used to write match reports on his games and pen profiles of the players.
“I drifted into it when I left school.
“My sister worked for a man called Henry Leonard Peet who had a freelance journalist agency in Doncaster, selling stories to national, regional and local newspapers.
“She mentioned to him that she had a brother who’d just left school and was interested in journalism.
“He gave me an interview, asked me to do some tests, and then said if I wanted to work for him he’d pay me my bus fare only, which was about ten shillings in old money (50p), each week for the first six months and see how I went on.
“When the six months was up thankfully he started to pay me a proper wage - about £10 a week.”
Almost immediately Catt found himself at Belle Vue covering Rovers games.
Born in Doncaster and brought up in Hatfield Woodhouse and Kirk Sandall, the former Thorne Grammar pupil stood on the terraces of Rovers’ old home at Belle Vue as a supporter with his father as a child.
Now he was in the press box, but it would be a while before he had any real responsibility.
“I honestly cannot remember the first game I worked but I know it was the season straight after England won the World Cup,” he said.
“My early memories were of the late, great Alick Jeffrey playing after coming back from two broken legs and the boss George Raynor, who had previously been in charge of Juventus and Sweden, but I didn’t have a lot to do with the manager at that time.
“They’d just won promotion to the old Division Three when I first started.
“In fact I’d watched them home and away the season before as a supporter.
“I was only working there in an observational role at first and after that I was only trusted with 60 word match reports for the Press Association.
“I’d spend the entire game carefully crafting those 60 words to what I thought was perfection.
“A few years later I’d be writing thousands of words on just one match, often just picking up the phone and dictating copy off the top of my head.
“There were five of us at the agency and up to four of us would be working at any one game.
“There were lots more newspapers in those days and we would have orders from all over the place.
“Mr Peet was highly respected by newspapers throughout the country and had been the first editor of the Free Press.
“But he was coming towards the end of his career when I started and struggling with his eyesight.
“One time he rang in the half time score as goalless although the away team had actually scored, but he hadn’t realised because there were hardly any cheers as they had only brought a few supporters.
“He decided to call it a day when it came to football after that and I was given more responsibility.”
During Catt’s early years the five man agency team gradually diminished.
They were a talented bunch.
Mike Sinclair went to work at the Doncaster Evening Post where he succeeded Joe Slater as sports editor and later covered sport at the Sheffield Telegraph and Daily Express.
Malcolm Stacey left for the evening paper in York and later worked for the BBC in London, and Alan Clegg joined a big news agency in the Midlands writing exclusive expose stories for the national Sunday papers.
Eventually Catt took over the reins at the agency when Peet retired and decided to concentrate on sport.
He was a one man band, working out of an office behind a chimney sweep on Netherhall Road until deciding to work from home to save on cleaning bills because of the soot!
By that time he had his teeth firmly into the Rovers beat thanks largely to his relationship with Lawrie McMenemy, who was manager between 1968 and 1971.
Catt said: “He was a lot older than me but we learned on the job together.
“I’d just started as a journalist and he hadn’t managed a league team before.
“We had a good relationship based on mutual trust.”
But the manager with whom he would enjoy the closest relationship did not arrive until 1979 - Billy Bremner.
“That was when I got to know the players a lot better and really began to properly understand the professional game,” he said.
“I’d played football myself locally and been a supporter but you don’t get to know what it’s really all about until you’re part of the inner circle which is what I was fortunate enough to become for a spell.
“I was allowed to travel on the team coach to away games towards the end of the 1980-81 season when they won promotion and that continued for almost twenty years.
“There was a time when I thought I knew more about what was going on at the club than anyone who worked there because people confided in me - managers, players, directors, backroom staff - and told me things they wouldn’t necessarily say to each other.
“It was all about trust.
“There were some things I could hint about in the paper but I would never betray a confidence.
“My real education in football came when Bremner was in charge.
“He was an extraordinary character and I learned so much from him about how the professional game is played, tactics, psychology and gamesmanship.
“You think you know the game because you’ve played a bit and been a supporter but I didn’t know half really.
“It was a privilege to be as closely involved as I was back then, at a time when the club engendered a real family atmosphere under Bremner.
“The club had its first success for a decade and you would go on the team coach to away games at that time almost always believing they were going to win.
“Nothing was said really but you could feel it among the players because the confidence just oozed out of them.”
Another key figure in Rovers’ history with whom Catt enjoyed a trusting relationship was John Ryan.
And he admits he could not have predicted the success the club enjoyed in such a short space of time with Ryan in control.
“He was the saviour of the club, there’s no doubt about that, after the Ken Richardson era,” Catt said. “Everything was on the up and up after that.
“I never dared to dream but John Ryan did.
“And we ended up back in the Championship where both he and I had watched them back as kids on the terraces at Belle Vue before we knew each other.
“It was that relentless ambition and the fact that he is a Rovers fanatic that led to it all going wrong in the end.
“He wanted that final push for the Premier League and it resulted in him making some not so good decisions, which I’m sure he’d admit to now.
“But it was incredible while it lasted.
“It made me laugh really because I’d always reported on Rovers in the bottom two divisions and the successes were few and far between.
“Then Jonathan Jurejko, who now works for the BBC, joined me on sport at the Free Press and the next thing we were off to the Britannia Stadium winning promotion back to the Football League, becoming Division Three champions the following season, off to the Millennium Stadium winning the JP Trophy and then to Wembley to beat Leeds to achieve the Championship dream.
“Jonathan was thinking this is all right and taking it all in his stride whereas I could hardly believe it and had been waiting decades for something like that to happen!”
Thousands of games on from his first as a reporter and he is still going strong, sitting in the same seat he has occupied since the Keepmoat opened almost a decade ago.
In what would have been his 51st season in a professional capacity, he opted to end his long-standing contract with the Press Association to give him the freedom of choice over his weekends he had not enjoyed since his teens.
But the fact he has yet to miss a home game this season shows just how difficult it is to walk away.
He added: “It hasn’t all been a bed of roses but I’ve been fortunate to work in a job I enjoyed.
“The club has gone full circle over those fifty years and is now back in the fourth tier again.
“But I’ve a feeling they could be on the rise again under Darren Ferguson - and I wouldn’t want to miss out on that.”