A Tribute to Steve Cattle

More than two decades have passed since the sudden and tragic death of Sensei Steve Cattle the founder of the English Shotokan Academy. Many of the current members of the ESA never had the privilege of training with him and so we would like to commemorate his passing. 

Steve Cattle was born in York in 1947 and like so many people of his generation his earliest exposure to martial arts was through Judo not karate. Steve was an exceptional Judoka reaching 2nd Dan, becoming the European Lightweight Champion in 1967 and competing in the World Student Games in Tokyo that same year.

However by that time he had already been exposed to karate, starting his training under Sensei Kanazawa in Wetherby. By 1970 Steve had become a member of the KUGB National Team which he remained a member of until 1984. He was one of the KUGB elite - a member of the Technical Committee, a Grading Examiner and professional karate teacher. I use the word “teacher” advisedly because one of Steve’s greatest qualities was his ability to teach rather than instruct. He was a formidable competitor famed for his fighting spirit and tactical ability, winning the KUGB National Championship in 1974 and 1981 and leading the Kirkdale team to victory in 1982. He was part of the British Squad that defeated the Japanese in the World championships in Tokyo something that had never been achieved before.

Steve was also something of a philosopher and had a degree in theology. Interestingly his daughter Sigrid was awarded a degree in Philosophy and offered a teaching post at Berkley University in California – it must be in the genes.

Steve was influenced very early in his career by a man that we all came to look upon as our godfather – the late Sensei Taiji Kase. He recognised in Sensei Kase a man with a similar body type to his and a kindred spirit – in Kase this was the Samurai spirit and in Steve his much vaunted Viking spirit. He also recognised that Kase Sensei had something different, something more, to offer than the other Japanese instructors. After the first meeting he trained with Kase Sensei at every opportunity absorbing the essence of Kase’s karate, learning and developing his techniques and methods.

My first experiences of training with Steve were in 1976/77 when I trained with him three times. The first time was at the Sendai Club in Sunderland. I have to say that I did not particularly enjoy the experience, largely because it was unlike anything I had experienced before and I could not relate to it. I remember that it seemed incredibly complex compared with other instructor’s courses. The next two sessions were better, not so alien, but then I moved to Scotland and lost touch until 1984 when Steve was invited to teach at Cheltenham. At that point I was disillusioned and on the brink of giving up karate but Steve Cattle changed all that with a vengeance. His approach was radical – things that we take for granted in the ESA today were revolutionary to me in those days. Steve became a regular in Gloucestershire after that, visiting us six or seven times a year. I also became a Cattle “groupie” following him around the country to train whenever and wherever I could. I found him inspirational and he had a profound effect not only on my karate but on my life.

Steve talked all the time about Sensei Kase and his approach to karate encouraging me and others to experience the master for ourselves. If we weren’t already hooked by Steve’s teachings then the first experiences of Kase himself did the trick.

In 1989 following the death of Sensei Nakayama, Kase Sensei decided to leave the JKA and founded the World Karate-do Shotokan Academy and he asked Steve as one of his senior and long standing students to choose between the JKA and his new Academy. Almost without hesitation he chose Kase’s direction and gave up a secure career and a substantial income as a professional in the KUGB to start the ESA, taking with him a group of disparate (and some might say desperate) but like minded souls.  His words to those of us who joined him in the venture were, "Sensei Kase is planning a system of Shotokan Karate which will take us not into the 1990's but into the next century. I intend to follow him; I simply want to get better."

The early years were financially tough for Steve, but the relief of being able to teach and practice the type of karate that he loved was evident whenever you spoke to him. It was not always a smooth ride. He had to use all his political skill when an entire AGM rebelled over the subject of Coaching Courses and again when the ESA parted company with Sensei Kawasoe and the UKTKF. The outcome of the latter was the formation of the Butokukai of Great Britain a multi style group formed with some of Steve’s long term friends Julian Mead (Kobujutsu), Derek Ridgeway (Shitoryu) and Harry Cook (Goju Ryu). This group was Steve’s brain child and encouraged members to be outward looking and to train in other styles. It is one of the reasons that to this day the ESA still invites non-Shotokan instructors to teach.

Tuesday 21st February 1995 was a day that rocked my world. I had a call at 07.30 from Sandie Hopkins, it was very brief she just said “Steve is dead”. It was later in the day before the information came through that he had died suddenly on a train journey from the Netherlands to his home in Liverpool. For me it was unbelievable as two days earlier I had been sat having breakfast with him in Luxemburg, where we were training with Sensei Kase, and he was outlining his plans for the future development of the ESA both technically and as an association. It was the day that I and my colleagues on the Executive had to grow up rapidly and attempt to take on the mantle of a great man, to ensure that the ESA continued as his living memorial.

ESA founder member Paul Barron recalls. “As with many things, I was, I assume one of the late comers to the Steve Cattle karate club. He was only a name until the late 80’s when he accepted an invite (well paid) to conduct a course and grading at my old club in Scunthorpe. It would be fair to say that once exposed to the man it was impossible to let him go. I don’t know how he did it, but in a matter of a few hours he became a friend of everyone at the club regardless of grade; his karate was also pretty impressive and his coaching style was in a class of its own.

Once you got to know Steve you very quickly learnt three things; firstly he was always right; secondly he was always late and thirdly he always had the most fanciful excuses for being late. As an aside he was a very social person - I owe my best headaches to him.

There are a couple of moments with Steve that I will never forget and I have recounted many times over the years.

The first was a training course with him at Scunthorpe, we had hired Bottesford village hall for the evening (no for once he was not late!), it had been a very hot summer’s day and it was an equally hot summers evening. When the hall was opened up one could have been forgiven for considering the hall was connected to one of British Steel’s blast furnaces. Training started and after 20 minutes or so Steve detected that we were flagging a little due to the heat in the place, his sense of humour kicked in with first the comment ‘ Sometimes in Japan it never gets this cold’ he then proceeded to up the training pace; a night I think remembered by all present.

The second I recall happened at Crystal Palace and for me spoke volumes for the respect in which Steve was held by the Great Masters in karate. We were training with Sensei Kase and all was not going well, the senior graded individuals (no names) who were selected to demonstrate Mr Kase’s techniques were just not up to the job. It became clear Mr Kase was not impressed. Enter Steve, yes late as usual, his entrance into the dojo was seen by Mr Kase (and this is the esteem in which Steve was held) who stopped the training and went over to greet him. After a brief exchange of words (Mr Kase could, of course, have been bollocking Steve but I don’t think so) between Mr Kase and Steve training resumed. Steve was now the demonstrator of Sensei’s requests, a smile returned to Sensei’s face and a feeling that all was now well moved everyone to find that little bit extra in their training”

ESA Chairman Mike Fedyk remembers, “When you were with him you were always treated as a lifelong friend. He also had a generous nature. I recall that when the Cossack Club was struggling financially Steve turned up to teach, didn’t charge and then took us all to the pub and bought the drinks.

On the other hand he could be very demanding. In the dojo he demanded the best you could do and then some. In his drive to get his beloved Kirkdale team in shape to beat Liverpool Red Triangle in the 1982 KUGB Nationals he had us train in Sefton Park in Liverpool every Saturday and Sunday for six weeks in addition to the normal three times through the week and if you missed a session for any reason you were dropped from the team.

Sometimes he would turn up at my house unannounced on a Friday evening and say “Come on Fedyk, we’re off to ………” These trips could be to anywhere, one of them ended up in Paris.”

Steve Cattle was then; a great karateka, a formidable competitor, charismatic leader and teacher, a philosopher, a joker and a friend. He was a man who pushed us all hard physically and mentally, forced us to break out of the straight jacket of JKA teaching methods and made us think for ourselves. He prepared us as no other could have for the challenge of taking up where he left off in the pursuit of the system Kase Sensei was developing and I still miss his presence both in the dojo and in my life.

Alan Armstrong