OBITUARY: Bryan Hector Cooney, sports journalist, has died at The Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice, Glasgow.

Bryan Cooney, sports journalist, who has died at The Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice, Glasgow.

Born: 6th November, 1944  Died: 13th September, 2020

Bryan Cooney (centre) with Charles Wilson and Hugh McIlvanney

Bryan Cooney (centre) with Hugh McIlvanney and Charles Wilson at the Scottish Press Awards, where he was three times winner of Sports Journalist of the Year.

ABERDEEN-born journalist Bryan Cooney, whose full-time career ended due to ill-health while head of sport at the Daily Mail, has died, aged 75 — 12 years after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Despite his father being headmaster of Kittybrewster Primary School, Aberdeen, where, incidentally, he taught Scottish international footballer Denis Law, Bryan left school with virtually no educational qualifications and was forced to tackle a variety of jobs including driving taxis.

Belatedly, he began an ultimately high-achieving if somewhat nomadic and chequered career in sports journalism, as a racing page sub-editor on The Press and Journal newspaper.

Save for a brief interlude at a weekly newspaper in south London, there followed four decades of working only for national newspapers – the Daily Express, in Glasgow and London; The Scottish Sun; 10 years as chief sports writer of the Daily Star, and eventually joining the Daily Mail in London in 1997 – the much-desired pinnacle of his career.

Two years previously he had been appointed sports editor of the Scottish Daily Mail which had been relaunched as a stand-alone title. The born-again mid-market tabloid rapidly achieved a significant presence in Scotland, and Bryan’s success in producing quality, circulation-boosting content, after building and moulding an entire sports department from scratch, led to the Mail’s legendary, demanding editor, Paul Dacre, luring him back to London as his highly-paid head of sport. He was made an associate editor as an added sweetener.

The tall, well-built, prodigiously hard-working Aberdonian, was immediately ordered by Dacre to undertake a massive reorganisation of the Mail’s allegedly much too laid back sports department. Bryan acquiesced in firm, if perhaps a trifle brutal fashion, rationalising: “People had to go. And soon they went.”

Yet, just four years later that dream job ended in tears as he was forced to resign through ill-health – caused, most unusually, by excessive potassium in his body.

Devastated, he headed back to Scotland, taking the courageous career step of seeking a new beginning as a Glasgow-based freelance sportswriter in a notoriously competitive market.

Fortuitously, he almost immediately struck up a warm relationship with the Sunday Herald sports staff, and over the next 11 years delivered a highly readable, beautifully -crafted weekly column for the sports pages, plus other ad hoc feature articles. His wordsmith talents were rewarded by being three times voted sports journalist of the year in the Scottish Press Awards.

He also successfully diversified into broadcasting via BBC Radio Scotland – presenting six series of sports programmes with a penchant for choosing to interview successful people with flawed characters. One series – The Pain of the Game – won him a Sony award. He also wrote four books. His debut book paid homage to his beloved Aberdeen FC, Stand by Your Reds; followed by a profile of Celtic FC footballer George Connelly, and, then, the story of the enigmatic but brilliant Scottish musician, Gerry Rafferty, of Baker Street and Stuck In The Middle songs fame.

The handsome, articulate Aberdonian readily owned up to vanity, and was always the dapper man about town – immaculately dressed and groomed, with perfect manners and invariably polite except with recalcitrant sports stars.

The Scottish Daily Mail’s chief sports writer, John Greechan, in an in-paper obituary, perceptively dissected his managerial style: “Bryan was widely considered to be one of the most inventive and driven figures in the business. An absolute force of nature …his fearlessness and willingness to speak truth to power – regardless of how powerful – were his hallmarks as a sports editor.

“A hard taskmaster, who was never anything other than demanding of his staff, Bryan had a backlog of stories about personal interactions – often arguments, funnily enough – with just about everyone in the game. When he asked you to do something that seemed ridiculous – make that extra call and chase every detail, you did it: not just because he had almost superhuman antennae for a story but because you knew he’d do it . And he’d done it. All of it.”

His fall-outs with leading sports figures was legendary – including Sir Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, Sir Alf Ramsey, Kevin Keegan, Nick Faldo and Tom Kite … but he also won the respect and lasting friendship of many leading figures in sport.

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 but did not initially appear noticeably fazed by his brush with the third biggest cancer killer in the UK – despite a radical prostatectomy.  He declined a third life-extending blood transfusion in May because of the threat of catching coronavirus, and reluctantly agreed to recce a Glasgow hospice.

However, the hospice’s culture, ambience and the staff’s obvious dedication to duty, completely won him over, and he was very happy to be looked after there during his last few days of life.

Predeceased by his two elder brothers, both dying young, Bryan is survived by his wife, Margaret, a reserved, kindly Glaswegian who was his valiant mainstay in both the good times and the bad times with a sometimes errant husband. They were very happily wed for 45 years and the marriage was blessed with four sons – Glen, Scott, Mark and Darren, and then, to Bryan’s delight, five granddaughters.

The eulogy at his crematorium funeral was given by Jim Black, former chief sports writer of the Scottish Sun, a close friend of Bryan’s for 46 years, and co-founder with him of an unconventional sports website – No Grey Areas.

Jim told the mourners, including five former Daily Mail colleagues, specially invited despite the restrictive pandemic attendance quota of 20: “Bryan built a huge reputation as a fearless story-breaker who was never afraid to shoot from the lip. Indeed he pulled fewer punches than Muhammad Ali … but underneath that occasionally intimidating exterior lurked a kind and very generous heart.”

And he impishly recalled, amid laughter: “I made Bryan a promise that I would carry out his wish not to turn this into a sombre homily on his life. He instructed me: ‘Now I don’t want too much gloom, James. Introduce some lightheartedness’, he commanded, adding: ‘Mind you, a bit of homage would be good – just not too much’.”

Exceptionally unusually for him, in this final farewell to him, Bryan was not getting to have the last word … but he was damned determined, as always, he would at least influence his own valediction.

Hamish Mackay



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