‘A team player… and the archetypal professional journalist’: A tribute to Brian McNally

Known affectionately as ‘The Beast’, Brian McNally was a much-loved and respected football writer who championed the causes of supporters; his Sunday Mirror articles were essential weekend reading; here, former SJA chair David Walker shares his memories of a man who “never toed” the party line…

By David Walker, former Chair of the SJA

Brian McNally, a giant of north east sports writing, has died. He was 76.

Brian made his name on a string of north east newspapers including the Newcastle Journal and Sunday Sun before becoming a national icon after joining the Sunday Mirror in 1996. He spent 23 years working for the Mirror and Sunday People before his retirement in 2019.

Brian was a force of nature. A combative advocate of supporters’ rights, for 13 years he was a columnist for the Football Supporters’ Association magazine and in 2011 won their Outstanding Contribution Award.

His categoric belief that the establishment had to be held to account ensured he never simply toed the party line. Brian was a thorough, investigative journalist and fearless in his approach to his job. His articles exposing how ticket prices around the country had rocketed in the wake of the arrival of the Premier League won acclaim from fans – if not the football establishment.

In fact, Brian, whose main duties included covering Newcastle and Sunderland, found himself banned by Sunderland for many years. Nicknamed ‘The Beast’, Brian refused to be broken by anything as trivial as a ban. He maintained his pursuit of the truth, wrote his articles with the fervour of a zealot and won the respect of supporters and fellow journalists alike. In fact, insiders at Sunderland – and other clubs – viewed Brian with high regard. He was the Beast who couldn’t be tamed.

Brian McNally receives an Outstanding Contribution Award from the Football Supporters’ Federation (now the FSA) at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill, in July 2011 (image courtesy of Reach plc)

Brian possessed a kind, considerate nature. While other sports journalists let their egos dominate their careers, Brian was essentially a team player. He delivered his clean copy on time, happily headed off to pastures new to meet unknown or unsung people and loved a close season trip to cover the Open golf championship. A game he discovered as a participant in his later life.

Brian was a proud member of the National Union of Journalists and was father of the chapel during his days in the provinces. In fact, his leadership skills never deserted him. One particular Newcastle manager annoyed him for the discourtesy of calling Friday press conferences for 1pm and then failing to turn up until an hour and half later. Brian, keen to get on with his other Friday duties, was indignant.

With the backing of his sports editor, Brian led a walk-out to prove to the manager that he should not presume the loyalty of the media he was too often uncooperative with. What Brian didn’t broadcast was that he already had a Toon back page splash guaranteed by a separate source.

Brian McNally receiving his award from Kevin Miles, chief executive of the FSA

During his long, distinguished career, Brian won 17 national and provincial journalism awards. He always had time to help and guide the next generation of sports writers, many of whom were deeply saddened by his passing last Monday.

Brian leaves his wife Jill, who was his steadfast support in recent years of ill health. Post-retirement, he tried to make the most of his time by travelling around Europe with Jill. Beyond football and left-wing politics, his other great passion was blues and Irish music and they were regular visitors at gigs around the north east.

And those of us who travelled the world with the Beast will always recall that as well as being great fun, he was always the archetypal professional journalist – until discussing his beloved Glasgow Celtic. Where the Hoops were concerned, he wore his heart firmly on his sleeve.

Brian’s funeral will take place at Tynemouth Crematorium on Friday 5 July at 3pm.

Further reading…

Brian McNally – a tribute to The Beast by his friend Ian Murtagh (Football Writers’ Association)

The SJA is interested in your sports media industry news and views. Keen to reach an engaged audience, including over 70,000 followers across social media? We welcome your enquiries – contact us here. We also offer advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

For information on how to apply as a Full or Associate Member of the SJA, plus details of our free-to-enter SJA Academy, click here.