Sláinte, Ray: sad loss of one of the old school

BRIAN McNALLY pays tribute to his close friend and former News of the World sports writer Ray Ryan

Ray Ryan and I were thought of as fierce rivals when our paths first crossed at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park back in 2000.

Ray Ryan: old-school sports reporter who loved to get a story
Ray Ryan: old-school sports reporter who loved to get a story

He had moved from London to Tyneside to take over the north-east football beat for the News of the World from Matt Driscoll. As northern football reporter and columnist for the Sunday Mirror, I was pitted in direct competition with Ray in the circulation battle to be this football-mad region’s biggest selling national tabloid.

But the intense rivalry many had anticipated never happened. Instead, for Ray’s eight years on Tyneside our relationship was one of camaraderie, cooperation (as far as that was feasible being in opposition camps) and mutual respect.

After his first Sir Bobby Robson presser, Ray politely introduced himself before inviting me to join him for a drink. I was immediately impressed as a sizeable number of the younger breed of hacks, even then, seemed to prefer jogging to drinking.

Our initial chat revealed that we had much in common as working class products of Irish parents, supporters of Celtic (he was also a Watford fan) and our politics were very much to the left of centre.

We were also both big on music – but Ray, a part-time DJ, was more into 1980s and 1990s pop than my rock and blues tastes, although we both loved Irish traditional music.

As we sauntered down the Gallowgate to have our first pints of Guinness together at the Tyneside Irish Centre, a rapport quickly developed. It was to become a journey we regularly made over the next eight years.

But before a drop of the Black Stuff had touched his lips that afternoon, Ray insisted on rattling over 600 words of ad-libbed Robson copy to his newspaper, using a coin-operated phone booth in the club’s hallway.

He was unashamedly old-school in his journalistic methods. For a long time, a laptop was a tool of last resort for Ray. He was a people person and loved the certainty of hearing a copytaker’s voice at the other end of the line.

“Get the copy over early doors and the sports editor and subs are happy – then we can all relax,” he would often say when I queried his dated modus operandi.

“Razor” was a sharp thinker who didn’t need to work on slick intros; they came naturally to him. Matched with good shorthand and his speed of dictation, it meant the News of the World nearly always had early copy from him.

By contrast my copy – sent by a state-of-the-art laptop – was often late due to frequent connection problems at Newcastle or Sunderland. Oh, how my Luddite new pal laughed on those occasions.

His contacts at Newcastle were all in the dressing room and mine mainly in the boardroom. So despite the supposed rivalry, frequent quid pro quo deals meant a steady stream of good stories for both papers.

Unlike some of today’s whizzkids, Ray had served an extensive apprenticeship, working with the South London Press, Match magazine, the Peterborough Evening Telegraph and the Hayters agency before getting his big break with the News of the World.

Fleet Street heavyweight Mike Dunn, the News of the World and Sun sports editor, had no doubts that Ray Ryan was an outstanding story-getter. “Very sad to hear about Ray Ryan: an old-fashioned sports journalist who actually tried to break stories. Thanks for trying Razor. RIP, your Guv,” Dunn wrote on Twitter.

Ray’s near 14-year stint on the News of the World ended with Dunn’s departure as sports editor in 2008. It was a huge blow to a man who had provided so many exclusives for the paper. I’m not sure he ever really got over the way he was treated.

Such a sociable animal wasn’t really cut out for the lonely world of freelancing but he gave it a go, first setting up his own agency and then working for several sports websites.

In public at least, Ray laughed in the face of adversity. He always tried to remain upbeat and cheerful even when I knew he was hurting inside.

There wasn’t the slightest trace of ego or vanity with Ray – what you saw, was what you got. He was never afraid to express exactly what he thought, even if it wasn’t politically correct.

But he was easily the kindest man I met in my journalistic career. He was generous to a fault and never shied away from helping others. Some times he was simply too generous for his own good and fell victim to one or two shysters.

Ray doted on his children, Daniel and Megan, always regretting that he didn’t spend enough time with them, and he had a granddaughter, Summer. Recently he spent a lot of time caring for his elderly father, Patrick.

Yes, Ray had faults – as we all do. We were both too fond of the drink and riotous partying and in classic old-school fashion we landed in some memorable scrapes together. But those tales stay on tour.

Ray’s ever-present smile, sense of humour and heart of gold usually won most people over. He could light up a room simply with his presence.

As former Sunday Sun sports editor Neil Farrington observed: “Spent some hugely enjoyable evenings in his company. Diamond of a man and an old school hack.”

The welter of tributes on social media paid to one of sports journalism’s most loveable characters is testament to the esteem his friends will always hold him in.

Ray and I recently arranged to meet up for a “remember when” session in Newcastle on or around St Patrick’s Day. Sadly, my dear friend was taken, suddenly and cruelly, and aged just 48, before that reunion could be accomplished.

But I bet there will be a helluva of a party up there on the great sports desk in the sky on the night of March 17.

I will raise my glass of Guinness that night to one of our game’s genuine good guys.

Sláinte, Ray.