Fall from grace of Sunderland CEO who mellowed Roy Keane
Margaret Byrne resigned over her ill-handling of Adam Johnson child sex abuse case
Sunderland AFC Chief Executive Officer Margaret Byrne on the left. During the trial the jury was told that, by May 4, chief executive Margaret Byrne met Adam Johnson and his barrister and she had all the messages exchanged and transcripts from police interviews. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.
So how did it come to this? How did the bright, sassy, funny, seemingly streetwise young woman dubbed “the new Karren Brady” end up going into hiding abroad? How come she was so scared to show her face to the world that she eventually had to be driven home from the airport on Monday in a car with blacked-out windows? And what on earth possessed Margaret Byrne to make the glaring error of judgment that would ultimately provoke her resignation as chief executive of Sunderland on Tuesday?
Following a damaging hiatus, the 35-year-old lawyer and her employer at the Stadium of Light eventually realised the storm surrounding Adam Johnson’s conviction of child-sex offences was not going to disappear any time soon.
On Tuesday afternoon the struggling Premier League club finally announced her by-then inevitable resignation in the wake of a “serious error of judgment”.
It involved Byrne’s decision to allow Johnson to keep playing despite her knowledge of his unambiguously inappropriate relationship with a 15-year-old girl. The club said they were “so very sorry’ for their part in “letting down” the teenager, a fanatical Sunderland fan, and her family.
In a statement Byrne belatedly acknowledged “a serious mistake”, adding that she was “truly sorry” for the “terrible ordeal” endured by Johnson’s victim. Critically she claimed she had not shared her detailed knowledge of the case with anyone else at the club. Whether or not this is the whole truth or whether the woman from County Armagh was simply taking a bullet for the board will quite possibly never be publicly revealed.
Whatever the precise facts Ellis Short, the billionaire American financier who owns Sunderland and serves as their chairman, must shoulder his share of responsibility. Like Byrne, Short was conspicuous by his enduring silence in the wake of the Johnson verdict last week, when the club’s originally evasive statement attempting to justify their actions in continuing to field the winger proved entirely unsatisfactory.
Someone who likes and admires Byrne said they never saw a woman promoted from club secretary – a job she, by all accounts, excelled at – to chief executive by Short at the age of only 31 as CEO material. Even those who detected greater potential agreed she lacked the necessary experience and overall vision for such an exacting role.
Even so “Mags”, as everyone called her, was almost universally popular at the Stadium of Light, where many colleagues are saddened by the downfall of a woman famed for her expert humouring of the notoriously moody former manager Roy Keane.
Creditably, Short is refreshingly willing to promote women to senior positions – significantly, a high percentage of Sunderland’s executive management team are female – but, thrown into the deep end, Byrne lacked Brady’s substance.
Despite earning an annual salary well in excess of £600,000, she rarely gave interviews, never addressed TV cameras or news conferences and penned uniformly anodyne messages in a regular column in the match programme. If it is no crime to be much more interested in balance sheets and the small print of commercial contracts than public relations, glaring gaps in her general historical and political knowledge were highlighted in 2013 when Sunderland appointed Paolo Di Canio as manager.
David Miliband promptly resigned his directorship in protest and all hell broke loose. In another of her regular statements, Byrne described it as “insulting” that a man sporting Mussolini tattoos could possibly be described as holding fascist sympathies. She did not quite seem to “get” why the Bishop of Durham was so upset and why the Durham Miners’ Association had asked for its banner to be removed from the stadium.
Eventually that particular storm did blow over and five months later Di Canio was sacked in the wake of a players’ revolt. Unfortunately this, in turn, prompted concerns that Byrne was overly influenced by a sometimes less than angelic dressing room.
Yet within male-dominated football circles she commanded considerable respect, being voted on to the FA Council by peers and joining the Premier League’s legal advisory board.
Unafraid to cross swords with, among others, assorted Sunderland managers and the former director of football Lee Congerton, the girl who had studied consumer studies at Belfast University before completing a conversion course to qualify as a solicitor was, as she once put it, living “a dream”.
She owed the leap into football’s stratosphere to Niall Quinn, the former Sunderland centre forward and chairman who, back in 2007, liked her reply to a newspaper advertisement for a club secretary. At the time Byrne was working in a north London legal practice, concentrating on divorce and criminal law. She talked of “nothing fazing me” after the experience of arriving at rowdy police stations to represent newly arrested clients, accused of, among other things, attempted murder, on Saturday nights.
Her ill-judged determination to regard Johnson as a £10m “asset” in Sunderland’s interminable struggles against relegation while hoping the case against him would somehow collapse, means north-east football’s fallen first lady may now have little choice but to return to that world.