From the terraces to the boardroom

Former chairman Sir Bob Murray outside the gates of Sunderland AFC

EVERYONE has their favourite house in the Island, the one they dream they could own one day but know damn well they never will.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be the grandest, the biggest or the most valuable. In some ways, your favourite other house has a distinct character and perhaps, even, gives you a distant feeling of attainability, even though it will still forever be out of reach.

For a long period of time, one of my favourite houses was the beautiful white Art Deco building that stood out along Route Orange in St Brelade. Les Lumières, as it is called, also lit up the imagination of businessman Sir Bob Murray, who was a frequent visitor to UUֱ. In fact, he liked it so much that he bought it, renovated it and moved in during the late 90s.

Murray obviously has a drive to attain the seemingly unattainable. After all, how many of us have also dreamed of owning our own football club and, better still, owning the club we supported as a child? Murray did that too. Having stood, as a young boy, on the terraces of Sunderland’s Roker Park with his father in the late 50s, watching his hero Len Shackleton, less than three decades later he was chairman of the club. The working-class boy from Consett had “done good”.

His tenure as a chair was a rollercoaster ride from its start in 1986 to its end 20 years later. It began dismally, with Sunderland relegated to the third tier for the first time in the club’s history just one year after his appointment. They were back at the top within three seasons but relegated again after one.

It took another six seasons to get them back up, during which time they also reached the final of the FA Cup, losing to Liverpool 2-0 in 1992. But the club’s greatest achievement under his custodianship was building the 49,000-seater Stadium of Light, which opened in 1997.

Sunderland’s had the daring duo of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn under Sir Bob Murray’s tenure Picture: PA IMAGES

Murray looks back at his life, and his time with Sunderland, in his new autobiography, I’d Do It All Again, which was released last month. All sales proceeds from the book will go to the official club charity he established in 2001, the Foundation of Light, which aims to improve the education, health, wellbeing and happiness of people within local communities.

As well as reflecting on his own personal growth, alongside the fortunes and shortcomings of the football club, Murray delves into the sport’s many financial and ownership issues. He calls the formation of the Premier League “needless… driven by greed and was not in the interests of English football” and raises the question of sportswashing in the game.

“When I left in 2006, I couldn’t identify with it any more,” Murray laments. “We would sign a South American player who I hadn’t met, who couldn’t speak English, who had hangers-on, and whose first day at Sunderland was his best day and after that he didn’t want to be there.

“[Before] my wife would know the players’ wives, we would buy them engagement presents, we’d go to the odd wedding, we’d know where they went on holiday, where they lived, we’d know their mum and dad.”

Such changes in the culture of football made it an easy decision for Murray to sell.

“I would have done it two years earlier but I was keen to find the right successor,” he said.

That came in the shape of Niall Quinn, his star striker for six years, who had formed a formidable partnership with Kevin Phillips and led a consortium of Irish businessmen to take over the club.

“I needed to get out because it was all-consuming. I was getting towards 60 and I had a couple of health issues and I needed to get out of the game,” Murray said.

Before leaving, he ensured that he left the club in rude health for the new owners but said he had seen other clubs – including the likes of Bolton Wanderers, Darlington, Bury, Macclesfield and Oldham Athletic – struggle, some of whom hit the wall because they were mismanaged.

“You look around and bad ownership is everywhere,” wrote Murray in his book. “Take Manchester United in recent times – just a series of disasters stemming from bad leadership.” Of course, in UUֱ, we are now all too familiar with the fragility of a club’s existence following the demise of the Reds, who bit off more than they could chew.

“How can you spend two pounds on the pound? Do you not think it will catch up with you?” asks Murray rhetorically. “They didn’t need to win the league. When you’ve only got 18 games and 2,000 people coming, x amount of corporate and the league gives you whatever they give you, that’s your income. But common sense goes out the window. You’ve got to cut your cloth accordingly. They could have existed in that league on the income they had got because teams do. But the amateur team is the one that’s going to pick up now and people will get behind that.”

Sunderland had its own problems both before and after Murray, but he believes the club is in safe hands now with French businessman Kyril Louis-Dreyfuss.

“We’ve got a good owner and he gets it. He’s one of the trustees at my charity. He understands what the club means to the local community. And they will go up to the Premiership. It is only a matter of when,” Murray added.

“There are three types of owners. You’ve got ones like Middlesbrough’s Steve Gibson, a traditional owner, who are very generous to the club and care passionately about the town and the people. Then you’ve got someone who is a modern owner who gets it and then you’ve got state ownership like Newcastle.

“I wouldn’t support Sunderland if they were owned by Saudis. I can identify with the current Sunderland team in every aspect because we’ve got a very young team who work hard. That isn’t the case at Newcastle. And it’s not about them specifically. It just so happens to be an example of the change in football.”

In his book, Murray admits that sportswashing is a “huge concern”. He cites Roman Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea as the precursor of ownership of clubs by Arab states such as Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia “as a means of trying to improve their tarnished reputations for human rights, persecution and corruption through sport”.

But while ruing this development, Murray has immense pride at what he achieved for Sunderland during his reign.

“I had Kevin Phillips here, top scorer in the Premier League, and I still get a Christmas card from him” he said. “I’ve had great players like Stefan Schwartz, the Sweden captain, Claudio Reyna, the American captain, and Quinn. But the thing that I’m proud of most is growing the crowds. From a male-only crowd of 14,000 to the vast crowds we get now, which are very mixed and family-orientated. The club has got a massive following. It’s a much-loved club and that makes the job harder because you’re carrying so much responsibility.

“I’ve had great experiences and massive disappointments.”

Sir Bob Murray’s book, I’d Do It All Again, is available from sirbobmurraybook.com. All of the cover price goes to the Foundation of Light charity.

Sir Bob Murray’s “I’d Do It All Again” (37016082)

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