Interview: Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne

IN a former life, Margaret Byrne’s work as a solicitor used to take her to the cells of north London on a Saturday night.

Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne
Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne

IN a former life, Margaret Byrne’s work as a solicitor used to take her to the cells of north London on a Saturday night.

It was quite some introduction to the world of law, but the 32-year-old chuckles about it now. If the Premier League seems like a dog-eat-dog world to outsiders, it is nothing compared to the school of hard knocks she graduated from.

“I saw lots of things in north London police stations that keep things in perspective,” she said.

“I couldn’t have imagined all of this, but I’m a grafter and I work really, really hard. I’m a trained solicitor and have gone round in the middle of the night representing people in north London. You don’t get much tougher training as a younger person than that.

“I enjoy it, although it’s hard work. It might come across as glitzy and glamorous, but by God it’s not. You’re in here until nine or ten o’clock at night and you’re constantly on the phone.

“The hardest thing is that you can’t control the results on the pitch. You might have had a cracking week, but then you sit there and someone makes a mistake and everything changes. You just can’t control that side of things and that’s the hardest part.”

Her rise has been nothing short of meteoric. She joined the club in 2007 as a secretary, and through hard graft and ability progressed through the ranks to the position she now holds.

Last year she was voted on to the FA Council – partly, she thinks, because fellow Premier League clubs knew she would have the resolve to speak her mind and stick up for every club in the division. Warm and enthusiastic about the city she represents and the surrounding area, there is a steel to her that she shares with boss Ellis Short.

“We’re very lucky to have an owner like Ellis,” she explains.

“He took over the club at a time just before the Irish recession hit.

“The Drumaville consortium were brilliant but Ellis saved the club without a doubt at the right time. He’s continued to invest in the club.”

Results might have been a source of frustration recently, but Sunderland supporters should be assured that Short and the club retain sizeable ambitions.

Progress might have been bitty this season, but Byrne remembers the first meeting with O’Neill in a Durham hotel where he spoke of his burning desire to deliver a European night to Wearside.

The script of this season is yet to be written, but the club are certain that the foundations are being put in place for a more successful future. Belief in O’Neill remains absolute.

“We all want to give the supporters something to celebrate. That’s what I want, it’s what Ellis wants, and it’s what Martin passionately wants too,” she said.

“He’s constantly saying that we should be a top-six club because everything is in place. We might not have the players yet, but we have the facilities, we have the stadium and we have the fans.

“The first time we met Martin at dinner, he said, ‘I want a European night at Sunderland’. He talked about what it would be like, and the hairs on the back of your neck stood on end. That’s what we all want, and as a club, we’re doing everything we can to move towards it.”

Those on-field ambitions might be the most pressing concern, but the soul of the club is being nourished under Short.

The Black Cats are rightly proud of their Foundation, which works in the local community to make a big difference. Ticket price initiatives are intended to help supporters in hard times, while the work done in securing world-class concerts for the city also promotes the club across the globe.

The club are striving to keep a balance between looking after those on their own doorstep while attempting to expand into Africa and beyond.

“I think we’re trying. First and foremost, our primary concern is the local community, the supporter-base locally. That’s definitely key, but every supporter of the football club would be delighted to see Sunderland jerseys in Africa” added Byrne.

“It’s about us spreading the name of their football club – our football club – around the globe. We’re not trying to disengage anyone, it’s just about getting the whole product – the football, the city – out to the wider world.

“I mean, having Rihanna at the Stadium of Light in the summer – it’s all about raising the profile of the football club and the city and with that comes a bigger supporter base, more interest from the corporates, which will ultimately help us create more revenue for a better team for better offers for our supporters. It’s trying to get the balance right.”

Everyone at the club is required to make a commitment to the club’s charitable foundation, regardless of their status.

It is not widely known, but a percentage of every player’s salary goes to that cause every month, while the players give £25,000 between them to the annual fashion show. Thursday afternoons are designated as a Foundation day, when players must give their time up to help.

It is working, too. The Foundation has grown to the extent it now helps out 42,000 people every year and it is enjoying a higher profile than it ever has thanks to the efforts of what Byrne says are a “good group of lads”.

She says: “The players also make a commitment financially, every player gives money to our foundation. Every player gives money. The players also give £25,000 together for the fashion show, as well as individual contributions every month. People don’t hear about that.

“We have a really decent bunch of lads, and they actually enjoy it. They’re a wee bit nervous sometimes, but they generally have a good time.”

It is impossible not be impressed by the work being done at Sunderland yet, since the departure of Niall Quinn, it has been O’Neill alone who has been the voice of the club.

With Short happy to do his work in the background, there have been times when a Quinn-style cheerleader might have been a help.

Could Byrne assume a more front-line role? Hopefully this is the start of that process, but she insists she will never rival Quinn for quote-ability.

“I’d rather just get my work done and get on with it,” she says. “I’d rather do the work behind the scenes. We were extremely lucky to have Niall, but you look at other clubs and they don’t have a figurehead like that. Manchester United have Sir Alex Ferguson as their manager, but then there’s just David Gill.

“Niall has been great for the football club, but I think the results, and Martin getting the results, are the most important thing.”

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