1st September 2018
Not much has gone right for Sunderland AFC recently. Their rapid decline, culminating in two relegations in a row to leave them languishing in League One, might have deflated a city so intrinsically linked to its football club.
But as proud Wearsider Sir Bob Murray will tell you, this is no ordinary city, and despite the testing turn of events at the institution he helped to build, the former chairman can still see the value in linking club with community.
This month will see a new leading light – the Beacon of Light – open its doors. On paper, its primary use will be to house the club’s much-acclaimed foundation, but as Sir Bob explains, its reach extends with a much greater purpose.
“Simply put, if the stadium provided a home for football in the city, the Beacon will provide a home for community engagement in the city,” says the 72-year-old, who watched his first Sunderland match back in 1955 alongside his father.
“Once we understood the opportunity that we had to create something truly fantastic – and much more than a home for the foundation – the Beacon really started to come to life.
“In my heart, and for a long time, I felt that something was missing from the stadium park, and I wanted to leave one last legacy because I felt I wasn’t quite finished.
“I built the Beacon of Light for the fantastic people of the region, so they can have access to world class facilities and world class support and make the most of their lives.”
The region that he speaks of is one etched into the very fabric of Sir Bob’s make up.
The son of a Silksworth coal miner, his knighthood and the keys to the city of Sunderland only tell part of the story. Beyond the prestige, pride in his roots burn through any added acclaim.
His own upbringing helped forge a fierce loyalty to the North East – and an acute understanding of the problems facing a broad cross-section of its people.
“Dad went down the pit at 14 and didn’t like it,” Sir Bob explains. “He moved to Consett to work at the steel works and died when he was 59.
“I didn’t have any money, but I always felt rich because I was born in the North East. I wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else, but there are challenges.
“Those challenges have changed over the years, but all people want is some help. Whether they’re returning from fighting in a war, or they can’t read or write, they just need a bit of help.
“I wasn’t academically clever and I left school at 15 with only one qualification. I was unemployed for a year and it was the hardest time in my life. It was a traumatic time that left me feeling hopeless and like a failure.
“It was a real turning point for me because, until that moment, life had just taken its course. I suddenly realised that if I wanted something, I would have to work for it.
“When the opportunity came along to change things and make something of my life, I grasped it with both hands. Thanks to the foundation, we now create those opportunities so that young people can realise their potential – otherwise they could face a life of anger, disappointment and sadness.
“We want to change people’s lives forever. We’ve got to look after our own, and I’m not ashamed to say that.”
Covering all of Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham, as well as pockets of Northumberland, the Foundation of Light was born out of a collective love for what Sir Bob calls “a very special football club”.
Under new ownership since April this year – following Ellis Short’s decision to sell the Black Cats to a consortium headed by former Eastleigh owner and chairman Stewart Donald – it is a club in desperate need of stability.
Sir Bob admits this current campaign is “a big season at the club”, but remains confident their decline stops now.
“The new owners seem to have a very clear idea of what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it,” he says, “and they seem to be listening to the fans too, which is very important.
“People can sometimes change their religion, but they can’t change their football club, and when I was there it was run with a tremendous community spirit.
“That was admired throughout British football, as were our ethics and the quality and behaviour of our support. Sadly, it’s been badly abused by the ‘American owner’ [Ellis Short], and the club is bruised at the moment.
“Football is a complex industry, and I think the new owners will understand what is achievable with the resources they have available.
“We’d all like to see the club back in the Premier League, but for now I’d like to see more wins at the Stadium of Light. I’ll admit there are times when I wish my dad had been a Manchester United supporter and not a Sunderland supporter!”
Sir Bob continues: “I don’t think my father would have ever forgiven me for pulling down Roker Park – it’s not a decision I took lightly. But on the other hand, it gave us the opportunity to build the Stadium of Light, which has been a platform for the football club’s successes over the last 20 years.
“In terms of my time as a chairman, I like to think I got more things right than I got wrong and hopefully history proves that. The club has the potential to enjoy great success again. I gave it infrastructure and a home, and it’s now in the hands of the new owners to bring those good times back.”
With £18.7 million of the required £20 million raised, the Beacon of Light is on track to open as a debt-free entity – no mean feat in the current climate.
Yet this is a man wise to such challenges. In 2001, with Sir Bob at the helm, the club took the unusual step of making their community programme a registered charity, giving it the freedom to grow independent of the football club’s ownership and performances.
The foundation became one of the most celebrated in the game – so much so that the Financial Times deemed it “a model for the Premier League” and leaders in its field.
To protect the work the foundation does, Sir Bob and co recognised it would need its own home, which is where the Beacon of Light comes in.
But long before the first plans were drawn up, there was little doubt about the foundation’s value to the city of Sunderland and the wider North East.
“I think Sunderland has got the best foundation in Britain by a mile,” says Sir Bob, “and the owners now see it as a very big part of the club.
“[Ellis Short] was not supportive of the foundation, but the new owners seem to get it. The community side of the club is hugely important, and that’s bred into us.
“Other football clubs, who spend a lot of money, seem to be simply going through the motions of having a community side.
“To some it’s a bit like cleaning your teeth in the morning – it’s just something that you have to do. But this is heartfelt, it’s driven, it’s a priority and it’s needed.
“We open in a year when Sunderland AFC are in the lowest league they have been in for 30 years.
“But the Sunderland badge will always inspire people regardless of how well the team is performing on the pitch. Football is a big part of our regional identity, and people feel part of it whether the results are good or bad.
“This passion for football and the brand is one of the reasons why the Beacon of Light project will be such a success.
“It’s inspirational for anybody who walks through the door. It is lit up as a way forward, in a prime spot above the river. It’s about being loud and proud and prominent, and it will change lives.”