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Ideas & Observations

Doing it for the North East: Sir Bob Murray and Sunderland AFC

Sunderland AFC and Newcastle United meet in the FA Cup third round this weekend in the first Tyne/Wear derby for nearly eight years. As they prepare to resume hostilities, former Sunderland chairman Sir Bob Murray has been reflecting on his time in charge. Here, the self-made millionaire tells Colin Young about his new autobiography, ‘I’d Do It All Again’, and insists his old club is in safe hands and will never be sold to a Gulf State.

 

No regrets. Apart from appointing Howard Wilkinson as Peter Reid’s successor.

He wouldn’t do that again.

Sir Bob Murray has been reflecting on his incredible life.

From the self-confessed tubby, shy young kid, who left school in Annfield Plain in 1962 with one O level, to the self-made millionaire and Sunderland AFC chairman, who is now a Knight of the realm and also holds a CBE for services to sport, education and charity.

It’s all documented in ‘I’d Do It All Again’, the fascinating new book that details Sir Bob’s upbringing in a now unrecognisable Consett – where he makes an emotional return – and the journey to becoming one of most influential figures in English football.

We’re sat in the Beacon of Light, the structure he built, halfway through a full day of book signings, interviews, a meet and greet with a more mature group of supporters and an evening Q&A with The Foundation Of Light, the charity he founded.

“I’m really concerned about where the game is going,” says Sir Bob, when asked if he would take over the club now (hypothetically, of course).

He says: “When you’re competing against Gulf States or whatever, a chairman like Steve Gibson or Kyril Louis-Dreyfus (the current Sunderland owner) has a much harder job than I had.

“In 1986, 92 per cent of our income was gate money; all clubs got the same from the Pools and we had match sponsors that might have given us two grand to cover a player’s wages.

“Steve Gibson is the traditional, ideal, local football club owner.

“He cares, has vast wealth and is so generous – I remember his success at Boro with the Brazilians.

“I remember Jack Walker at Blackburn Rovers, too.

“I was there when Bill Fox, the Blackburn chairman, said to Jack, ‘with all your money, you could buy Spurs’.

“But Jack said, ‘I want Blackburn’, and he won the Premier League.

“You could do that with individual money.

“But now… does someone really need 400 grand a week? It’s out of control.

“Chelsea won trophies for 20 years. It took a war to stop that.”

The most successful chairman in Sunderland’s history has been welcomed back to the club by Kyril, who reinstated a life presidency taken away by Ellis Short, the US hedge fund billionaire and antithesis of Sir Bob.

The French millionaire was a student at Leeds Beckett University, where Sir Bob is chancellor, and the pair discussed Sunderland before he took over from Stewart Donald.

Sir Bob says: “Kyril’s a really nice lad, who is very eloquent and intelligent way beyond his years.

“He was interested in the club, and somebody said, ‘before you do anything, you need to speak to Bob’.

“A family friend introduced us, and I think we chatted for about an hour-and-a-half; he was basically getting me onside.“We talked about the club, its history and its legacy, and I am so pleased he has agreed to become a trustee of the Foundation.”

 

 

Sir Bob went to night school to gain the qualifications needed to study accountancy at Northumbria University, which was then Newcastle Polytechnic.

It took him four years to get his English O level, and he was initially rejected for a ‘job for life’ at Consett’s ironworks.

However, after his first job at nearby steel bearings maker Ransome and Marles, he was finally accepted.

But, as industry floundered in the mid-1970s, Sir Bob left the North East.

He worked in the accounts department at West Yorkshire furniture firm George A Moore before co-founding kitchen and bathroom business Spring RAM, a move that coincided with a phenomenal rise in DIY.

His love of football led him to take over as Sunderland AFC chairman from Tom Cowie at the age of 40.

And the boardroom battles, the relegations and promotions, the good, the bad and the downright awful and eye-wateringly expensive signings are all revealed in his book with an honesty that would make his hero Len Shackleton proud.

‘Shack’, known to many by his Clown Prince of Football nickname, was the first player to write an autobiography.

It famously included a chapter entitled, ‘The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football’, which consisted of a blank page.

There’s no danger of that, though, in ‘I’d Do It All Again’.

Sir Bob has spent more than 50 years in the game, helped build Wembley and create too the Football Association’s St George’s Park headquarters after erecting a new stadium on a disused pit for his own club.

He was a voice and an ear when the Premier League was being formed.

He fought for the smaller clubs. And he’s still doing it today.

Sir Bob says: “It was needless; it was all about money.

“We didn’t need a Premier League, and I fought very hard for the Football League.

“But it all changed when the Sky money came in.”

 

  • Sir Bob Murray stands on the rubble of Monkwearmouth Colliery, demolished to make way for the Stadium of Light. A Davy lamp outside the stadium, opened a year later in 1997, commemorates all County Durham Miners

 

 

At the turn of the century, Sunderland finished in the top seven of the Premier League twice under Peter Reid with Sir Bob as his chairman – still a record to this day – before he sold the club to ex-striker Niall Quinn and the Irish-based Drumaville Consortium.

Sir Bob says: “It took us nearly three years to find the right person.

“At the same time, West Bromwich Albion was going for £140 million, and I passed the club on for under £10 million with no debt.

“It was about finding the right owner and somebody who knew the club.

“I can categorically say that if the Saudis had come here, they would have been turned away.

“We turned away plenty of people who showed an interest but, for the wrong reasons, they were not the right people.

“I left this club 17 years ago, and I am still here all the time, raising money to do something for the North East.

“Will these foreign owners still be around their clubs’ communities for years to come?”

Before selling, Sir Bob built the Stadium of Light, the Academy of Light training ground and, most importantly in his eyes, helped create the Foundation of Light, the community/charity arm of the club, of which he remains fiercely protective.

When he’s on Wearside, Sir Bob – who has two homes with Lady Sue in Crayke, North Yorkshire, and Jersey – will spend most of his time at the Beacon of Light, the building adjacent to the football ground.

It is all far removed from the dark days of around 25 years ago, when Sir Bob needed a police escort to games because he was the chairman who had to knock down the club’s traditional, but crumbling, Roker Park home, to build a stadium that would help it compete in the Premier League.

The abuse, the pies and the spittle throwing were so bad and regular at that time, that plans in the new stadium included a shield in the directors’ box.

He says: “I never thought when we opened the Beacon that people would come just to keep warm. I never saw that.

“We had classrooms in the stadium, in the North West corner, and we filled those immediately, with a two-year waiting list almost straightaway. It was unbelievable.

“The need was twice as much as we thought.

“The Beacon is also getting people through the front door who wouldn’t perhaps seek out support.

“But if they are participating in sport here, they can migrate into skills or education, and then there’s the NHS hub too.

“Someone might be overweight, might need to stop smoking or might be a veteran who wouldn’t come in to speak to somebody about having served.

“But if they play five-a-side football, they’ll gradually migrate around the building to the four areas.

“If it was a health centre or a therapy or counselling centre, they might not go to that.

“Once you feel secure in this building and you’ve done one thing, you’re happy to try the other things because you trust it.

“We get 7000 people through the door every week.

“We have outreach centres in Durham, Peterlee and South Shields, and we have 140 people working here.

 “It’s a place that helps 1.2 million people, and some come in wearing their black and white stripes. I love to see it.”

 

Sir Bob’s book took nearly four years to complete, and has caught the imagination of the Mackem faithful since its October release.

All proceeds are going to the Foundation of Light, with a target to raise £100,000 for the charity.

Its legacy also comes in the form of the Lance Hardy Writing Competition, which aims to showcase young sportswriters.

Lance, a former BBC sports editor and producer, was a prolific Sunderland AFC writer who died in 2021 just after completing the first draft of Sir Bob’s book.

The final version was put together with editor Ian Preece.

Sir Bob says: “It’s Lance’s legacy and his last written words, so we wanted to make sure he is at the centre of everything.

“We invited his partner Lijana to the launch, and she was so happy; it was nice to hear everyone talking so positively about Lance.”

He adds: “There’s a lot of things I thought I had buried forever that I had to unearth for the book, which was difficult, but we are only human.

“We don’t get everything right in life.”

So, would he do it all again? Yes. Apart from Wilkinson.

When the Reid era ended in 2002, Sir Bob was convinced Wilkinson, the last Englishman to win the league title, was his man.

But it didn’t work out.

Sir Bob says: “I made a really bad decision with Howard.

“Peter wanted to go, and it was time.

“Howard was the Football Association’s technical director, and I thought he was the change we needed.

“I asked who he wanted to bring with him, and he said Steve Cotterill.

“I didn’t know that they didn’t know each other, and they both wanted to be manager, so they worked against each other from day one.

“The whole thing immediately went wrong.

“When I say I’d do it all again, I wouldn’t hire Howard.

“He’s the only guy in the world who doesn’t speak to me – we were at Harry Gration’s memorial service in York Minster and he blanked me – but I won’t lose any sleep over it.”