Comment: Margaret Byrne’s resignation provides a chance for a new era at Sunderland

Ellis Short
Ellis Short
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The demise of Margaret Byrne was the inevitable outcome to the pressure cloud mushrooming over Sunderland’s conduct involving Adam Johnson.

Ever since Johnson’s claim at Bradford Crown Court that Byrne had been aware of the sacked winger’s admissions in police interviews and saw transcripts of his messages with the 15-year-old victim, the heat was on the then Sunderland chief executive.

Chief executives are paid the big bucks to provide strong leadership and a clear direction to the business.

For all trained solicitor Byrne may have done things by the book legally, the moral reservations over Sunderland’s decision to allow sex offender Johnson to continue playing were not going to go away.

Sunderland and Byrne had to come clean, and that was almost certainly going to see her pay with her job.

After returning from Portugal last weekend, the writing was on the wall for her. In the end, it was the only solution to draw a line under an unpalatable episode in the club’s history.

But Sunderland have to use the end of Byrne’s five-year tenure as chief executive as an opportunity to appoint a successor with a clear strategy for moving the club forwards.

Since Niall Quinn left the Stadium of Light, there has been little evidence of one.

Sunderland have lurched from one struggle to the next - players and managers departing and arriving on a revolving door basis.

On the rare occasions when Byrne chatted with the Press, she came across as very competent and had clearly caught the eye of Quinn who promoted her from the role of club secretary.

But chief executives are paid the big bucks to provide strong leadership and a clear direction to the business and there frankly wasn’t enough evidence of either.

The communication with supporters was stony-silent. Byrne didn’t do an on-the-record interview with the Echo since Martin O’Neill was at the helm.

In recent weeks, there hasn’t even be a column in the matchday programme.

The lack of direction was summed up by the conveyor belt of managers occupying a place in the dug-out, with Sam Allardyce the sixth during Byrne’s five years at the helm.

That’s not just her fault. Ellis Short has to take a share of the responsibility for those frightening numbers too, with the final buck resting on his shoulders.

But Byrne was effectively running the club in Short’s absence.

The fiasco of Paolo Di Canio’s reign - in particularly - and the fascism storm which accompanied his appointment, became a farce at times.

There was a naivety in thinking that the arrival of Di Canio would go under the radar of the national press, while the statement which tried to address the situation, simply threw more fuel on the fire.

“To accuse him now, as some have done, of being a racist or having fascist sympathies, is insulting not only to him but to the integrity of this football club,” said Byrne about a guy, who had previously expressed fascist sympathies.

In fairness, it has to be said that while Sunderland have lurched from one relegation battle to the next over the last five years, there have been plenty of highlights.

Sunderland have won a record six derbies in-a-row, have enjoyed their longest top flight tenure since the 1950s and reached a first major cup final for 22 years.

But there has been a recognition from both inside and outside the club over the need for a far greater presence from ‘footballing’ backgrounds at the top level, and there is a chance for Short to do that now.

In the immediate term, Sunderland fans will hope that Byrne’s departure draws a line under the unpalatable scrutiny stemming from Johnson’s downfall.

There was unquestionably a welcome openness to the statements issued by both the club and Byrne herself, in a bid to answer the many questions raised by both supporters and this paper too.

A notable - and much-needed - full apology to Johnson’s victim was also included in the statement.

To balance the discussion, it has to be said that a sizeable portion of Sunderland fans didn’t agree with the ‘witch-hunt’ over Byrne and felt she was right to treat Johnson as innocent until proven guilty.

Perhaps Byrne’s admission that she didn’t share her knowledge over Johnson’s confessions with the rest of the Sunderland board will provide more unity.

But Sunderland need some closure from this whole sorry, unpleasant episode.

Byrne’s resignation will hopefully allow football fans to focus on the football again.