Friday 9 December 2016

Irish CEO of Sunderland quits over handling of Johnson case

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

Sunderland chief Margaret Byrne, who quit in the wake of the abuse case involving Adam Johnson. Photo: PA Wire
Sunderland chief Margaret Byrne, who quit in the wake of the abuse case involving Adam Johnson. Photo: PA Wire
Adam Johnson. Photo: PA

Margaret Byrne, the Irish chief executive of Premier League side Sunderland, has resigned her position because of the mistakes that were made in the club's handling of the Adam Johnson child abuse case.

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Last week, Johnson was found guilty of one count of sexual activity with a child and he is currently awaiting sentencing.

Armagh native Ms Byrne (36) came under pressure after Johnson pleaded guilty. This placed scrutiny on Sunderland's decision to allow the England international to play on after he was initially charged in March 2015.

Johnson was suspended for two weeks before returning to action and helping his employers to avoid relegation from the top flight.

And he remained part of their first team squad until February 6 of this year, the weekend before his trial started.

When the court verdict was reached, a statement from Sunderland said the club would have sacked Johnson if they had known he was going to plead guilty with regard to two of the charges.

However, that presented difficulties for Ms Byrne in light of evidence provided by Johnson during his defence.

He said he "told everything" to Ms Byrne on May 4, 2015 and it emerged she had copies of the 834 Whatsapp messages that he had exchanged with the under-age girl, who was a Sunderland fan and season ticket holder. She also had a transcript of a police interview where he admitted kissing the girl on the lips.

Ms Byrne yesterday said allowing Johnson "to continue to represent Sunderland was a mistake". She added that she was astounded when the 28-year-old gave the guilty plea, and defended her actions on the basis that he was "innocent until proven guilty".

Ms Byrne apologised to the victim, who she said "endured a terrible ordeal and for that I am truly sorry".

"At no time was the failure to suspend him again intended to cause any harm or distress to her or her family," she added.

The trained solicitor had enjoyed a meteoric rise since joining the club in 2007 as a company secretary. Prior to that, she had worked with London-based law firm Galbraith Branley.

There was a strong Irish influence in Sunderland at the time, as Niall Quinn was the club chairman and Roy Keane the first team manager.

Ms Byrne then moved up the ranks to become legal director before being appointed to the post of CEO in 2011 at the age of 31 - it is believed she earned an annual salary in the region of £600,000. She duly became a member of the Premier League Advisory Board and was voted onto the English FA Council.

An official statement from Sunderland in reaction to her departure said Ms Byrne's intentions were always "to act in the best interests of the club" but stressed she was accountable.

Irish Independent

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