IN his 20 years as Sunderland chairman, Sir Bob Murray oversaw the construction of both the Stadium of Light and Academy of Light, development projects that helped drive the club forward and enable it to maintain a position at the forefront of the English game.

In 2018, in his role as the chair of trustees for the Foundation of Light, he also helped facilitate the opening of the Beacon of Light, a state-of-the-art community facility in the shadow of Sunderland’s home stadium that is helping to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of North-Easterners. For all that he achieved in the Sunderland boardroom, he readily looks back on the life-changing impact of the last four years as his greatest achievement.

“I built the stadium, and then I built the academy, and they’re two of the proudest things I’ve ever done because of what they’ve meant to Sunderland,” said Murray, now 76, but still as sharp and personable as ever. “But I view the Beacon as being on a par with them, definitely.

“It feels like completing the hat-trick really. It’s every bit as important to me, and I think it’s already every bit as important to Sunderland and the wider North-East region too. It’s not a bad stadium, and I know the academy is thought of very highly by everybody in the game. Well, the Beacon’s unique. It’s the best there is, and sadly, we’re already seeing just how badly needed it is. It’s needed more today than ever.”

As the Foundation’s permanent headquarters, the Beacon is the focal point for the charity’s work across four key areas – skills, education, health and wellbeing, sport – that also encompasses a series of outreach schemes in the council areas of Sunderland, County Durham and South Tyneside.

More than 8,000 people a week pass through the Beacon’s doors, and over the course of the last 12 months, the Foundation of Light has delivered almost half-a-million hours of engagement with 14,000 participants of all ages and backgrounds.

The work they carry out is far-reaching and varied, from skills workshops for the unemployed to social action programmes for teenagers and on to specialist sport and education provision for more than 2,000 people with disabilities.

Increasingly, though, with the cost-of-living crisis having a huge impact on the lives of individuals and families right across the North-East, the charity’s time and resources are being focused on health and wellbeing projects and the sadly much-needed task of providing food, warmth and shelter for those in need. Football might be a multi-million pound industry, with an abundance of glitz and glamour at the very top end, but at a Foundation level, the value of providing a cup of tea and a food parcel to those who would otherwise be going hungry should never be downplayed.

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“We’re topping all the wrong league tables at the minute in terms of health, wellbeing, prosperity, everything really,” said Murray. “I’m not accusing anybody here, and I’m certainly not saying anything derogatory about the North-East because I’m so privileged to have been born in the North-East of England, and I feel that passionately. But I don’t think it does anyone any good to gloss over the problems we face.

“We’re getting up to 8,000 a people a week through the doors now, and we’re trying to do what’s needed. In the last year or so, that’s meant a bit of a shift towards poverty and food, and that’s what we’re doing.

“If somebody had told me when we were building the Beacon that one of the most important things we’d be doing was providing heat and food for people, I would have said, ‘I don’t think there’ll be the need for that’. Sadly, I was wrong.

“It’s a very flexible facility, but it’s a cathedral in a way. I’d urge anybody not to be shy to walk in that building and ask for some help if they need it. Whatever your issue, it’s a great place.”

As the chair of the board of trustees, Murray helps to coordinate and support the fundraising initiatives that are so crucial to the Foundation’s survival. The charity needs to raise £5m-a-year just to cover its running costs, and while it is supported by the football club, it is a completely separate entity with a completely separate financial structure.

We met in Durham last week as Murray was signing off his notes from an afternoon board meeting and preparing to attend the annual Carols of Light event at Durham Cathedral that is so crucial to the charity’s fundraising, and it was impossible not to be struck by the emotional investment he is still willing to devote to Sunderland as a club, city and wider regional figurehead.

He was there at the heart of things as football made its first tentative steps towards meaningful community engagement in the mid-1980s, supporting PFA chairman Gordon Taylor’s initial efforts to find unemployed former footballers work within the first Football in the Community schemes.

Murray’s Sunderland backed Taylor’s efforts from the outset, and while the former chairman might have enjoyed huge financial success in his own life, he has never forgotten his roots or the trials and tribulations his own family went through in order to set him on his way. That is why, while he might have stepped away from the boardroom, he has no intention of relinquishing his role with the Foundation.

“I’ve got such a hunger and appetite for this because of my birth right, really,” he said. “My dad was a Sunderland coalminer. He died very young, and when I was born and brought up in Consett, I was unemployed for a year. That experience shaped me, I think, and I’ve always had those same social values, right through my life.

“I really get it when people are disadvantaged. I understand what that does to their lives, and I like to think I understand the value in providing whatever help and assistance you can. As long as I’ve got my health, I’ll always be up for this.”

The passion has always burned brightly, but Murray admits there were times in the not-too-distant past when he felt like he was banging his head against a brick wall as he tried to maintain links with a football club that was morphing away from the one he knew and loved.

“We’ve been disadvantaged for quite a while,” he said. “There have been difficult moments for us along the way. When someone appoints a figure like (Paolo) Di Canio, then that really hurts our reputation. Then, when the club goes down to the third division, the income pretty much disappears and the profile of the club and the Beacon suffers too.

“There have been times where the club was working against us, not for us. We were having to deal with the club, rather than being partners. The club might say we are their biggest partner, and that’s a nice thing to hear, but it hasn’t always felt that way. It does now.”

The Northern Echo: Sir Bob Murray

The arrival of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus as owner was the catalyst for change, with the Swiss 25-year-old replacing Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, previous majority shareholders whose reign was one of stagnation and damaging decline.

Louis-Dreyfus is building the club back up, and crucially for Murray, his support and ambition extends to the Foundation.

“He gets it,” he said. “He understands our lives and what the challenges are. We had our main board meeting this month and Steve was sat around the table with us and Kyril joined in on Teams. They were both hugely engaged in everything, and they’re working hand in hand with us, supporting what we do. That’s exactly what we want

“They’ve had a really bad inheritance, with lots of things that urgently needed addressing, and it’s going to take time to properly turn that around and build the club back up.

“I think the saddest thing was to see all those young players leave our club. That hurt. When I was here, we had Jordan Pickford and Jordan Henderson in the academy – they should have been the players the rest of the club was built around. Then, when I read about a young lad from Sunderland scoring a goal for Leeds United (Sam Greenwood), I just think it’s so sad. Hopefully, things are getting back onto the right track now though.”

* If you would like to support your community and the Foundation this winter, you can donate via this link.