AS he sat in one of the meeting rooms at the Beacon of Light, the state-of-art community facility he helped create, Sir Bob Murray was able to reflect on a life that had come full circle.

“I’m back to being a fan again,” said Murray, businessman, philanthropist, ex-Sunderland chairman and now author. “I enjoy watching this Sunderland team. I can identify with them. They’re genuine, honest lads – and that hasn’t always been the case down the years. This is one of my favourite Sunderland teams – I love them.”

Murray is back in the region to promote his book, ‘I’d Do It All Again’, with all of the proceeds going to the Foundation of Light, the charity he founded and of which he is still a trustee. It is billed as an autobiography, but in truth it is really a love story. Love of Sunderland, love of the wider North-East, love of the people who rely on the Foundation for life-changing support, and of whom he could easily have been one has his life as the son of a Consett miner taken a different course.

As it was, Murray was already a millionaire thanks to his kitchen and property businesses by the time he became Sunderland chairman in 1986, a different footballing era when the game was on its knees and Sunderland were battling for survival in the second tier. Off the pitch, a boardroom civil war was ripping the club apart and Murray, who admits he did not do the required due diligence before replacing Tom Cowie at the helm, inherited a debt owed to the Midland Bank that was three times the agreed overdraft limit. On the field, a team of overpaid players was hurtling towards relegation, overseen by Lawrie McMenemy, an underperforming manager Murray could not afford to sack. It was hardly an auspicious beginning.

“I could have walked away straightaway,” said Murray. “I put a lot of money in, but it wasn’t about the money. It was the time, emotion and energy that was the hardest thing. I was doing what I could, but the club was going nowhere. Football as a whole was at its lowest point – hooliganism, crumbling stadiums. We used to get 14,000 on a good day. Things had to change – and thankfully, they did.”

The wider changes that transformed football in the 1990s had a number of different sparks, with the horrors of the Hillsborough disaster finally focusing minds and leading to the advent of all-seater stadia and a more general shift in attitudes that helped pave the way for the arrival of Sky TV.


Murray was horrified by Hillsborough, but sadly, not necessarily surprised. He had witnessed similar scenes unfolding when Sunderland travelled to Bootham Crescent to take on York City in the old Third Division in March 1988.

“That’s the most scared I’ve ever been at a football game,” he said. “There was a bit of a back story – we’d taken Denis Smith and Marco Gabbiadini from York as well as some of the backroom staff – and it had been built up into a big game. The official crowd figure was 8,876, but there was way more than that in the ground. And they were pretty much all from Sunderland, all around the ground.

“It was horrendous. I was sat behind a big group of Sunderland fans, who were down in the paddock, and as more and more people surged forward, you could see the distress of the fans up against the fences. I’ll never forget it. Some of them ended up clambering over – they were doing that to save their lives – and I went down onto the pitch to try to calm things down. It was decades of decline coming to a head, and it had a profound effect on me. It certainly made me want to get those fences down.”

The Northern Echo: Sir Bob Murray at Roker ParkSir Bob Murray at Roker Park (Image: The Northern Echo)

As football changed through the 1990s, so did Sunderland’s fortunes. Promotions in 1990 and 1996 were followed by rapid relegations, but by 1999, Sunderland were romping to the Division One title with a record points tally. This was the Peter Reid team of Kevin Phillips, Niall Quinn, Nicky Summerbee, Allan Johnston and Kevin Ball, a side Murray still regards as the best of his Sunderland tenure.

“That was the team,” he said. “When we lost to Charlton in the play-off final, I said, ‘Right, no one is leaving here, we’re keeping this team together and we’re going to put this right’. So, my happiest season was the one when we got 105 points. I felt like I was in charge of Man United – wherever we went, it was just a question of how many we were going to score. We had Niall and Kevin, and then we still had Michael Bridges on the bench. I know it wasn’t the Premier League, but that was some team.”

Having won promotion, Reid’s side, celebrated in the pioneering ‘Premier Passions’ documentary that Murray helped facilitate, swept all before it in the Premier League. Briefly, they topped the table, spearheaded by Phillips, a player Murray will always regard as his best buy.

“Kevin was Peter’s best buy, really,” he said. “I never signed the players – I just signed the cheques. To have the Golden Boot of Europe running around in red-and-white stripes was incredible, and we managed to keep him happy here despite the work of his agents. People don’t realise just how hard agents can make things. We’d be playing Spurs away, and you’d pick up the Daily Mirror and it would be, ‘Phillips going to Tottenham’. You’d just think, ‘Here we go again’.”

It was a transformed era, with football now a multi-million pound entertainment business where players and agents called the shots rather than managers and chairmen. Speaking to Murray, it is clear there are times when he allowed his heart to rule his head, not always with the desired results. The second half of Reid’s reign is one such period, when a succession of highly-paid mercenaries were ushered into the Stadium of Light, wrecking the bond that had been built and turning Murray off both football in general and the club he was responsible for.

“I couldn’t get my head around it,” he said. “(Tore Andre) Flo, (Carston) Fredgaard, (Nicolas) Medina, (Milton) Nunez – we paid millions for them, and they were either not good enough or they didn’t want to be here. Fredgaard came from (Paul) Stretford (the agent), Nunez came from God know’s where. To this day, I’m not even sure we got the right guy.

The Northern Echo: Sir Bob Murray at the Stadium of LightSir Bob Murray at the Stadium of Light (Image: The Northern Echo)

“It was a mess. The team was going backwards, money was seeping out of the club and the fans were against me. Planes were flying banners over my house and I had to get a police escort off the A19. I know the fans were only doing it because they cared, but it was tough. I’d had enough, and I had to get out. It took me more than a year because I knew I had to find the right buyer. I had conversations in America, but eventually Niall came forward.”

Murray sold to Quinn’s Drumaville consortium, and is adamant things might have gone smoothly had the global financial crash not forced another change of ownership. Murray has no time at all for Ellis Short – “the American” – or Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven – “the chancers” – but has established a strong relationship with current owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus.

“Kyril gets it,” he said. “He gets the club, he gets the fans and he gets the fact that as chairman, you’re only ever a custodian looking after something that means everything to so many people. He’s doing so many things right – I really think there are good times ahead.”

And with that, he returns to being the same wide-eyed eight-year-old that first watched Sunderland play Wolves at Roker Park. Ups and downs, trials and tribulations. But you get the sense he’s not lying when he says he’d do it all again.

* ‘I’d Do It All Again’ is available now from, priced £20.