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Sir Bob Murray: A Tribute

In a week where the Academy of Light is set to be upgraded in its stature, a former club stalwart deserves higher praise from Sunderland fans.

As news filtered through late last week that the Academy of Light looked likely to be awarded Category One status, I was moved to think about the man who was largely responsible for its existence in the first place.

Sir Bob Murray, who took up the club's chairmanship in 1986, still divides opinion on Wearside to this day. An accountant by trade, then a kitchen magnate, Murray arrived at Roker Park in place of the outgoing Sir Tom Cowie, and immediately resided over disaster; for the first (and only) time in their history, Sunderland were relegated to the third tier of English football.

Over Murray's subsequent twenty years at the helm, four more demotions would come the club's way. Opportunities were missed. Embarrassments were had. Investments were either not forthcoming, or came too late. In no way, none whatsoever, could his two decades in charge be described as anything even approaching perfect.

And yet, it struck me that, in both the Academy of Light and the Stadium of Light, Murray's flaws may well be offset by the legacy he has left. As last week's news reflected, Sunderland now possess two facilities that can truly be lauded as world-class.

The Stadium, built in 1997 for the paltry sum of £24m - by contrast, the new Wembley, even given its grander size and more affluent land costs, saw the FA billed a staggering £757m - currently stands as England's fourth largest club football venue. Even the expansion of the ground's North Stand, in the year 2000, saw the facility's cost rise to only £40m.

Not just an arena for sport, having attracted sell-out crowds to music gigs in each of the last three years (and expected to do so again this coming summer), the Stadium of Light is a world away from the crumbling, ageing Roker Park that Murray inherited back in the eighties.

Similarly, the Academy of Light is as far removed as possible from the club's former training ground, the Charlie Hurley Centre. In truth, the only thing grand about Sunderland's former abode was its name; to most eyes, it was simply a field in Whitburn.

With the opening of the long-coveted indoor training barn in December, along with a further outdoor pitch, the Academy is now rightly being recognised as one of the best in the country. Perhaps more importantly, with regards to youth recruitment, it is expected that Newcastle United's own facilities will be granted only Category Two status - something which could prove to be of great significance.

In erecting these two structures, Murray has produced untold benefit for the club he used to own. The very foundations of the club are now firmly in place and, in a region where outsiders sometimes struggle to pick out redeeming features, they act as an undoubted draw for both rising youngsters and potential first team stars alike.

Of course, the critique of Bob Murray is not that he was a poor businessman. In fact, it is rather that he was perhaps too much of a businessman to run a football club.

Arguments about the number of relegations he resided over may perhaps seem valid at first, but I feel qualification is needed. The terrible 1986/87 season was one which even the most hardened Murray critic would struggle to blame upon the former chairman. With the rot having firmly set in, and Lawrie McMenemy an outstanding failure as manager, Murray could do little to avoid arguably the club's greatest embarrassment.

The four other relegations, especially the 19 and 15 point seasons, were scarcely enjoyable, but are easier to understand in context. In 1991, the club lost out on the final day of the season. The same occurred again six years later. A common refrain was that neither of those two sides scored enough goals, yet, were it not for injuries to Marco Gabbiadini and Niall Quinn, who is to say that the the club would not have survived? 'Ifs' are, of course, hardly the way to a successful argument, but I struggle to associate blame for injuries to star strikers with the club's chairman.

2003 and 2006 were different beasts. The ignominy of the latter was crushing in its inevitability - many could see the gig was up even before Christmas - but it is surely the former that most find angering.

A squad laden with stars, Thomas Sorensen and Kevin Phillips to name just two, ambled their way to a paltry four league wins all season. Peter Reid was backed in the summer; sacked in October. Howard Wilkinson arrived and, well, the rest is rather indelible history.

Herein lies that most common criticism of Murray - his inability to invest when the time was right. Arguments about his own personal wealth aside (though critics would do well to lower their own expectations of the depth of the former chairman's pockets), this timing argument is one which I feel has been overplayed.

Commonly it is said that Murray failed to provide Peter Reid with sufficient backing after the club had managed two seventh placed finishes. Yet, a look at the balance sheet suggests otherwise.

It was not Murray, for example, who decided to throw away money on the likes of Carsten Fredgaard and Milton Nunez. Nor was he responsible for the £3.5m fee that Nicolas Medina commanded, nor the hefty cumulative outlay on other Reid flops such as Lillian Laslandes and Bernt Haas. Peter Reid did many good things on Wearside, but his fallout with Nicky Summerbee and Chris Makin was a blow from which his side never recovered. None of these actions can be blamed upon Murray.

In 1996, Murray provided funds that resulted in the club record buy of Niall Quinn. Quinn's subsequent knee injury promptly derailed the Black Cats' season. Yet, the chairman, for all his perceived faults, had backed his manager.

Unfortunately, the worst example of missing the boat is perhaps the 1991 relegation season. Under Denis Smith, Sunderland had a manager who looked capable of steering the club confidently into the Premier League. Caution on Murray's part, allied to the aforementioned injury to Gabbiadini, saw a huge opportunity sail by.

For all the hardship, the club now finds itself on more solid footing than since the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the greatest credit owed to Murray is his refusal to let the club drift into the hands of anyone. With Sunderland in turmoil in 2006, Murray ensured his possession passed into the capable and loving hands of Quinn and Drumaville. His refusal to bite their hands off, too, should not go unnoticed.

In no way am I advocating hero worship of the former chairman, but the state he has left the club in is something that should be commended. Sunderland, a club whose "glory days" have long since past, possess now one of the best footballing setups in Britain and, indeed, in Europe.

As stated, opportunities were missed, but, as shown by last week's news, the lasting legacy of Sir Bob Murray on Wearside is a positive one. A man not sufficiently equipped to turn Sunderland's vast potential into reality, but a man who nevertheless gave it his all, and left two outstanding structures as his gift to his boyhood club.

In an era where the likes of Bradford City, Leeds United, and plenty more have all suffered horrifying falls from grace, having tried to bankroll their way to stability, Sunderland fans should be thankful for the work of their former chairman.

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