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Bob Murray, Legacy and The Failed Deuteronomy of North East Football

It is a decade since Bob Murray left Sunderland AFC. A divisive figure he perhaps remains, but history tends to repeal flaws and laud achievements. His legacy stands as ensuring Sunderland remained relevant into the 21st century, but not, James Henchard argues, because he built a stadium. Does he now merit a lasting tribute? Have a read and place your vote.

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

North East football went through some massive structural changes in the 1990s.

In Sunderland, a battle raged in the boardroom, and the club and its followers wrestled with a debate over their spiritual home while the team decayed on the pitch in front of them.

In Newcastle, one man tried to lead the people of the region in believing Geordie-ism was a new calling, and that a conversion to a black-and-white faith would deliver them to a promised land.

Certainly football in the region was defined by two men in the latter years of the 20th century - Sir Bob Murray at Sunderland and Sir John Hall at Newcastle; or at least that is how it appears two decades on. Of course such a statement wipes over the others who played a part – Sir Tom Cowie and Freddie Shepherd to name but two.

It is curious that neither Hall nor Murray have ever written their memoirs. It is perhaps as if they believe a final chapter of greatness remains within them to be written. If there is, it won’t be a footballing one. That day is over.

Sir Bob Murray turned 70 this summer. In truth, he has aged well and in recent photos he looks fresh, fuller of face and free from the shadow which casts across all Sunderland chairmen when in tenure.

There has been some debate of late on legacy. Sunderland fans, considering those great men and women who built their club, have supported a growing campaign to erect a statue to the great Charlie Hurley; and the debate has ignited a wider discussion.

The Stadium of Light, which Bob Murray built, though not entirely with his own fair hands, remains devoid of names for each of its stands. North, East, West and South remain the monikers and over the twenty years since they emerged, admittedly each has developed a ‘personality’ of sorts.

If they are not as colourful as the Roker, Fulwell, Clock and Main that preceded them, perhaps time will add layers to the continually emerging character. The boisterous South Westerners contrast agreeably with the genteel folk of the East, whilst those in the North mix with exotic visitors, as the West looks on. That sort of thing.

Sir John Hall was not born in Newcastle. He was raised in North Seaton, nearest town – Ashington. It is perhaps the reason why, ultimately, he did not fully understand football on the Tyne and on the Wear. So much so, that from the 1970s he held a season ticket for both Sunderland and Newcastle and that by the end of the millennium gone, he had spent years meddling with long-held, long-loved aspects of our heritage.

There are folk tales which tell of a time when Hall wanted to get involved at Sunderland. In the 1990s some wished he had. There was never a look-in for him though. There were others who had money, fame, vision or power who tried as well, but two men were too busy battling for infamy to let anyone else in - Cowie and Murray.

John Hall, the man who built the Metro Centre and the resulting mass consumerism which swamped the North East, had a flawed vision. He believed he could create a sporting club for the masses and destroy the institutions and culture that previous generations had built. He believed the hoards would queue up for it, just as they had when he opened his shopping mall.

Some did, some were blinded by the verse and believed the North East would become one, united under a Geordie umbrella with a single footballing institution at the heart of it. Some still cling to it, a quarter of a century after its original failure, unable to accept their place as mortal beings who are just like the rest of us after all.

Despite his achievements, short-lived success on Tyneside and careful portrayal of himself as the archetypal miner’s son, John Hall simply did not understand the north east. He ripped up things he took a fancy to, and trampled over cultural and community institutions in his pursuit of a mythical Newcastle sporting club that no one wanted.

The Durham Wasps Ice Hockey team was stolen and never given back, and when he spent money on other sports, in his pursuit of building the ‘Barcelona of the North’, Newcastle fans resented it. In the end, following a health scare, he named a stand after himself at the half-built St James Park he had created and he gave up.

The failure of the experiment was inevitable. The fact that Sunderland AFC suffered because of it, yet emerged into the light, is testament to the people who stuck true to their club and the man who led it.

Because, during John Hall’s dream-period, over to the east there stood a football club which was a threat to his pursuit of greatness. The Rokerites were folk he thought eventually might one day come to his glorious Geordie-tropilis, and the existence of a rival football club, within 12 miles of Gallowgate, was an irritation just because it was there.

So, he badgered his way to making life hard for them. He meddled in matters relating to their proposed stadium move to the edge of Washington. He told the people next door to Tyneside, in County Durham – the traditional heartland of Sunderland support, that they could become honourable Geordies if they wanted, and join him in the creation of a sporting dynasty that would rival Ancient Greece. And some of them went.

Meanwhile, over on Wearside, Bob Murray was pootling away, pretending the wider world didn’t exist as he thriftily thwarted repeated assaults on his tenure from agitated supporters.

There are three broad stages to Murray’s saga at Sunderland. There are the early years, in which he wrested control from Tom Cowie with the club languishing and saved the day - for a couple of days anyway; there is the middle phase of the decaying Roker Park era during which everything was pretty darn miserable; and there is the final leap as he strode his club into the Light and in to the stadium named thereof.

That history is best summed up by Sunderland fans and observers at the time:

In the match day programme of February 1989, George Taylor, who had a long association with the club as a journalist and radio and TV presenter, looked forward to the future under Bob Murray:

"Under the present set up, with the chairman’s enthusiasm and commitment we hope it may not be too long before the really good times are back…there’s a gut feeling among many of us that it really will soon take shape."

By 1995 things had turned very sour, as one letter, from a John Furness, to fanzine A Love Supreme testified:

"The situation at Roker is pathetic. A lot of the blame must be apportioned to Mr. R Murray – no ground, no future, no money, no optimism for the future.

Apparently he used to be a real supporter, ‘cos I spoke to someone who years ago used to travel on the bus to the match with him from Consett."

Fast forward ten years to 2005, and the Wearmouth stadium was firmly established, as was an academy with facilities fit for the new century and an occasional foray into the Premier League. Fan Kevin Taylor was praising the "fabulous facilities – all credit to Bob Murray" in the letters pages of the Sunderland Echo; whilst this one was typical of many who were, and still are to this day, unable to lavish praise:

"I think it is totally wrong that Sunderland fans should forget all the misery caused by Bob Murray."

- fed-up of Fencehouses

Because, Sir Bob never got the football side completely right. If the club he oversaw got close for a short period under Peter Reid, the four relegations from the top flight and turgid long days in the second tier define his era as much as the infrastructure, stadium and training ground he helped create.

For his regime’s occasional flirtation with the top half of the Premier League, there is the red card protest in 1995 or the Notts County debacle of 1993, or the fifteen point season or the sheer inability to know when to invest to push Sunderland forward. Apart from Reid, Murray never got the appointment of managers right. Crosby, Butcher and Buxton are testament to that.

But, for me - Bob Murray’s great achievement, which places him in a position of worthy note in Sunderland’s history is not, in fact, the building of the Stadium of Light, but instead the continuation of a professional football club in Sunderland that managed to hold on to its place towards the head of the football pyramid, at a time when others sought to destroy it in their pursuit of a futile falsity on Tyneside.

Over to you, Have your say -  are the 'Murray Gates' sufficient as a tribute? Does Bob Murray deserve more recognition, a stand at the Stadium of Light named after him perhaps? Vote below and leave your comments.

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