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On This Day (10 June 1991): Bob Murray and Sunderland AFC defend themselves in the high court

On this day 30 years ago, Bob Murray and Sunderland AFC had to defend themselves in the high court in a case that had hung over the club for four years.

Photo by Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images

On this day 30 years ago, Sunderland AFC were taken to the High Court in London.

A group of rebel Sunderland shareholders mounted a legal challenge against Bob Murray and the club itself in the High Court. It was a shadow that had hung over the club for four years and had hindered the club off the field matching the progress that Denis Smith was making against all odds on the field.

The group, led by former director Barry Batey, who was voted off the Sunderland board in 1987 for opposing Murray’s plans, alleges a share deal in 1984 between Murray and then chairman Tom Cowie infringed the Articles of Association. They also alleged the club’s rules were broken by general manager Geoff Davidson, former managing director Lawrie McMenemy, former director Gordon Hodgson and three Leeds solicitors.

They sought rectification of the registration of members of the company on the basis that ten transfers of shares by several of the defendants in favour of others between July 1984 and February 1987 and which were registered by the company, were invalid.

David Gillliband QC, for the plaintiffs, said they sought the transfer to be set aside and the position returned to what it would have been and claim that the share deals are void and therefore mean that Murray isn’t legally a director of the club.

The case, which could have lasted up to last two weeks, had the potential for far-reaching implications. Chairman Bob Murray, manager Denis Smith and star striker Marco Gabbiadini’s futures all potentially hinged on the outcome.

But in less than 48 hours of the case kicking off in court, it collapsed in spectacular fashion, leaving a much relieved Bob Murray fully vindicated in his position as chairman of the club.

As part of the settlement, one of the plaintiffs, Allan Martin, agreed to sell Murray 209 shares at £250 each which meant that he now controlled over the magical 50% mark with 53.6%.

The future of Denis Smith as manager was said to have been in doubt if the club had lost the court case
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The comprehensive ruling in favour of the club over former director and property developer Barry Batey went beyond Bob Murray’s expectations and he immediately pledged that manager Denis Smith would receive a “significant” sum of money to strengthen the squad.

The degree of success is so overwhelming that it leaves many options to explore with regards to the club’s future. Nobody can realise the amount of stress the club and myself have suffered by the accusations made against us. The court gave a judgement with regards to costs and estimated them to be within the region of £750,000. The club’s directors hope that these costs are repaid urgently.

Thoughts also turned to wasted time, energy and hundreds of thousands of pounds funnelled into defending the case rather than the club’s top-flight status as Michael Crystal QC who gave the case for the defence commented:

This litigation has been driven by Mr Batey for his own selfish desires and ends. There has never been any substance in these proceedings in law or in fact. It is unfortunate this litigation was not abandoned a year ago. The club suffered unnecessary damage, large sums of its money have had to be spent defending these baseless allegations. It is indeed sad the club’s supporters have been misled in this way.

Sunderland’s bank balance would be boosted by around £750,000 from the award of the costs of the case but the Roker Park chairman was also preparing to spend more than £1 million to meet the requirements of the Taylor Report.

And after Denis Smith had rejected a chance to return to his former club Stoke City as manager after Sunderland’s relegation from Division One, he was pleased the court case was over and was looking forward to the challenge of trying to get the club back to the top flight after not being in a position to do anything in the transfer market until the court case was resolved.

I don’t know how it affected us last season, we can only surmise. I would imagine things would have been different without the court case, but I can’t say things would have been different because I don’t know. It has always been there since I came to the club four years ago. It has constantly been at the back of people’s minds.

The easy way out for me would have been to go to Stoke City. I could have taken that easy option. The future looks a lot more optimistic. It’s a different ball game. There can’t be any excuses, we are clear to go ahead with our plans. We can’t can’t any longer say we are being held back.

After news of the settlement, Sunderland were quickly linked with Manchester City’s Adrian Heath, Derby County’s Nick Pickering, Dundee United’s former Red Star Belgrade and Yugoslavian international central defender Miodrag Krivokapic, Hearts forward John Colquhoun and Queens Park Rangers’ Northern Ireland international Alan McDonald.

Just another quiet few days in the off-season for Sunderland AFC.

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