Belfast Telegraph

Sunderland's Northern Ireland chief denies claims club knew Adam Johnson was guilty of child abuse but played him anyway

By Cate McCurry

Sunderland FC have strenuously denied claims the club knew of Adam Johnson's plans to plead guilty to child sex offences before his trial.

The Northern Ireland-born chief executive of the football club, Margaret Byrne, has faced heavy criticism for allowing Johnston - who was yesterday convicted of one count of sexual activity with a child - to continue playing football for almost a year despite claims he admitted to the club he was guilty.

Fans last week called for the Co Armagh woman to stand down from her role as chief executive after it emerged in court that the 28-year-old footballer had previously confessed to kissing and grooming a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

Supporters were openly calling for the 35-year-old, who comes from the small village of Dromintee, to resign over a decision to invite Johnson back onto the team after his initial suspension in March last year.

The footballer was then sacked after he pleaded guilty to grooming and engaging in sexual activity on the first day of his trial.

In a statement issued after the case, Sunderland FC said it "refuted" any suggestion the club knew all along that Johnson was intending to change his plea just before his trial so he could continue to play for them, and that the club may have been involved in tactical discussions about the plea.

The club said it was not advised in advance that Johnson would plead guilty to any offence. The winger was paid £60,000 a week.

Sunderland supporters said they want the truth following Johnston's claims he appeared 28 times for the club after he told them of his guilt.

Following yesterday's verdict, one football supporter said: "And now his former team can explain why, in the face of the knowledge they had about what happened, they continued to pay him and use him in matches."

Jurors at Bradford Crown Court found the former Sunderland FC winger guilty by a majority of 10-2 after Judge Jonathan Rose said he would accept a majority verdict.

The disgraced star was cleared by the jury on a second count after the trial, which lasted more than two weeks.

Johnson admitted grooming a 15-year-old girl and kissing her in his Range Rover, but denied two more serious charges of sexual activity with a child. He was found guilty of one of those charges.

The charges against him arose from a meeting between Johnson and the girl in his car in Co Durham on January 30 last year.

Judge Rose said a custodial sentence is "the almost inevitable outcome" but granted Johnson bail until his sentencing, to be held at a later date.

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