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A league of her own

By Steven Beacom

There are many within football who will tell you it remains a man's game. Not at Sunderland, though, where a woman from Northern Ireland has become one of the most important and prominent figures at the club.

Margaret Byrne, a 33-year-old from the small Co Armagh village of Dromintee, is the chief executive at the Stadium of Light.

Her appointment to such a high-profile role in July 2011 may have been considered a surprise to many supporters at the time, but she displayed confidence and strong leadership from the start of her new job, and is now rated a highly influential administrator, not just at Sunderland, but across boardrooms in the Premier League.

English football at the highest level is ruthless off the pitch as well as on it and, as the recent text scandal involving former Cardiff City boss Malky Mackay showed, some of the attitudes can be from the dark ages, with sexism still prevailing.

Byrne, however, is standing tall and like football's female trailblazer Karren Brady (managing director of Birmingham City by the age of 23) before her, has shown that an astute and clever woman is just as capable as any man in operating successfully in what is such an unforgiving arena.

Make no mistake about it, Margaret Byrne's abilities have been tested and she has managed to come out the other side better and more experienced for it.

This is a woman who, in recent years, has worked with temperamental managers, such as Roy Keane and Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland.

She has experienced turbulent times, not least when Italian Di Canio was accused of being a fascist while the boss of the club located in the north east of England.

Then, for a large part of last season, there was the crippling fear of relegation. Going down to the Championship is the nightmare scenario for all Premier League sides due to the heavy financial losses that are sustained.

With Uruguayan Gus Poyet brought in to replace the controversial Di Canio 10 months ago, the Black Cats avoided relegation and are now looking forward to a bright future.

The Ulster woman is determined to steer the Sunderland ship into calmer waters where the club can consistently compete at the higher end of the division and in time challenge for a place in Europe.

It may seem a pipedream, but Sunderland fans only have to delve into the back story of their chief executive to realise that anything is possible.

Margaret grew up in a bungalow in Dromintee just outside Newry. She recalls a happy childhood, playing football with relatives and enjoying family holidays in a "borrowed caravan in Donegal".

Tragedy struck in 1994, however, when she was just 14, when her mum Sally died of a brain tumour, leaving dad Joe to raise Margaret, her sisters, Anne Marie and Becky, and her brother Malachy.

It was a desperately tough period for the family, but in Margaret's own words from a recent interview, "it created a special bond between us, which exists to this day".

She talks with warmth about playing "football tournaments in our garden at home" and having "60 first cousins, so there was never any trouble getting a team together".

The Byrnes also had an aunt living in Leicester, which meant trips over to the East Midlands city, where they would often watch the local side play at the old Filbert Street ground.

Former Northern Ireland skipper Martin O'Neill was the manager of Leicester then. Little did Margaret know that one day the pair of them would join forces together on Wearside, when Martin became boss of Sunderland, who he supported as boy.

A keen student, Byrne became interested in law and studied in Belfast before moving to the bright lights of London, having gaining a place at the prestigious BBP Law School.

She said: "There was this massive difference in culture I was trying to get my head around. London felt like such a big city and I was a country girl."

Margaret had been intent on returning home to Northern Ireland after qualifying as a solicitor, but a contract offer from top London solicitors' firm Galbraith Branley changed that as she worked on criminal cases and family law.

Gaining respect for her work, she seemed set for a life in the legal profession. But her career path changed early in 2007 though when she decided to apply for the post of Sunderland's club secretary.

At the time the team was owned by an Irish consortium, former Republic striker Niall Quinn was the chairman and Cork native Keane was the manager. The woman from north of the border secured the job and got to work on restructuring the club's in-house legal team.

She also proved adept at becoming involved in transfers.

She was soon impressing all the right people – even though she admitted that the job was like entering a different world.

Three years ago, with American Ellis Short having taken ownership of the club, Byrne, aged just 31, was promoted from her role as legal director and company secretary to chief executive in a boardroom shake-up.

Chairman Quinn, writing on the club's website, said that Byrne had been a "true driving force" in the previous four years, adding: "The fact that the club has gone from strength to strength, on and off the pitch in that period, is no coincidence."

It's evident that her work before football, which would take her to police cells in the middle of the night, has helped her survive and thrive in the beautiful – and often ugly – game.

"I saw lots of things in north London police stations that keep things in perspective," she said. "I'm a trained solicitor and have gone round in the middle of the night representing people in north London. You don't get much tougher training as a younger person than that."

Since being appointed Sunderland's chief executive, it seems like everyone in football has wanted a piece of our Margaret, who speaks with a clear, analytical mind.

She is a member of the Premier League Legal Advisory Group (LAG), the Professional Football Negotiating and Consultation Committee (PFNCC) and the Football Regulatory Authority (FRA). She has also been appointed to the FA's International Committee.

Effectively, she helps decide the major policies of the governing body of English football – some going for the woman from Dromintee, who has fallen for the city of Sunderland, as well as the club.

Her work ethic is strong. She never stops. Even on days off she will always take that call. "In this business, you never know when you might get a call that could transform the team," she says. "It definitely isn't a job you can leave behind in the office.

"I enjoy it, although it's hard work. It might come across as glitzy and glamorous, but, by God, it's not. You're in here until nine or 10 o'clock at night and you're constantly on the phone.

"The hardest thing is that you can't control the results on the pitch. You might have had a cracking week, but then you sit there and someone makes a mistake and everything changes."

If the players start to perform to the consistent high levels of their chief executive, you get the feeling mistakes will decrease and the team will go from strength to strength in the years to come.

Margaret Byrne, the first lady of Sunderland Football Club, is without question a force to be reckoned with.

A life so far...

  • Name: Margaret Byrne
  • Born: Dromintee, Co Armagh, 1981
  • Position: Chief executive, Sunderland Football Club
  • She says: “We want to be in Europe, that’s where we want to be and that’s where we should be. We want to be as successful as possible.”
  • They say: “Margaret has enormous passion for our football club and, as its CEO, she will continue with the fantastic work that has gone before and will play a key role as the club continues to grow.” — then Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn in July 2011, when Byrne was appointed chief executive.

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