South Armagh Sunderland boss resigns following Adam Johnson scandal

March 14, 2016

Dromintee native, Margaret Byrne, has resigned as chief executive of Sunderland football club, conceding that she made “a serious error of judgment” in allowing footballer Adam Johnson to continue to play for the club after he had admitted kissing and grooming a 15-year-old girl.

Byrne, a qualified solicitor and former criminal lawyer, enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Premier League to become one of the most well connected and influential women in football. She joined Sunderland in a secretarial role in 2007 and was appointed Sunderland chief executive at the age of 31 in 2011, becoming one of the youngest ever chief executives in Premier League football.

The south Armagh woman’s fall from grace came last week, after she had faced days of pressure to explain why the midfielder was allowed to resume his playing career last year despite having privately admitted he had kissed and groomed an underage school girl.

Durham police confirmed after Johnson’s trial ended that they had told the chief executive on the day of the player’s arrest last March that he had admitted kissing and grooming the girl. The club had initially denied they had known Johnson would plead guilty to any of the four child sex offences he was facing.

But Byrne said in her statement last Tuesday that she had known following a meeting with the player and his legal team on May 4 last year that Johnson had admitted kissing and messaging the young Sunderland fan.  It is at this meeting that Byrne provided Johnson’s barrister, Orlando Pownall QC, with copies of Johnson’s police interview – in which he admitted kissing the girl – and the 834 WhatsApp messages exchanged between the pair. Johnson’s trial was told that the football club had no notes of the meeting, which was also attended by the footballer’s father.

Byrne’s statement admitted that,

“After this meeting, Mr Pownall sent me a note to forward to Mr Johnson which recorded, amongst other things, that Mr Johnson had kissed the victim and communicated with her.   I did not share this information with anybody including the board of Sunderland AFC.”

Sunderland lifted Johnson’s suspension on 18 March last year – 16 days after his arrest – and he was allowed to continue playing for the club until he was sacked, 24 hours after he pleaded guilty to two child sex offences on 10 February. The player had pocketed £3m in wages in the intervening period.

In her resignation statement, Byrne said she was “astounded” when Johnson pleaded guilty and that allowing him to play again was a “serious error of judgment.” She said she sincerely regretted “that this error has impacted on the victim, the club, its supporters and all those affected in such a devastating manner.”

“Mr Johnson’s victim has endured a terrible ordeal and for that I am truly sorry. At no time was the failure to suspend him again intended to cause any harm or distress to her or her family,” she added.

Johnson faces between five and 10 years in prison after being found guilty of sexual activity with a child and pleading guilty to two other counts. He was acquitted of one further charge.