Just 32-years-old, Margaret Byrne has risen up the ranks of English Premier League side Sunderland to become their chief executive. Byrne has also been voted onto the Council of the Football Association by her peers as a Premier League representative, making her the first woman on the council, and she also sits on the Premier League Advisory Board. She talks to TIME about the always hectic transfer window and Sunderland’s outreach into Africa.
How does a relatively young former solicitor from Northern Ireland get to be the CEO of an English Premier League side such as Sunderland?
I applied for the position of club secretary and in-house lawyer in 2007. At that time, the club was owned by the Irish consortium Drumaville. Roy Keane was manager and Niall Quinn was the chairman of the club. After quite a scrutinous interview process, I was given the position. From there, I worked my way up through the club. I was appointed as company secretary a few months after joining and then became legal director in December 2009 and from that stage, I had a hands on role in player transfers. I was appointed chief executive in 2011. It’s been a very fast learning curve.
Was the Irish connection what attracted you to applying to work for Sunderland?
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t! There was a bit of buzz around Sunderland at home with Roy Keane being appointed manager and the owners being Irish, so it definitely attracted me and I thought I may have a bit of an advantage with my Irish accent.
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What was your interest in football growing up? I’ve read that you used to play in your grandmother’s garden?
I’ve always been interested in all kinds of sport and we had football tournaments in our garden at home. I’ve got such a large family, I’ve got 60 first cousins, so there was never any trouble getting a team together! We also used to travel over to Leicester quite a bit to see games because my aunt lives in Leicester and we used to go to the old Filbert Street ground.
Was that when Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill was managing Leicester?
Yes, he was and the player Neil Lennon was there and he’s from the same county as me. So it’s quite ironic how things turned out!
How important is your relationship with current manager Martin O’Neill?
I’ve always got on well with all the managers. I’ve worked with Roy Keane and Ricky Sbragia and Steve Bruce. I think it’s important that any executive realizes that the manager is the football expert and I’m here to facilitate the player transfers and try and get in the players he wants and move on the players that aren’t part of his plans. I have a very good and open and transparent relationship with Martin. It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty straight forward: he identifies players, I speak with their owner, and then we facilitate the deals.
Let’s talk about the transfer window: How does your role differ during the two periods of the year in which the window is open?
August and January are the two busiest months of the year. It’s just really one phone call because you can’t really plan anything. One phone call can change your day’s plans, let alone your week’s plans. That one call could be a ridiculously good offer for one of your players so you have to be working that deal out while planning to bring somebody in to replace him. Obviously the negotiations of bringing players in can be quite long and protracted. It’s a bizarre time of the year and I think everyone who works in the game has a certain sigh of relief on the 1st of February when we have a few months to breathe before it all starts again.
And what are your thoughts on the transfer window? Should we scrap the January one? Keep it open all year long?
I can see both sides to the argument. From one perspective, we would never want to disadvantage football in England with other parts of Europe. To shut the window here would disadvantage us against the French, Italian and Spanish leagues. I’m in favor of having both transfer windows. I don’t think it would work having it open all year, there would be no stability at all. But having it open in January certainly gives teams who are struggling or are pushing on for European positions a bit of a chance.
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Has anyone ever made it feel like you are a token member in the boys club of soccer execs?
Maybe I’ve been lucky but I’ve never felt like that at all. I’m quite outspoken and I think the fact that maybe, first and foremost, I’m a qualified lawyer, that always stands by you.
Is it fair to say that you don’t just see Sunderland’s home ground, the Stadium of Light, as a place to play football but as a location to host some major non-sporting events?
Yes, we’ve grown in terms of the stadium. We have to do that. Because we’re not playing in Europe, we have to look at other avenues, and holding concerts at the Stadium of Light is a very important part of our business. Having Rhianna and Bon Jovi playing this summer is massive, not just for the football club but also for the community and the whole city.
What is the thinking behind the club’s increasing outreach in Africa with Invest in Africa as the shirt sponsor?
We’ve always had quite a bit of synergy with Africa, and even when we’ve had African players (John Mensah, Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari) and we met with a club from Ghana, Asante Kotoko, and we formed a partnership with them. And the passion of the African people towards the Premier League and our club has been great. So when we were given the opportunity to promote the campaign, Invest in Africa, it was a great privilege and certainly catapulted Sunderland Football Club into the whole continent.
(MORE: Find out more about Sunderland’s work in Africa at www.safc.com)
Any plans for a pre-season tour of the U.S.? Soccer seems to be making pretty good progress in America.
Yes, I think it’s making an awful lot of progress, certainly with transfers. Last summer, Tim Cahill went to America and big stars of the Premier League are moving over. There’s now rumors about Frank Lampard going over to play in the MLS so it’s definitely making massive strides.
From our perspective, we’ve been invited to play in the Hong Kong Barclays tournament so that will be our main trip this summer. We’ll be over there with Manchester City and Tottenham and a local team playing there as well. But we definitely have plans to go to America and spread the word of Sunderland.