Sunderland FC’s chief executive has reportedly left the UK amid claims the club knew that £60,000-a-week winger Adam Johnson had kissed an underage girl but allowed him to play on for almost a year until he pleaded guilty in court.
Johnson, who is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of digitally penetrating the 15-year-old, told police in his first interview that he had kissed the teenager and also claimed he informed his club.
The former England winger, 28, was suspended for 16 days after his arrest in March last year, but then allowed to resume playing. He was only sacked after pleading guilty to a grooming offence at the start of his trial last month.
This meant that Johnson was able to earn more than £2.8m while playing for the club, which has been locked in a relegation battle both last and this season.
Sunderland’s chief executive, Margaret Byrne, and the manager, Sam Allardyce, have come under pressure to explain why he was allowed to keep playing.
Now Ms Byrne has gone to stay at a villa in Portugal, according to sources cited by The Guardian, which also reported that she had been expected to appear as a defence witness during Johnson’s trial but did not take the stand.
When asked by The Independent last week about Johnson’s claim that he had told the club he had kissed the girl, a spokeswoman said only: “He made a lot of claims.”
During a press conference on 5 March before the game against Southampton, Mr Allardyce was asked questions about Johnson’s conviction as Louise Wanless, the club’s media manager, told journalists to “move on”.