Sunderland Till I Die: Wear and Tears as a struggling club goes OTT
The only constants in the life of a professional football club are the fans.
Managers and players come and go, so do executives and owners. While the economics of football means that, should those people fail, staff can be ephemeral too.
So it was at Sunderland during a dire season in 2017/18.
Freshly relegated from the Premier League with owner Ellis Short refusing to plough in any more funds and wanting to sell, they slipped straight down into the third tier of English football for only the second time in their history.
It was unfortunate (or fortunate maybe) that the cameras were there to capture every hand-wringing, agonising minute and Sunderland Till I Die was added to the growing list of fly-on-the-wall sports documentaries on OTT platforms, in this case, Netflix, at the end of 2018.
Given their situation of obvious difficulty, it was odd timing to shoot this at all but the enthusiasm may be explained by production company Fulwell 73, who have made their fair share of sports docs along with behind-the-scenes efforts on One Direction and Bros. The clue is in the name: the Fulwell Stand was one side of Roker Park while 1973 saw the Wearsiders famously shock Leeds at Wembley to win the FA Cup.
The producers had enviable access with chief exec Martin Bain and, in turn, managers Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman, taking centre stage with a supporting cast of players, staff and fans.
The fans oscillated between disappointment, anger and deep depression, with the odd spike of optimism when the team got a result. The “we are a big club” narrative was prominent, especially early on when hopes of an immediate return to the top flight were still alive. As was the “incredible loyalty” angle, as present in the title.
This is no ‘line’. Having lived in the north-east, football is simply much more important up there and the concept of a one-club city where everyone focuses on a single result each weekend is almost alien to someone brought up on the edge of London like me.
However, didn’t the match highlights of Sunderland’s home games, played out in a half-full stadium, somewhat undermine that sentiment?
This is not to decry the loyalty and passion of those who turned up, after all an average of 29,000 was fourth highest in the division during a dismal campaign. But it looked sparse in the 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light. And if you are watching this in South America, Asia or the US then surely you’ll wonder why this amazingly well-supported club with fans who follow them through thick and thin is not selling out. After all, a story of unending, results-no-issue loyalty is being told here.
That said, quite rightly, the fans are a foundation stone of this story. We see the passion of ‘ordinary people’, the cab drivers, family men, little old ladies and couples, as well as the effing and jeffing that unfortunately characterises the modern game. A camera op is roughed up at one game when Sunderland fans take umbrage at being filmed. Funnily enough, their team is losing. Coleman gets some personal abuse outside the ground after relegation is confirmed.
So, yes, we certainly know Sunderland support is passionate and meaningful but, crucially, we are never really told why.
This is a modern football documentary, not a social history, but Wearside’s industrial past, from coal and shipbuilding through to the Nissan plant and beyond, has helped shape the special significance of this club. In my experience, the people of the north-east show exceptional warmth amidst some of the toughest lives in the UK. Seeing their support in this context, and portrayed for a Netflix audience, would have added layers to the story. The only real nods towards this issue were a few sentences from a veteran cabbie and opening credits with the theme song, “Shipyards”.
In the end, I am glad I stuck with this series the whole way through after some wavering over its superficiality around in episode two or three. But at that point, it was only the access and the impending car crash of a season that kept my attention.
Sunderland’s plight last season handed the documentary makers a rare opportunity mine this rich seam.
Normally, in such circumstances, the club would batten down the hatches, pull down its blinds and offer “no comment at this time”. But Bain and Coleman etc kept talking. Off the pitch at least, the latter comes out of this so well that the cynic in me almost thinks his publicist was involved. Yet, having worked at football clubs, you tend to find out who really cares and who is merely working to maintain their own status.
Coleman did not have to send a personal, emotional text to the canteen lady after he was sacked. But he did. Bain, meanwhile, came across as a decent man doing his best in trying circumstances.
Despite all that, their 360-degree portrayal in Sunderland Till I Die may hamper their employment chances at the highest of the high levels. Football is a business where perception is critical. Coleman has since taken a job in China but he arrived on Wearside with his stock still elevated from record-breaking achievements with Wales.
The same could be said of players such as Ashley Fletcher, Jason Steele and Jonny Williams, who at times displayed that rarely-revealed sin of professional sport – vulnerability. However it was refreshing to see a certain fragility in these young men when bullshit and bravado, often unfounded, seem to prevail.
Ditto greed. Bain is shown pacing his office in exasperation after what we are led to believe is the call saying Jack Rodwell was refusing to leave in the transfer window and free up valuable revenue to invest in the team. Despite being uninvolved and unwanted, he sat on a reported £70,000-a-week contract, a legacy of the Premier League era, and signed for Blackburn in the summer. They are in a division above Sunderland right now.
The documentary did not duck the issue of Grayson’s sacking, Darron Gibson’s drunken rant about fellow players that was filmed by a fan, his drink driving offence later in the season nor top-scorer Lewis Grabban’s desperation to depart. Aiden McGeedy’s muted mumbling was the most critical the players got about Coleman and, despite that one flashpoint, the fans were still largely sympathetic towards the manager who takes them down.
The last episode saw Short clear debts in order to sell up. The new regime swept in then their new broom swept up. One early “cameras off” moment suggests they were not so open to the documentary evidence of the past 12 months. That said, the series is promoted heavily on the official website right now.
Given that Sunderland are now in the League One promotion hunt and heavily tipped to go up, the comparison favours them. They would argue that appointing a talented, eager manager in Jack Ross then giving the armband to 24-year-old academy product George Honeyman were key decisions made correctly.
That’s probably true and, for all we know, they could be the saviours of Sunderland. They say that their failure to “spend their way to promotion” while in charge at non-League Eastleigh has chastened them against anything but sustainable growth. And, therefore you hope that means the supporters will be at the centre of the club.
Still when in the final shots of Sunderland Till I Die we see the introduction of a new chairman and executive director - both Oxford United fans, one the multi-millionaire director of 17 companies and the other an old Etonian, PR specialist – they seemed so different from the supporters we come to know in the previous seven episodes.
This is not unusual of course. The average Manchester City supporter is nothing like Sheikh Mansour but they love what his ownership has done for their club.
Still it was just another turn on the carousel of press conferences at Sunderland last season, with a constantly changing cast of lead characters.
And, given the false promises and false dawns, those supporters who remain steadfast throughout must not be treated as “extras” in the tales to come.
Otherwise, in an age where footballing ties appear much more tenuous, the show will not go on – no matter the access, no matter the platform.