Sunderland Til They Die
The compare and contrast is obvious. On the one hand, there’s All Or Nothing, Amazon’s peer behind the curtains at Manchester City. Opinion remains divided over whether it’s little more than a PR exercise masquerading as a documentary, but it did at least offer us a glimpse into a world that is more often not closed off from prying eyes. But then there’s Sunderland Til I Die, the new Netflix series that chanced upon that club’s relegation from the Championship at the end of last season. On the surface, this could have been considered a victory for Amazon. After all, they went behind the scenes with the Premier League champions, while Netflix ended up with the rights to a club plummeting down through the divisions. On an altogether more important level, though, this series is a triumph for its makers.
Sunderland Til I Die, to say the absolute least, could hardly be considered a PR exercise. The setting might have been a little more modest, but being in the right place at the right time can be everything to a documentary film-maker and there’s no question that Fulwell 73, the production company behind it, arrived at the Stadium of Light at an interesting point in the club’s story. Freshly relegated from the Premier League, with an absentee owner, a new manager and a lopsided group of players with varying degrees of work ethic and dedication to the cause, Sunderland are a mess before a ball is even kicked. This doesn’t prevent hubris levels rising to a crescendo prior to a final pre-season friendly against Celtic, a match which all concerned seem to consider a dress rehearsal for a triumphant return to the Premier League, with only Simon Grayson’s eyes – which already give the impression of having seen things – offering a hint of caution in an ocean of largely groundless hope and expectation.
What’s noticeable almost instantly, however, is not what separates Sunderland from Manchester City but what unites them. Sunderland is one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the country, but the players representing the football club both live and work in an environment of considerable comfort. The training ground is well-equipped, the club has its own chefs, the players all drive extremely expensive cars. There’s none of the chipboard and formica finish of the “clubs in crisis” documentaries of old, such as Club For A Fiver or That’s Football, on display here. Everything is restrained and tasteful. Everything is comfortable, for the club’s employees, and everyone seems well looked after. The feeling of the club being on the edge of a precipice is both dulled and heightened by it taking place against a backdrop resembling a well-appointed office complex as opposed to the set of Cathy Come Home.
By the end of October, Grayson is out of a job. He’s been on a hiding to nothing, told from the outset that there’s no money for new players, at one point sitting down with the scouts to be given a harsh lesson in the realities of the club’s predicament with regard to bringing players in. When his team fails to beat bottom of the table Bolton Wanderers on Halloween, he’s out of a job despite having only been in there for a couple of months. This whole sequence – long before the end of the match against Bolton Wanderers, a poisonous atmosphere has descended over the Stadium of Light – hints at just how ridiculous this hire ’em and fire ’em culture has become. Bain gets up from his seat in the stand with a face like thunder, and the next monent the camera cuts to a press conference announcing the inevitable.
Without the ability to freshen up his squad, saddled with players, some of whom he neither wants nor can afford, some of whom really don’t much want to be playing for the club but who are earning too much to be wanting to leave any time soon, Grayson is on a hiding to nothing from the very outset, but that doesn’t stop the way in which he’s being described as things start to impode starting to feel ridiculously, absurdly disproportionate. It feels at times as though there’s a chance that, at this particular time, the longer you spent around Sunderland AFC, the crazier you become.
Grayson’s replacement is Chris Coleman, whose nominal resemblance to the actor Ben Stiller is noticeably amplified by the Hollywood-esque way in which he breezes into the club. Still dining out off the back of Wales’ surprise success at Euro 2016, Coleman is presented almost as though he’s a new sheriff in town, drafted in to rid Dodge of all its varmints. The atmosphere isn’t exactly hysterical upon his arrival – perhaps the most pervading feeling to come from this entire series is that much of the hope had been beaten out of Sunderland before the cameras even arrived – but even so there’s a burden of expectation that’s placed upon his shoulders the minute he walks into his first press conference.
The players themselves are, of course, a mixed bunch. The first episode begins with the discomfort of a phone recording of Darron Gibson tearing into the squad after a few drinks at the start of the summer, and things don’t improve much from there. Lewis Grabban becomes the player with which the club’s best hope of Championship survival rests, but he’s only on loan from Bournemouth and is recalled at the start of the January transfer window, whilst James Vaughan is sold to Wigan, leaving an already floundering team without a recognised goalscorer. Jack Rodwell is appropriately pantomime-villainesque, sent off to train with the youth team because he won’t give up a plump Premier League contract (to which the club inexplicably failed to append a relegation release clause) whilst continuing to make platitudes about his presence there still being “all about the football.” At the other end of that spectrum is George Honeyman, an industrious young midfielder who cares deeply about the club. He’s now the Sunderland captain. Gibson, on the other hand, has his contract terminated after getting caught drink-driving, later in the season.
Probably most notable of all from the point of team selections is the revolving door of goalkeepers, which serves as a barometer for how badly things were going at the club in a general sense. The collapse in confidence of Jason Steele – who’s now the third choice goalkeeper at Brighton & Hove Albion – is particularly difficult to watch. When he leaves on loan for Derby County, he describes the move as “a chance to fall back in love with football.” This not-very-merry-go-round is entirely indicative of an apparently complete lack of strategy that seems to run right the way through the club. When transfer targets are decided, an infographic pops up showing the need for a goalkeeper, a defender, a winger and a striker, but it doesn’t feel as though a great deal more thought has been put into the matter than the positions in which these magic unicorns will play upon their arrival. Almost everyone is enthusiastic. It’s just… it doesn’t feel as though there’s anyone holding it all together.
How chief executive Martin Bain comes across as a result of it all is partly a result of one of the show’s more significant flaws. On the surface, he seems decent and agreeable enough (even if his introduction, swimming in the dark in the pool at the club’s training ground is… weird), but cameras are pointedly not allowed near anything too close to the knuckle. The sacking of Simon Grayson skips from the end of the Bolton match to the press conference announcing it. Negotiations to bring in new players are similarly ignored, and the malign presence of agents within the game is limited to a couple of chatty telephone calls. When Bain is called out by supporters and sponsors at two separate meetings, he has no answers, possibly because there aren’t any that he can give in public, possibly because he doesn’t have any. Regardless of this – and presuming that someone at the club must have had the intelligence to realise that the anger displayed at these meetings was an inevitable side-effect of the condition into which the club had slid – though, one can only wonder at the wisdom of holding them in the first place. Bain does require you to read between the lines, a little.
The production of the series isn’t quite perfect. The match against Bolton is captioned as being played on the “31st September”, a date which doesn’t even exist, and there are other hints of sloppiness, as well. Audio clips are repeated in a slightly glaring manner, whilst the sound of the crowd during matches has been tinkered with in such a way that it sounds unnatural, at times. Most noticeable of all, however, is the fact that little information as to why the team is doing so badly is divulged. They’re doing badly. That much we know for certain. The specifics of why this should be, however, are left tantalisingly out of reach. They’re not scoring enough goals. They have some terrible luck with injuries to key players. But other than that, someone with no knowledge of the game could be left wondering why the team is losing so consistently.
The strongest point of Sunderland Til I Die, meanwhile, is its representation of the fans. It’s easy to dismiss such phrases as “hotbed of soccer” as a thoraway phrase almost patronising in tone, but Sunderland Til I Die does an outstanding job of portraying a form of hysteria which descends over the club’s support base at the merest provocation. For some, it would appear, relegation from the Premier League had been a cathartic experience. The palate had been cleansed. Everything would now return to normal. But the ebullience prior to the Celtic match was a high that fell as sharply as it had risen as soon as it became clear that this Championship lark wasn’t going to be a breeze.
The rot was deeper than this, and on top of the structural issues, circumstances were such that Sunderland were a club unable to cope with the inevitable stresses of it all in any way whatsoever. Supporter rage – which arguably reaches a crescendo with the return of Lewis Grabban with his new loan club Aston Villa (he scores) – ultimately subsides to apathy after relegation is effectively confirmed. By this point, a morbid feel has overcome interviews with players, the coaching staff, and Chris Coleman himself. Voices are hushed, as though they’re attendees at their own funerals. The tone noticeably, and with more than a little assistance from the film-makers themselves visibly, darkens. Were this a Hollywood movie, a grizzled old veteran would step in and pull them clear with a few inspiring words. Sunderland, however, is a long way from Hollywood.
The story also ends with the departure of a lot of main characters. Coleman, who plays with a poker face throughout, is gone. Bain, who has been coordinating this uncoordination, is gone. A lot of the players are gone. But it’s the departure of the one character of whom we see nothing and learn nothing from this entire series, Ellis Short, which proves to finally get Sunderland’s engine turning again. Stewart Donald, the former Eastleigh owner, is an unlikely-looking saviour and rescuer, but following the end of the series his appointment of Jack Ross proves to be a true breath of fresh air.
Of course, we can discuss all of this because we know end of the story already. There are no spolier alerts required for this series. But that isn’t the point. The devil is in the detail. It’s in the tone in their voices, the bulging veins and shattered limbs, the sheer volume of pressure upon everybody concerned in a city in which football means more than we sometimes remember. But more than anything else, though, Sunderland Til I Die is a peek behind the curtains at the absurdity of it all. Because this is all ultimately about The Football. That thing that we go to on a Saturday afternoon or watch on the television. Sunderland Til I Die isn’t without its flaws and it doesn’t get as far behind the scenes as we might have wished, but it reveals enough as it proceeds to be a gripping watch nevertheless.