Timing is everything in documentary film making and the team behind the new Netflix series Sunderland ‘Til I Die got theirs bang on. Part one of eight opens with Sunderland adapting to life in the Championship at the start of the 2017/18 season, following their relegation from English football’s lavish top table.
As ever the dog days of summer are optimistic ones for football fans. The realities of the previous campaign, which yielded just six league wins and a goal difference of negative 40, have no place here. Ahead of their final pre-season friendly one Sunderland fan boldly predicts The Black Cats will put Celtic to the sword. The Glaswegians it should be noted had been invincible the previous season completing a domestic treble.
Jump cut to Celtic hammering Sunderland 5 – 0, it's clear Simon Grayson the club’s new manager has a herculean task on his hands. It is explained that Ellis Short, Sunderland’s absentee American owner, has lost interest in the club and turned off the financial tap. This leaves Grayson and Chief Executive Martin Bain, a man who appears to have a sideline modelling men’s formal wear and Range Rovers, scrabbling around on transfer deadline day for loan signings. It will be these players, surplus to requirements at their parent clubs, who will spearhead Sunderland’s push for an instant return to the top flight.
As summer turns to autumn and the defeats start to mount up the wisdom of granting access to the film crew must have crossed Bain’s mind. It becomes apparent he will need to drastically revise the club’s targets.
Grayson, who it must be said cuts a pretty uninspiring figure in the moments we see him talking to the players, articulates this sense of impending doom. In the first couple of episodes, he twice describes the task of reviving Sunderland’s fortunes as comparable to turning around a giant tanker ‘like the Titanic’. History fans will remember how that one ended.
Indeed by the end of October Sunderland are sinking deep into the Championship relegation zone. At a fans-forum Grayson is forced to deny allegations that the players are not trying. It makes for painful viewing. A video that goes viral of midfielder Darron Gibson, clearly the worse for wear, outing some of his teammates for a lack of effort does little to help matters.
Following a shambolic 3 – 3 home draw with Bolton Simon Grayson, with a record of one win in 15, is sacked. Chris Coleman is unveiled as his successor in what appears a bit of a coup for the Wearsiders. Having guided Wales to an improbable semi-final berth at Euro 2016, Coleman’s stock is at an all-time high. Bain and the Sunderland fans are united in their certainty that Coleman is the man. Not just an immediate saviour, able to lead them away from the foot of the Championship, but someone who can build a legacy and return Sunderland to former glories. Coleman is shown meeting the club’s staff on his first day and has a friendly smile and encouraging word for all of them, from the cooks to the kit man. It is apparent that many of the Sunderland’s devoted employees are operating in a state of shock, scarred by relegation and the cull of 80 colleagues it necessitated.
The documentary edit makes Coleman’s impact feel incredibly instant. Wins against Burton and Fulham seem to occur in consecutive games rather than being punctuated by further losses. The latter victory, coming at the Stadium of Light, is the club’s first at home in exactly 12 months. Any sense of lingering sadness for Simon Grayson pales into insignificance compared to what Sunderland’s long-suffering, and incredibly passionate, fans have had to endure. One of whom, reminiscing on happier times, busily makes plans to have Peter Reid’s face tattooed to his arm. As if naming his son after Niall Quinn wasn’t enough.
Through interviews with fans, the documentary does an excellent job of showing what Sunderland AFC means to the city’s people, and how the fortunes of the club are so entwined with the community’s mental and economic wellbeing. The highly likeable Coleman is at pains to demonstrate he fully understands this and appears genuine in his conviction that he would have accepted the Sunderland job, regardless of their current league status, above any other offer.
This perhaps shields Coleman from the natives’ ire when after the initial new manager bounce results flat-line. In their eyes, the real villain of the piece is the spectral figure of Jack Rodwell. Or ‘70-grand a week Jack Rodwell’ as he should be known for the purposes of the documentary. We are told that when Rodwell signed for Sunderland from Manchester City in 2014, no clause was inserted in the contract to trigger a reduction in his wages should the club lose Premier League status. He would make just two appearances in the Championship for the club. Despite appearing as little more than an extra in the hours of footage we see, Rodwell is one of the documentaries most compelling plot lines. It culminates with a clearly exasperated Bain explaining that for the good of the club Rodwell has been asked to agree to a termination of his contract. There is a desperate need for funds to reinforce the playing squad, with Sunderland now firmly entrenched in yet another relegation dog fight. The camera catches Bain swearing before shutting himself away in his office at the end of January transfer deadline day. Rodwell will not acquiesce.
The extent to which the blame should sit with the club for signing Rodwell to such a deal in the first place is left for the viewer to consider. As is the culpability of the people advising Rodwell. At this point, just 25, his best years in the game are potentially ahead of him. He seems riddled with fear, will this be as good as it gets for him? Is his purgatory at Sunderland worth enduring as long as the money keeps rolling in? Presumably, it was similarly financially motivated advice that originally stymied his promising career when as a youngster he moved from Everton’s first team to Manchester City’s reserves.
The arrival of heavy snow brings some fleeting levity to the documentary. We see trainees peppering the senior pros with snowballs, and the endearing image of the whole first team squad plus management mucking in to clear the pitch. However as Martin Bain repeatedly reminds us, football is ‘a results business’ and for Sunderland it will be a bleak winter. Further loan signings make little impact and from the footage we see, across the entire season, it appears no Sunderland goalkeeper - there are three of them featured in the documentary – is able to make a single save.
The team embark upon a run of 10 games without a win. This prompts Aiden McGeady, one of Sunderland’s most high profile players to question Coleman’s methods straight down the camera. It’s moments like this that make Sunderland ‘Til I Die such a breath of fresh footballing air compared to the usual sanitised access we get to professional footballers. McGeady feels a sense of impunity has taken hold in the squad. Defeats don’t hurt enough and after a day or two people at the training ground are back to ‘having a laugh’. Chris Coleman is not the authoritarian taskmaster McGeady seemingly craves. Coleman’s methods, as he explains them, are about encouraging players, building them up rather than shouting them down. Perhaps though, both McGeady and Coleman miss the point. The malaise at Sunderland starts and ends in the board room with its owner in absentia, Ellis Short.
And so we arrive at the season’s denouement. Sunderland versus fellow strugglers Burton Albion at the Stadium of Light. Results elsewhere contrive to mean that only victory will spare Sunderland a second consecutive relegation. There will be no Hollywood ending or redemption for Sunderland and the club’s heartbroken fans. Instead just predictably familiar, crushing disappointment. Leading 1 – 0 with only five minutes to play, Sunderland concede twice snatching a 2 – 1 defeat from the jaws of victory. Ultimately both sides are condemned to English football’s third tier for the 2018/19 season.
Chris Coleman exits stage left, not before squaring up to an irate fan and sending a very earnest text message of thanks to one of the longstanding catering staff. Ellis Short finally makes a brief on-screen cameo in the last episode, refusing to answer any questions. The club is then sold and Bain also departs. The new owners - ushered in with little clarity of who they are and where their money comes from - promise to end the ‘piss-take party’ and get the club back to where it belongs. The supporters dutifully renew their season tickets against their better judgement. As it seems will we, given the incredible drama, a second season of the documentary is planned – Sunderland ‘Til It Kills Me?