Sunderland ‘Til I Die

Netflix 2018
December 17, 2018
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Those familiar with the American arm of All Or Nothing will have found the Manchester City series a crushing disappointment. The series has always placed the odd fig leaf and left certain aspects to its audience’s imagination, but rarely had it been airbrushed to such an extent.

It had its moments; the reveal of Pep Guardiola’s dressing-room persona was interesting enough and some of the interviews with the club’s internal staff were worth their place. Unfortunately, the advertising gloss and over-done rhetoric betrayed its true purpose: this was a behind-the-scenes gift to football fans, rather a twelve-hour pitch to those who haven’t yet discovered football and who might, in the future, be interested in buying a replica shirt or a very expensive International Champions Cup ticket.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die is everything All Or Nothing should have been. Recently released on Netflix, this eight-part series follows Sunderland during their doomed 2017-18 campaign. The tone of the subject matter lends itself to a more relatable offering, admittedly, but its superiority is really defined by its intentions – it doesn’t have an alterior motive other than tell a story.

What makes it compelling, though, is its honesty. There are certain aspects of club life, most notably Ellis Short’s ownership, which are kept off-camera, but there’s little attempt to add any gloss to Sunderland’s situation. Importantly, the supporters are a constant throughout. Whereas other series have limited themselves to the odd, twee interview, STID uses the local frustration as one of its key ingredients. It isn’t edited, either, nor does it shirk the grim economic and industrial circumstances which frame the club and instruct the native affection.

Some of the best scenes, actually, are shot amongst the fans. For all but very few, football is a week-to-week accumulation of misery and that’s more true in Sunderland than in most other places. Certainly, the anguished howls and visceral anger recorded outside grounds all over the country give the series its authenticity. There are none of the dressing-room confrontations found in Club For A Fiver, so anyone hoping for sweary slapstick will be disappointed, but the sense, as a viewer, is of watching an organisation mired in difficulty and a local population tortured by their club’s decline.

The very best fly on the wall documentaries invariably make you care for its subjects. STID achieves that, possibly explaining the decision to keep owner Short hidden from view. Beleaguered CEO Martin Bain, now departed, describes his job as “the toughest in football” and by the end of the series you’ll believe him. Jonny Williams comes across as an amiable character. It would take a hard heart not to respond to his injury problems or to warm to Josh Maja and George Honeymoon as they take their first steps into professional football.

There are less sympathetic figures, too. As you might expect, Jack Rodwell isn’t treated with much generosity and, whilst understandable, Lewis Grabban’s decision to abandon ship halfway through the season doesn’t cast him in a terribly flattering light either.

But that cast of characters and its range gives, presumably, a very true depiction of Football League life. It’s not a world of £60m transfers, endless budgets and monotone players, but an environment defined by a more human struggle. That’s what people want from this kind of programme. Not tinsel and PR, not even necessarily access to the team-talks and post-game fury, but a sense that a football club is a living, breathing entity.

A hearty well done to Sunderland ’Til I Die for proving just that; this is excellent.

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