Sunderland Til I Die: A review


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‘Sunderland Til I Die’ is a Netflix series that is a fly on the wall style documentary of the Sunderland Football Club post their relegation from the English Premier League in the 2016-2017 season, made by Fulwell 73, a company based in London.

Background

David Moyes, former Everton and United boss replaced Sam Allardyce as Sunderland manger in July 2016, as Allardyce was called up to manage the English National team. Although a lot of people were skeptical of this appointment, the Sunderland faithful were optimistic:

Unfortunately, under David Moyes, Sunderland ended their top flight stint in the 2016-2017 season, after enjoying a ten year spell that started when Roy Keane’s Sunderland were promoted as winners of the Championship in 2006.

A successive relegation is followed under manager Chris Coleman in the Championship 2017-2018 season, as Sunderland fall into the third tier of English football, for only the second time in their history.

Review

‘Sunderland Til I Die’ is a 14 episode walkthrough of Sunderland’s successive relegation, despite what seem like the best efforts from the management, the coaching staff and the players to stay afloat. The documentary covers two seasons that are described as traumatic by the narrator, for those involved with Sunderland, however it is far from being a pity party. Every setback is taken in stride and people move on to the next challenge. There are more minutes in every episode that focus on the positives in each campaign, even if that means fans are clutching on to the last straw of hope.

The first episode gives you a few glimpses of the first team resuming their training sessions before their first match in the Championship – the likes of John O’Shea, Paddy McNair, Darron Gibson, Lee Cattermole, Jack Rodwell, Duncan Watmore, Wahbi Khazri and Lamine Kone to name a few. If you have seen these players play in the Premier League, you’d think this is a decent squad that could bring Sunderland back to the Premier league under the guidance of newly appointed manager Simon Grayson. Strikers Jermain Defoe and Victor Anichebe, keepers Jordan Pickford (sold to Everton) and Vito Mannone (moved to Reading) and Sebastian Larsson (joined Hull City) are notable misses from the previous season. Unfortunately, injuries and lack of new signings bog the Sunderland team down in the Championship. In the second season, the team is largely different, with new signings and academy players featuring in the first team as more players leave the club.

Each episode of ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ starts out with a beautiful song titled ‘Shipyards’ by the Lake Poets that embodies the Sunderland spirit and makes the ‘skip intro’ button on Netflix unnecessary for once.

A lot of anticipation is built leading up to the important matches that feature in the documentary, often narrated through season ticket holders, Sunderland staff and sometimes the players themselves. The story of the club is told in a non patronizing manner and appears to be told on an as-is-what-is basis.

The matches that feature in this documentary are often thrilling, shot well and will keep you on the edge of your seats. There were times I felt a need to verify the the scores of a few matches because some comebacks or heartbreaks for the Sunderland team seemed too good to be real – it all checked out though. Despite dismal footballing performances by Sunderland on the football field, the series manages to keep you interested throughout. Just the right amount of excitement is built before important matches, with music and conversations with the supporters, which is a regular feature throughout the documentary. Everything but dressing room discussions and strategy talks, all find a feature in the documentary which is a treat if you are a football fan.

The documentary does not discuss the footballing tactics or half time talks of the multiple managers that came and went through in the two seasons. What it does instead is that it tells you about the people of Sunderland, their struggle, their love for football, all in their own words. One could rightfully complain that this documentary does not tell you how the craze for football started in Sunderland and how it became a major footballing town – given that the focus is on how the football club is central to the folk of Sunderland. But perhaps that isn’t an interesting story? I’d like to give the film makers the benefit of the doubt.

The result of terrific storytelling is that in a few episodes you are emotionally invested in this football club from the north east of England, that you perhaps have never seen playing before.

Conclusion

Why should you be interested in the affairs of an average football club which you otherwise have never seen playing? The documentary is thoroughly entertaining and it also delivers an important message that is relevant to the sporting world in general:

The take away from ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ is that intent can be immaterial in football.

Everyone, especially the supporters that feature in the documentary are constantly trying to figure out how things could be improved but the fact of the matter is that except for the lack of money to buy players each of the manager needed for the team, there seemed little that was wrong with the club. That is the difference between intentions and results – more often than not, money is the answer to problems in modern football. Leicester City is an exception, Sunderland is the norm.

‘Sunderland Til I Die’ isn’t the best sports documentary – but it is not far from the top.


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Mihir Narvilkar

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