Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a behind-the scenes documentary series following the trials and tribulations of Sunderland AFC during the 2017/18 football season. The documentary starts off with an interesting premise; Sunderland have been relegated from the Premier League and now look to bounce straight back up at the first time of asking. I’m sure that’s the story they imagined they would be telling throughout the season rather than the tale of woe which followed.
This was almost the complete opposite of Manchester City’s Amazon Prime documentary series ‘All or Nothing’ in terms of the club’s success. This is not a series I have seen but there’s something more intriguing about Sunderland’s plight than Manchester City’s success. Manchester City had an unprecedented season where they performed above and beyond expectations but they were still expected to do well- Sunderland was more of an unknown quantity. Mix that with the rebuilding job of staff and players at Sunderland compared to mega-rich world class players of different nationalities getting disappointed by a 1-1 draw every now and again says to me that Sunderland’s season is more compelling.
Sure it can be a good insight into what a team of winners are like, how a club with a massive infrastructure is run, what makes the boss and the players tick to ensure everything is perfect but City’s dominance last season means there had to be a lack of drama overall. With Sunderland, it’s all drama. The only downside with Sunderland’s story is that the drama is too one-sided as a result of their season where there isn’t much chance of a story of ups and downs to be told.
It starts with the club preparing for life in The Championship where a change in how the club is run and funded has an impact on their plans for the upcoming season in terms of player recruitment and release. The staff suspect it will be a struggle but remain positive for the season ahead. It was interesting to get a glimpse of the work that goes into transfers, particularly on transfer deadline day, which made for compelling television even though I knew what deals went through and which ones didn’t. Throughout the season, the plans never really seem to work out with manager Simon Grayson being replaced by Chris Coleman and each change to turn Sunderland’s season around has little effect. Players and staff help each other to keep their spirits up throughout in a great show of camaraderie in contrast to the accusations from their own fans that they are playing as a group of individuals rather than a team.
It’s easy to lose sight of the playing and coaching staff as human beings while they are being treated as commodities by the club and seen as performers and entertainers by the fans. The players are there to perform and pick up a paycheque win or lose and the higher-ups are just there to make money off the club, so it would seem to the outsiders. Talks with Jonny Williams and Ashley Fletcher help to negate this viewpoint. Williams talks about his fear of misplacing a pass or mishitting a shot when he is on the pitch but also talks about his constant injuries. Ashley Fletcher, in a period of not scoring goals, is open about his desire to score goals and knows the fans are getting on his back about it. When players make a mistake or don’t score goals, you don’t think about the effect it has on their confidence whether they feel less confident in themselves or if the fans’ abuse makes them feel that way.
This is where the positives and negatives of fandom are exposed for player and fan alike. The series features talks with a number of fans who often talk about Sunderland being their life, how it is a part of the city and how if the team does badly, the whole mood is brought down. This is particularly poignant with the area suffering economically. These fans have a passion for football that can’t be explained to those who don’t get football but most people have an outlet they are passionate about- things that make them happy, angry, sad and the rest where you invest and expend emotional energy.
While it is commonplace for opposing players to be abused and the referee (if the fans feel he has made a bad decision or plethora of bad decisions), it is still a nasty habit of football matches for the dialogue to turn to personal attacks. Players accept abuse is part of it if they are on the opposing team even if they have done nothing to raise the ire of the fans which is the part I have never understood. Perhaps it is an intimidation factor but when people talk about kids picking up on things, like violence in video games, football grounds are definitely a place to pick up that behaviour. Not only are they surrounded by constant swearing but they are encouraged to swear at player simply because they are the opposition because they represent something different to them or opposed to them.
As for abuse towards your own players, paying money to see the team gives the fans a right to express if they don’t like what they see but it can boil over to turn passionate fans into hateful figures. They are angry because they care so much but that doesn’t make everything they do or say okay. A collective chant against the team or collective booing is more welcome than the verbal attacks on individual players or staff. This is most prevalent right after Sunderland are relegated when a lone fan confronts Chris Coleman and insults him, upset at him having not kept Sunderland up. Coleman, as a manager would be used to abuse, but this instance actually sets off Coleman into a furious reaction. Coleman and his players have to fight off accusations of not caring enough about the club but the behind the scenes chats show that to be untrue. There are some players who are conspicuous by their absence, a few of the main players from Sunderland’s Premier League years who were often cited as not caring, were not featured.
I would say this could be of interest to non-football fans if you’re a fan of dramas where the protagonists’ fate continues to get worse and worse episode by episode- it might even make you appreciate the ‘over-paid, arrogant sports stars not living in the real world.’ For football fans, even Middlesbrough and Newcastle, I’d say it is a must watch for an insight into the day to day running of a football club. Having said that, the next stop for a series like this should feature a small club in a period of growth but where everybody does their own washing of clothes and their training ground isn’t always available because they to share it with a school- that’s the blue collar football club I want to see behind the scenes.