Football, they say, is game of two halves. In the case of Sunderland Association Football Club, it’s a game of two halves, hundreds of disappointments, several managers, multiple fights for survival and a handful of stunning goals. For a town that loves its local team like no other, it’s the very stuff of life. For everyone else, it makes for sublime television.
Sport is the next big arena for online video services, and while Amazon Prime Video hasn’t shied away from snapping up live streaming rights to tennis and the Premier League, Netflix has taken a different approach entirely and stuck to its box set guns. Following the gripping format established by its hugely successful Last Chance U series, Sunderland ‘Til I Die instead brings us behind the scenes of a famous sports team, giving us the action, drama and human interest both on and off the pitch.
It’s the same tactic used by Amazon’s All or Nothing, which profiled Manchester City earlier this year. Where that was hamstrung by its access, though, and stuck to surface-level positivity, Sunderland ‘Til I Die places the emphasis on that last word, digging into the day-to-day details of the team’s struggles, as thing go from bad to worse and then some.
We join the city in 2017 as it’s literally on its knees – in St. Mary’s Church, where citizens are praying for good fortunes and blessings, both on the team itself and on the town’s ability to handle whatever happens next. They’ve already had perhaps the biggest blow: relegation to the second tier of England football, after a decade in the Premier League. Manager Simon Grayson is up against it, with no money to spend on transfers but a big debt of expectations on his shoulders. A pre-season loss to Celtic sets the tone for what follows.
Grayson, sadly, doesn’t last long (he’s the shortest-serving manager in the club’s history) and is ultimately replaced by Chris Coleman – and the show’s success lies in the way that it captures the rolling emotional blows of such changes, shifts in power and employment that have become the norm at bigger clubs with cash to burn. Coleman’s arrival, with his natural charisma and upbeat optimism, is a wonderful tonic to the grim fortunes we’ve seen until then, and you can feel the warmth spread through the team offices and across the ranks of supporters. But even he isn’t immune to what one person dubs the “poison chalice” of SAFC: some of the most affecting, nail-biting scenes see those managing the club go face-to-face with the fans to admit that things either aren’t going well or, worse, they don’t have a plan to fix them.
The joy of dreams and the pain of reality is gorgeously captured by the series, which is both stirring and heartbreaking often in the same 45-minute episode – every 90 minutes, you’re guaranteed to have grinned and winced at least twice. Crucially, and as the title suggests, the focus isn’t just on the players (from Darren Gibson’s drunken outbursts to idealistic goalkeeper Jason Steele), but on the supporters to: the series manages to portray Sunderland AFC as part of a wider working-class community, not as a detached money-making machine.
It’s that which puts this football docuseries far above the rest of the table. While astute choice of subject matter is one thing (this is far meatier stuff than Netflix’s First Team: Juventus documentary), presentation is another, and Sunderland ‘Til I Die is superbly put together. The matchday footage is brilliant edited, jumping to a camera in the corner of the net just before a timely header, or stripping down games to the crucial goals to keep up the pace. Desaturated, slow-motion replays are present, but so are sweeping aerial shots of stadiums and training camps; Sunderland may not be in the Premier League, but this is top flight production, right down to the opening credits, which are accompanied by local band The Lake Poets, who sing of doing their city proud.
It’s a song of melancholy and regret, buoyed by a resilient determination to think of the best. As John Cleese’s Clockwise put it, it’s not the despair they can’t stand: it’s the hope. The result is a fantastic, gripping, moving piece of telly for fans and non-fans alike: those who know Sunderland’s story will grimace at knowing what’s to come, while those who don’t will be hooked in by the emotional blow that each fixture delivers. Football, they say, is a game of two halves. They also call it a beautiful game. Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a marathon, and its beauty lies in just how ugly the sport can be.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.