With many soccer fans already showing withdrawal symptoms from the indefinitely-suspended beautiful game, the return of Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Til I Die couldn’t be better timed.
The match footage may be relatively old – the six-part documentary follows the fortunes of North East England’s fallen giants across the 2018/19 season. But thanks to the gripping behind-the-scenes narrative, you’re still left thoroughly invested in long-gone games that would otherwise be as interesting as competitive handwashing. Even a wet-and-windy knockout tie in the Checkatrade Trophy (an unfashionable cup competition which gives lower league teams the chance to play at Wembley) suddenly takes on the significance of a World Cup final here.
You may remember that Netflix’s first venture into the Stadium of Light was the definition of perfect timing. Chairman Ellis Short had wanted the cameras to capture every moment of the club’s triumphant return to the top-flight in a bid to entice new investors. Instead, the Mackems spiraled towards a second successive relegation amidst a wave of firings, fan revolts and performances that bordered on the farcical.
But any fears that STID couldn’t sustain the same level of tension, high drama and unintentional humor second time around are dispelled within the opener. That’s largely down to new executive director Charlie Methven, a foul-mouthed, chino-wearing Old Etonian who combines the bullish bravado of The Apprentice contestants with the corny corporate speak of David Brent.
Alongside new owner Stewart Donald, Methven is on a mission to transform the club’s commercial fortunes. Only he initially seems more preoccupied with changing Sunderland’s walk-out music from the classical stirrings of Prokofiev to banging trance. “A massive rave, a bit like Ibiza,” is the vision he sells to the slightly baffled stadium announcer.
Methven’s bulldozing patter, and the reactions it provokes, steal the show almost every episode. One staff member, later seen leaving her job in the wake of a very public half-time bust-up, can’t contain her eye rolls during one of the slick-haired Southerner’s motivational speeches. In another memorable scene, Methven’s wife pleads with him to calm down as the stress of a cup final causes him to go full-on Malcolm Tucker.
Yet the latter also suggests that unlike his predecessor, Methven cares about the club and the working-class community he’s become an unlikely part of. His blustering approach might not win friends but it does get results and his obsessive attempt to break the all-time League One attendance record plays out every bit as thrilling as the action on the field.
Donald cuts a more sympathetic figure, too, no mean feat for a club owner. His increasing exasperation at the dire financial straits he’s inherited is entirely understandable: we learn roughly $150,000 is spent per year on an unused cryochamber. Likewise his disdain at how unscrupulous agents have taken over the sport: a transfer saga involving star striker Josh Maja only exemplifies just how much the power has shifted.
And yet in the series’ highlight, Donald shows he’s not immune to the madness of modern soccer, with his six-time bid to sign forward Will Grigg increasing from £1m to £4m within the space of a few short Transfer Deadline Day hours.
Sadly, for Donald, his big gamble doesn’t pay off and the man who spawned the chant “Will Grigg’s on Fire” proves to be more of an ember. Subsequently, Sunderland are forced to deal with the nerve-jangling trauma of the playoffs and it’s here where their loyal fans, or some would say gluttons for punishment, redeem themselves for last season’s antics.
The Red and White Army previously reacted to the club unfolding around them with ungraciousness, self-entitlement and, occasionally, pure aggression. Yet a year on they handle their team twice snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at Wembley with relative dignity. Only rival Newcastle and Middlesbrough supporters could fail to be moved as a tearful fan who’s gone her entire life without seeing Sunderland lift a trophy ponder, “When’s it going to be our turn?”
The second series is also a much better advert for a profession that sits somewhere between politician and traffic warden in the unpopularity stakes. Whereas last season’s key names included a volatile drink-driving offender and an injury-stricken defender determined to earn £70k-a-week for doing literally nothing, this year’s crop are down-to-earth, likeable figures who prove that yes, sportsmen are actually humans, too.
Displaying a mix of steely determination and puppyish enthusiasm, new recruit Luke O’Nien is an especially root-worthy player. And it’s hard not to feel for dejected defender Jack Baldwin as he admits his late-season form under amiable manager Jack Ross simply hasn’t been good enough.
Unfortunately, the show is still plagued with the kind of amateurish editing that makes Bohemian Rhapsody‘s look like a masterclass. With its mistimed crowd cutaways (several of which don’t even correspond to the same game) and bizarre choice of camera angles, footage of the various do-or-die matches is often incomprehensible, diluting the impact of the last-minute winners which bookend the team’s rollercoaster season.
But it’s the only area where Sunderland ‘Til I Die plays second fiddle to glossier puff pieces such as Amazon’s All or Nothing. Only Man City fans could get excited watching a group of pampered multi-millionaires steamroll their way to another title. But even those baffled by the offside rule should be left engrossed by this further fascinating insight into a club on a seemingly permanent precipice.
Jon O’Brien (@jonobrien81) is a freelance entertainment and sports writer from the North West of England. His work has appeared in the likes of Esquire, Billboard, Paste, i-D, The Guardian, Vinyl Me Please and Allmusic.