Hidden Gems
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Hidden Gems

Sunderland ‘Til I Die

Genre: Sports documentary series

Personal rating: 8.5/10

Platform: Netflix

This docu-series was a breath of fresh air in a football media landscape that seems to focus too much on the Hollywood tier clubs and/or players, giving a rather lopsided view of the actual majority of football players and fans who exist in the relative wilderness of mid-table and lower division football. While Sunderland aren’t exactly Sunday League, this rich documentary series nevertheless provides a detailed glimpse into a lesser-known side of football in two senses: One, the life and times of a club in the lower divisions and two, the holistic nature of the coverage (more on that in a bit).

The series was shot at a unique time in the club’s existence. Sunderland AFC is a club in the north-east of England that has won 6 English top division titles (same as Manchester City and Chelsea) and 5 second division titles, coming off a decade in the Premier League, playing its home games in a stadium that can seat 49,000 — A prestigious club by any standard. At the time the series begins, however, its decade-long stint in the Premier League has just come to an end, and the club is preparing for life in The Championship, the second tier of English football. They find themselves starting the 2017–18 season aspiring for promotion back to the Premier League.

Right from the off, you’re given an interesting view of the medley of constraints and expectations that form a storm of tricky tasks to challenge those running the club, some of which are:

  1. Even as the club is more in need of financial support than ever, owner Ellis Short chooses this moment to decide the return on investment has not been worth it, and demands that the club be self-sustaining.
  2. Fans see this as a big club in the wrong division, with every negative result bound to draw flak from the supporters. The entire city’s mood is dictated by how the club does, and things are rather downbeat at the moment.
  3. The club has players earning Premier League wages on the books, while it will have to make do with lower division revenues, making it extremely tricky to build the squad in a sustainable manner. To add to the issue, some of the current players as well as many priority transfer targets would rather be somewhere else.

Season 1 (2017–18) covers the setting and eventual unravelling of the club’s plans as they endure a second successive relegation. However, even as the club begins Season 2 (2018–19) of the series in League One, the tone is somehow much more upbeat as the club is now under new ownership and management, handled by people who seem much more involved and passionate about setting things right at the club.

Snaps from Season 2, where co-owners Charlie Methven and Stewart Donald manage to turn the mood around… For the most part

While most followers of the sport see matches, results and league tables, the ‘cast’ of this series expertly connect these publicly visible dots, showing you what’s going on in the rest of the week. In particular, the docu-series follows a ‘recurring cast’ consisting of the CEO, coaching staff, club staff and a few season ticket holders topped off by a smattering of interviews with the players to provide a 360 degree view of what went on inside the football club.

Every episode is rich with information about how each of these individuals think about themselves, the club and the game, sometimes showing you starkly contrasting viewpoints within a minute (A fan’s altercation with Chris Coleman, for example). The town halls that club officials have with supporters are where these come to a head, making for a refreshing watch in an atmosphere that is very different from a press conference.

The picture I’ve painted so far might seem rather pedagogical, but that description would be doing this series a disservice. Indeed, it actually takes on the tone of a full-blown drama, making you not want to look up what happened a year or two ago (if you don’t already know). It is here that I have what is possibly my only gripe with the series — Dramatized football action. Seeing visuals and sounds of a football match in broadcast speed and quality is a personal preference.

From seasoned followers of the sport who want to understand the inner workings of a club better to people just looking for an antidote to the sports shutdown, this is an educational yet emotional watch that would likely leave you wishing good things for Sunderland and its fans (even if you’re a Newcastle supporter, I daresay). Rounded off by the theme music — Shipyards by the Lake Poets (a ‘play at my funeral’ contender which you should let play in its entirety at least once), this docu-series has something for everyone.

Definitely give it a go.

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