Sunderland Till I Die is an eight-part series that documents Sunderland Football Club’s 2017-18 season in the Championship. Released by Netflix in December 2018, public reaction shows how timely this documentary is in the modern era of extortionate season tickets and billion-pound TV deals. Many mocked Netflix for releasing a documentary on Sunderland soon after Amazon made one on Manchester City, but that completely misses the point. As likeable as City manage to be, playing attractive football and finally emerging from the shadow of their bitter rivals, their success was bought, plain and simple, and the documentary on them is an adulatory one that tracks their success. Sunderland Till I Die focuses on the grittier side of football: a struggling team with passionate fans who live and breathe football, and whose weekend can be ruined by a bad result. Sunderland is a working-class city, overlooked by the media and government alike, and this series highlights the club’s vitality to its community.
Sunderland Till I Die excels at giving footballers a voice they don’t often have. Academy products such as George Honeyman and Josh Maja come across really well, showing the passion and diligence of professionals so often neglected in the headlines in favour of the game’s superstars. Experienced internationals such as Jonny Williams and John O’Shea are also shown to be down-to-earth. There are some particularly moving scenes with Williams that highlight the loneliness suffered by injury-prone players and the fragile mentality of footballers in an industry so cut-throat, and where success can be so fleeting. Scenes like these are some of many that offer an insight into life at a big football club, with commentary from people at all levels, all the way from support staff up to the Manager and Chief Executive. These are intertwined with highlights from games and reports of events and scandals throughout the season, that come together to make an engrossing and entertaining spectacle.
As bittersweet as this documentary can be, it is a beautiful depiction of how vital football still is to people across the country. We meet season ticket holders from various walks of life, from the taxi driver falling out of love with the club, to the father with his son who hasn’t missed an away game in 22 years. The passion on display is moving, and it can’t be underestimated how much football really does for people’s lives; just having a team to go and watch week in week out is a thing that so many people just could not live without. A recent example, where Barnsley’s Chief Executive sent a fan a personal letter after reading about his struggles with mental health on Twitter, shows that football can be a fundamental force for good, and that football clubs can be families on which their communities can rely.
Ultimately, clubs like Sunderland still pay their players weekly salaries that beggar belief. But this is the nature of the modern game; the exorbitant amount of money in football today is an inevitable consequence of its commercialisation and it will define the beautiful game for the foreseeable future. Sunderland’s downfall is shown to be mostly due to financial reasons; principally owner Ellis Short’s decision to withdraw investment which played a major role in the club’s relegation to the Championship. In addition, their television income went from £93.4 million in the Premier League to £7 million, and the documentary does an excellent job of showing the implications of this on the playing squad, as well as the club as a whole. Football is more financially motivated than ever, with the FA continuing to pander to the top six teams and prioritise financial gain over the supporters; countless recent decisions, like the abolition of fifth round replays in the FA Cup and increasingly bizarre TV scheduling, show their contempt for the majority of football teams, and their fans, in favour of an elite few.
After all, football without fans is nothing. And as bleak as this documentary can be, the message pervades that football brings people together, and always will do. And that’s a wonderful thing.