The 2017/18 football season was, for Sunderland AFC, a truly dismal affair. With seven wins from forty-six Championship matches, the Black Cats’ suffered a second successive relegation, into League One of English football. The season was marred by backroom drama, as manager Simon Grayson was replaced by former Wales boss Chris Coleman, and the departure of much-needed quality players, with Sunderland’s top scorer, Lewis Grabban, leaving in the January transfer window.
On paper, then, an eight-part documentary following the club during such a catastrophic term could have been a truly dismal affair. If Amazon Prime’s All or Nothing: Manchester City aimed to show a football club attaining unthinkable success, Sunderland ‘Til I Die goes for quite the opposite: a grounded, bleak yet at times a very moving peek into what life is like for those on the other side of the footballing world.
While All or Nothing attempts to humanise players, with an admittedly impressive level of success, Sunderland ‘Til I Die really hones in on the effects that near-constant defeat can have on a football club as a whole. Thanks to in-depth interviews with backroom staff and players, it makes for fascinating viewing to see how daunting, and at times hopeless, such a poor campaign can be.
What the show achieves so fantastically is its creating of Sunderland as a genuine community, which rallies behind its team. Yes, at times the fans aren’t portrayed in the best light – there’s plenty of profanity, and even some physical violence when form hits rock bottom – but showing this in such explicit detail gives a wonderful insight into the raw passion that runs through Sunderland supporters. Following a select group of fans, charting their emotional highs and lows throughout the season and watching them travel to home and away games with varying quality of results really makes for a human-driven affair, aside from the football: it creates an image of Sunderland AFC as the anchor for an incredibly tight-knit community.
The show crescendoes in its last few episodes: as the grim fear of relegation becomes a reality, it is here that the psyche behind all those linked to Sunderland is explored at its best. It must be commended for its willingness to touch upon issues often overlooked in sport, with scenes showing Jonny Williams’ psychological evaluations in particular striking a refreshingly emotional chord. This is a side of football we rarely ever see, and the show’s – and Williams’ – readiness to shed light on this reveals a more touching and humane side to the sport than the lofty heights of All or Nothing ever unearthed.
What divulges in this programme is a dense, all-encompassing look at Sunderland’s progression: we see the most intense moments of games from the touchline, follow players as they walk out the tunnel, and are privy to conversations with club executives that clearly have a profound impact on the behind-the-scenes of Sunderland’s running. What the show does do is provide an emotional, human basis for all of this: someone such as Martin Bain, Sunderland’s CEO at the time, could easily have been portrayed as an emotionless, profit-driven businessman, yet when the finale rolls around and we see Bain leaving his office for the last time, tears in his eyes, it strikes a genuine emotional chord.
All in all, then, it is perhaps unfair to compare Sunderland ‘Til I Die to All or Nothing: Manchester City. The clubs couldn’t be more different, and the objectives of each documentary more disparate. Yet it may surprise you that the documentary that features lesser-known players, in a less prestigious league, whose end result is relegation to an even worse position, is far more gripping and enjoyable. It may not be enough to make you a Sunderland die-hard, but Sunderland ‘Til I Die proves why millions of people are enamoured by football: the sheer passion, humanity and emotion that lies behind ninety minutes on a football pitch.