The amazing Netflix docu-series Sunderland ‘Til I Die showcases all the fascinating club-city-fan-culture dynamics of English soccer. It’s totally captivating, expertly produced, and even with its constant sense of doom and despair, manages to be oddly uplifting as well.
The docu-series grabs you right from the first minute of the first episode and sets the tone from what to expect the rest of the way. Fading in to St. Mary’s church in Sunderland, Father Marc Lyden-Smith gives a sermon pleading for God to give the squad, “self-belief and a spirit of confidence because the success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city.” The rest of the series follows that theme.
Sunderland was relegated from the Premier League to the Championship League after the 2016-17 season. It was a crushing blow for a proud club and city. This is where Sunderland-based production company Fulwell 73 (named after a stand at the club’s former ground) picks up.
The club is teetering. Ownership (Ellis Short) won’t spend for players any more. Sunderland’s Chief Executive, Martin Bain, seems resigned to the spiraling fate in front of him.
From there, Sunderland’s 2017-18 season in the Championship League couldn’t go worse.
Bain comes across as a decent guy and calming presence, but he’s not exactly the most uplifting spirit for a club whose fans live and die with every game. He knows the season is a lost cause, and he’s on a sinking ship, and he’s stuck going down with it.
The series does well to show the fan’s perspective throughout. Sunderland ties run deep. The best analogy or comparison for Americans is to college football. Think Nebraska or Oklahoma (maybe more Nebraska given their recent form). As the city continues to struggle economically, the club serves as an avatar for the fans. They do well, things for them can rebound. They’re happy. But if they struggle, its reflective of the city itself.
Most of the 8 episodes are under 40 minutes. You’ll zip through the series and immediately start googling to see where the players and executives are now. And you may find yourself regularly checking the table to see if Sunderland can start climbing back up.
You don’t have to love soccer to love this docu-series. It’s worth your time.