Like many football fans starved of live action as a result of covid19, I have over past few days taken the opportunity to watch the second series of the Netflix documentary Sunderland ‘Till I die, which charts the fortunes of the Wearside club as they attempt to win promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking. With a ‘will he won’t he’ star player contract saga, a chaotic transfer deadline day and two trips to Wembley providing the main story lines, it is safe to say that Sunderland’s season – which perpetually swings from sublime to beyond ridiculous – does not disappoint.
Although the series is highly entertaining and to some (particularly those with allegiances to Newcastle United) will merely present an opportunity to indulge in an extended period of schadenfreude; Sunderland ‘Till I Die 2 in actual fact, provides far more than that. Through the various events that play out, the documentary effectively puts all that is good and also all that is so inexorably bad about modern football under a magnifying glass.
First there is the saga that blights the first half of the series: Josh Maja and his contract negotiations. A talented young striker whose goals appear to be firing the Black Cats towards an immediate return to the Championship, Maja is in the final year of his contract and Sunderland are understandably desperate to extend his stay at the Stadium of Light. Maja however, or to put it more accurately, his agent, has other ideas and this ultimately results in the striker rejecting Sunderland’s contract offer and ditching them mid-season to move to Bordeaux for more… errm… football in one of Europe’s top five leagues, naturally. This in itself was by no means a shocking sequence of events, in fact as the episodes wore on a gradual air of inevitably surrounding the whole situation seemed to take hold. But what really disturbed me about this was Maja’s complete lack of ownership of his own career. It seemed as though Maja, so devoid of autonomy as he was, would’ve probably gone and played in the Bulgarian second division if his agent had told him to. While I accept agents are a mainstay in football, I still found it alarming to see a footballer effectively leaving his entire career trajectory in the hands of someone whose primary motivation is money. My assumptions may be proved entirely wrong of course, it may later be proved that Maja was a childhood Bordeaux fan and that the decision to move to France was 100% his, but somehow, I doubt it.
Once Maja leaves, Sunderland have a 15-goal striker shaped hole to fill in their squad and owner Stewart Donald grows more desperate by the second. This culminates in a frantic transfer deadline day episode in which Donald, desperate for a striker to replace Maja, is held to ransom by Wigan Athletic as he attempts to sign Will Grigg. Despite being told by manager Jack Ross not to sign Grigg for anything above £1.25million, Donald, a self-confessed sucker for a deal, ends up signing Grigg at the eleventh four for an inflated £4million fee. Then in almost beautifully cliched fashion, Grigg, the big-money signing fails to live up to his price tag, making Donald’s deadline day gamble look all the more rash. Like the Maja transfer, this occurrence presents nothing new to anyone who follows modern football, but nonetheless, there was something about seeing a man naively throwing vast amounts of money around with all the rationality of a cavalier monopoly player that just didn’t sit right with me.
And then last and probably worst there was Charlie Methven, a marketing man somewhere between Jordan Belfort and David Brent who is detestable and clueless in equal measure. He is immediately outed as someone with no understanding of genuine football fans when he claims that blasting out Tiesto’s Adagio For Strings remix before kick-off will be the perfect stimulant for Sunderland’s pre-match home atmosphere. Then there is his domineering and at times downright rude treatment of his communications team, who look on with raised eyebrows as he makes poorly-timed EU referendum jokes and contemplates charging supporters an additional fee to secure their Wembley tickets in pursuit of a quick buck. As I watched Methven continually make a prat of himself, I couldn’t help but think that football clubs up and down the country must be littered with such characters. Characters who now, thanks to some mild form of success in a completely unrelated field, believe they have a licence to play god in an industry they have little true understanding of.
But amid Methven’s loathsomeness, Donald’s naivety and Maja’s empty-headedness there is hope for the world of football to be found in Sunderland ‘Till I Die 2 and that hope is provided in glorious fashion by the Sunderland supporters. Decent, genuine, likable people who are not without their share of wit, the Mackems are the undisputed heroes of the series. As we watch them experience joy and despair in equal measure, we are reminded of what being a football fan is truly all about: the ecstasy of last-minute winners, the heartache of late defeats and above all, the times we spend with people we care about following the fortunes of our team. The Sunderland fans’ loyalty is unrelenting and even though the season once again ends in heartbreak, there is no doubt that all the fans we become familiar with throughout the course of the series with will be back at the Stadium of Light the following season to go through it all over again. Their loyalty, like that which is shown by the majority of people who support their hometown team, is one that appears destined to go unrewarded. But yet still, like their many counterparts in different colours up and down the country, they will come in their numbers, honest, hard-working, unpretentious; flocking to the arena at the heart of their community in search of that one moment of total elation that somehow makes all the disappointment worthwhile. Capturing this undying loyalty and passion, Is Sunderland ‘Till I Die’s greatest triumph. And thankfully for the future of football, such qualities in supporters will never diminish, however many Charlie Methvens and Josh Majas the game becomes punctuated with.