As ‘Sunderland ‘til I Die’ dropped from the ether last Friday, there was much trepidation among those who had lived it first time round. How, we wondered, could the worst season in our 140-year history show us in a good light? Why was it allowed to be filmed in the first place? And who the hell would watch it?
Now, with many having digested the series in full already, answers are becoming clearer. With the latter in particular, it is now obvious that, actually, quite a lot of people are willing to tune in to watch a club get it so badly wrong. What they’ve found is not the comedic tragedy they might have expected (though those up the road may disagree) and instead a series that is as honest throughout as it is hopeful by the end.
And while positive reviews have arrived from sources ranging from The Guardian to the Wall Street Journal, it is worth considering the series from a Wearside point of view. After all, we knew what happened and, largely, why it happened. We knew how it started and how it ended and yet, in spite of all this, the documentary has shone a light on areas we weren’t quite so clear on previously.
Take Jason Steele, for example. It should be said that the documentary makers are not miracle workers. Steele, unsurprisingly, still looks as hapless in goal on the small screen as he did through our own eyes.
But what the documentary does do is show the side of players, like Steele, that we as outsiders don’t get to see. After the galling 5-0 defeat to Celtic in a pre-season friendly marking the Stadium of Lights twentieth anniversary, Steele is filmed in his car the following Monday morning. His despair at the result, despite the relative non-importance of it, is clear even two days later. ‘You lose a game, you don’t really talk,’ he says. ‘My missus will tell you what a tosser I am.’ Mrs Steele could be forgiven for thinking her husband had turned mute, given the way his Sunderland career quickly went.
By the end of January Steele is shown driving away from the club, looking to seal a loan move to Derby and, in his own words, ‘Get back to enjoying football again.’ That this statement comes across not as disrespectful to Sunderland but instead entirely understandable speaks volumes. Steele, much like the fans who’ve had to watch him and his team-mates toil every week, has been worn down by the whole affair, battered and beaten and unable to rouse his own mood, never mind that of those around him.
Where Steele’s dismay is driven by his own poor performances, Jonny Williams’ is derived from his inability to perform. The cameras capture him dislocating his shoulder at home to Millwall in vivid detail and are on hand when incoming boss Chris Coleman and his assistant, Kit Symons, speak of how important Williams had been to their plans.
Williams takes part in some of the most human scenes of the entire series, and it is a surprise that none of the many reviews now out in the public domain have seen fit to highlight them. Struggling mentally with a lack of football and the loneliness that entails – ‘I thought about getting a dog…’ – the film crew follow Williams as he attends a psychiatry session. There, he is quickly identified as needing the carrot rather than the stick. When asked who he has worked for previously that gives him confidence in his own abilities, his response of ‘Chris Coleman’ is as honest as it is sad, given that the shoulder injury has robbed him of his ability to work under Coleman.
There is a lingering sense that the filmmakers are rooting for Williams to come along and save the season. He is afforded significant airtime when, in years to come, many Sunderland fans will struggle to recall that he ever played for the club. Nowhere is the enthusiasm for him to do well more evident than in the tunnel before a home tussle with Middlesbrough. As Williams trots off to the dressing room, a cameraman breaks the fourth wall, offering a simple ‘Good luck mate.’ It is indicative of how likeable Williams is, and the fact he scores in that manic game only serves to make it even more heart-breaking when his season is waylaid by yet another injury.
If the series changes perceptions of some, it is likely to reinforce those of others. Simon Grayson comes over as enthusiastic but entirely uninspiring, and the feeling that the job is too big for him quickly becomes apparent. One scene detailing a pre-match briefing to his players is painful viewing, and it is little wonder his reign soon descended into chaos.
If we were to defend Grayson, his reaction to the failure to coax Ross McCormack from Aston Villa suggests the manager was led up the garden path somewhat. Martin Bain’s exasperation is clear for all to see when it becomes apparent that the two clubs are miles apart in terms of money, but Grayson’s disappointment that the club wouldn’t push the boat out leads you to wonder if, like plenty of managers before him, he hasn’t been misled about the funds available to him. Yet it could also be a case of Grayson naively forgetting the reality of the situation; in an earlier scene, he states that he is under no illusion as to the financial constraints imposed on him.
Grayson’s demise is drawn out, with that shambolic 3-3 draw with Bolton Wanderers getting plenty of attention. His successor is another character who comes across much like he did throughout last term. Chris Coleman’s gravitas upon arrival is clear as day, as is his gentlemanlike manner, shown perfectly as he introduces himself to various club staff. Coleman and Symons arrive with a bounce in their step and, for a while, things are looking up, with some canny editing playing up the good (Burton away, Fulham at home) and ignoring the bad (Sheffield United and Cardiff away).
Yet by the time the January transfer window rolls around, the villain of the piece comes to the fore. That is not Ellis Short; the owner appears only fleetingly, walking off into the distance as his time at the club comes to an end, unavailable for interview by virtue of being nowhere near the club for the vast majority of the season.
Instead the role falls to the aforementioned Rodwell. Few will be shocked by Rodwell’s indifference to his own situation, but, if anything, seeing it laid so bare here makes the whole sorry episode all the more frustrating. From his reply of ‘No chance mate’ when asked by a team-mate if he’ll be playing at the weekend, to the reminder of that pathetic interview he conducted with the Daily Mail in January, the former England midfielder does little to paint himself in a good light. Episode five ends with a bang, quite literally, as Bain slams an Academy of Light door almost off its hinges upon hearing that the £70k-a-week midfielder has opted not to rip up his contract and seek playing time elsewhere.
That decision is portrayed as one whereby Rodwell stitches his employers up, though the episode would benefit from slightly more balance. After all, it’s not his fault that he was offered such a ludicrous contract. What does shine through however is his complete unwillingness to even be ready to play. Rodwell seems not to care that he looks, to all and sundry, like a greedy layabout and, even when the opportunity arises for us to get his side of the story from the horse’s mouth, he puts the block on the cameras following him into a meeting with Bain (‘It’s a bit personal, isn’t it?’).
That brings us nicely to Bain himself. The club’s former chief executive divided opinion during his time in SR5, with some believing he was given an impossible task and others just finding him to be incompetent. By virtue of his prominent role throughout, many now seem to have swayed towards sympathy for the Glaswegian. Short is conspicuous by his absence and Bain is left fighting a fire with inadequate tools, and anyone who previously thought he cared nought for the club and was simply the owner’s lackey will surely be thinking twice now.
Yet while the Scot is at easier to sympathise with, he still appears difficult to actually like. For every crestfallen moment – the McCormack deal, Rodwell’s refusal to leave – there is another that paints him in a poor light. His very first scene shows him having an early morning dip in the Academy of Light pool, which hardly portrays the pressure he is said to be under. That is not to say that he shouldn’t be allowed to go for a swim, but having the cameras there to film it isn’t really the wisest course of action. Similarly, eagle-eyed viewers might notice his penchant for expensive timepieces; rumours abound that no fewer than six different watches adorn his wrist across the eight episodes. That is his prerogative, but it jars with any sympathies you feel for him.
He is undeniably in a tough spot, as is painfully obvious in the third episode, when he, Grayson and Kevin Ball field questions from an angry fans’ forum. Silence speaks volumes and it is almost deafening in that meeting, particularly when Bain finds himself unable to ‘provide guarantees for any of us’ when queried on the safety of Grayson’s job. But for all the difficulties of the task at hand, and the sincerity that meets every blow, there is still a feeling that Bain is a man passing through, knowing himself to be on limited time, rather than a staple of the club like the cooks in the kitchen who meet every defeat with anguish.
Bain’s most joyous moment of the season appears when he successfully lures Coleman to the north east and, by the time the series ends, one of the most overriding emotions you are left with is genuine sorrow for the Welshman. His inability to stem the tide of shocking defensive mistakes is hard to pin firmly on him, even if he himself admits to his own failings, something which only endears him more. Perhaps Coleman’s most embarrassing moment comes in that January transfer window, when he is filming talking up the qualities of a smattering of signings who proved unfit for purpose. But, again, the constraints under which he is doing his job act as a mitigating factor.
In a scene that has drawn plenty of attention, Aiden McGeady points to Coleman’s mismanagement of Lewis Grabban as a key problem, but in truth Grabban does little to endear himself to onlookers. Bemoaning Coleman’s decision to start taking him off on 65 minutes would already look a tad selfish (something Grabban does, in fairness, admit himself) even if it wasn’t factually incorrect. But it is. The Bournemouth loanee was hooked with six minutes remaining at Wolves in a game where his side were down to 10 men, before going off in the 73rd and 74th minutes at home to Fulham and Birmingham City. In the former, Coleman’s decision propelled his side to victory. To see Grabban’s attempts to rewrite history, and speak of his joy when leaving the club, helps you to understand why Coleman was relatively unbothered by seeing his top goalscorer leave.
McGeady also questions Coleman’s never-ending positivity, suggesting players deserve a bollocking. Yet given the shockingly low levels of confidence that are evident throughout the squad, it seems unlikely this approach would have fared any better. Similarly, McGeady would do well to remember how poor his own attitude was throughout last term; his claim that he ‘doesn’t know’ how to play in a 4-3-3 seems like exaggeration for the camera rather than anything particularly truthful.
Coleman’s end at the club is sad, not least because of the imbecile who confronts him after relegation is confirmed. Coleman’s response to being called a prick – ‘I’m a married man with six kids’ – might seem confusing at first but is, rather, the startled response of a man trying to do a hard job and feeling the strain. Thankfully, it isn’t Coleman’s lasting impression of Sunderland fans, and if there is disappointment to be found in the hopeful series-end, where a certain Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven arrive on scene like a lighthouse beacon on a stormy night, it is that Coleman is not given the opportunity to work for what he calls ‘this great club’ under any sort of reasonable parameters.
The entrance of Donald and co swamps the final episode and, much like it did in real-time, makes the viewer feel impossibly uplifted. Even after a dreadful season, the 3-0 victory over Wolves is a triumph and, interspersed as it is with the new owners’ first press conference, it provides hope for a brighter future.
Finally, while it is rather tiring to hear people refer to “the fans” as the real stars whenever Sunderland go through turmoil, it would be remiss not to point to them as the one constant throughout the series. Cast very much front and centre in a way that hasn’t always been the case in other, similar documentaries, across the season there is an unmistakably honest tone that resonates from the club’s supporters. From the sight of one of the production crew’s cameras being smashed by away fans angry at their side being three down at half-time to Bristol City, to the sheer ecstasy that meets Joel Asoro’s late equaliser in the same game, the series has the lot, pulling no punches and accurately depicting what it was like to follow the club through such troubled times.
Whether or not this propels Sunderland into the worldwide footballing consciousness remains to be seen. The likelihood is that it won’t. Yet it certainly can’t hurt and, while many feared the worst when news leaked that such a documentary was in the works, it has to be said that the end result is far more positive that we might ever have expected. That feeling is strengthened by the arrival of the new owners, with Methven’s PR-savvy style lending itself particularly well to the cameras.
The series is not perfect – some out-of-sync editing will not escape the trained eye of most Sunderland fans – but it is a light on an otherwise dark place and, if only because it gives us a sense of who the protagonists really are, it must go down as a success. If Williams’ trip to the psychiatrist is the most human moment of the series then George Honeyman being close to tears after the Burton game is surely just behind it. In that moment Honeyman spoke for thousands of fellow fans, many of whom might not have thought much of him previously. That will surely change now.
Sunderland itself has long been viewed with derision from the outside. Now, with this series showcasing the good in the city and its people, hopefully that will change too.