Emotion and entertainment cross paths on rarer occasion that the promoted content on Twitter, Youtube, and Netflix lead us to believe.
How often do shows make us empathize with what we are watching? The days of shouting at the TV screen are over. Instead, we set our undead gaze on our phones and laptops. As the screens shrink, so does our investment in digital entertainment.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die, however, is worth shouting about.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die dances in the vulnerability of an insecure club placed in the beating heart of a forgotten city. It may sound harsh, but it is the simple reality of professional football. Contrary to the portrayals of dominance, respect, and success that were on display in First Team: Juventus or All or Nothing: Manchester City, Sunderland ‘Til I Die reveals the disappointment and denial that fills the lower regions of every division.
To a naïve American audience, the Premier League seems like a fair competition where at least 6 teams fight for the title with the possibility of a surprise victor like Leicester. The Premier League, however, is merely an exception to the understood reality that the majority of teams in every region of European football must reconcile defeat and years of struggle with fading memories of past success. Sunderland assumes the position of a defeated giant in STID with the common plagues of financial turmoil and poor management digging its grave.
What makes STID so intriguing to view is its central protagonist: hope.
Regardless of who the camera centers on, be it the club chef, the chief executive, a season ticket holder or a reserve goalkeeper, the belief that success is just around the corner remains in focus. Such commitment to the possibilities of the future appears vivid in the context of the club. Sunderland is not a flashy, modern club. Stationed in a shipbuilding town whose industry set sail with the last of its products, Sunderland AFC incurs the burden of a city that is looking for a new identity.
Similar to how Cleveland’s economy relies on Lebron James to be wearing a Cavs jersey, Sunderland’s financial prosperity fluctuates with the club. One of the city’s leading employers, Sunderland is so much more than a regional football club. STID reveals the dark reality of such a relationship, citing that 85% of Sunderland’s staff lost their jobs when the team was relegated from the Premier League to the Championship. Knowing the club will face a new volley of cutbacks if they are relegated to League 1, blown leads in games, arguments between the staff and failed transfers take on a grave significance.
STID provides an exciting glimpse into the routine events of professional football. The sacking of manager Simon Grayson and the hiring of Chris Coleman is a fascinating look into how such changes affect the entire atmosphere of the club. Watching the aspiration and relief flood across the faces of chefs, players, and supporters confirms the vulnerability of these fragile ecosystems.
Similarly, the documentary follows the emotional fatigue of Jonny Williams, a midseason transfer to the club who visits a sports psychologist to help him deal with depression. These common problems are so often reserved for 5-minute pre-match clips or programs like ESPN’s E:60 and 30 for 30. In STID, however, they are presented in between heartwarming scenes of the youth academy ambushing the senior squad with snowballs or a lifelong supporter listening to the match at home on his radio.
To be clear, STID is not First Team: Juventus or All or Nothing: Manchester City. It is so much more. No, you will not see a bunch of good looking, espresso drinking Italians running around the hills of Turin. You will not see the team visit their Saudi Prince owner for a club vacation.
What you will see is real life. Football is not glamorous, it’s brutal. The characters are not a bunch of Spanish, German, and Belgian players who all make a quarter of a million dollars a week. Instead, they are trainers, bartenders, and homegrown heroes. Rusty accents and cursing drunkards have never been so endearing. The final episode before the epilogue ends with one of the most brilliant scenes in any sports doc that I can remember. After being relegated to the third division, the supporters flood a local pub to console one another. One fan reminds the cameras, “We’re always gonna be there. Sunderland is something for people to follow, you know? Sunderland has always been a family club.” Another supporter, a woman in her late eighties remarks, “I could cry.”
As the tears of the supporters flow with the pints, Elvis’s “Can't Help Falling in Love With You” pours out of the pub’s speakers. The supporters lock arms and sing along with the king. No matter how bleak Sunderland’s chances look, no matter how long it will be until they reach the Premier League once again, one thing remains – the supporters. And that is what Sunderland ‘Til I Die is honestly documenting. While players, managers, and owners flow from club to club, the fans remain, tied inexplicably to a club they just can’t help falling in love with.