Inside story of football club’s demise is must-watch television
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City fans may be celebrating promotion at the end of the season, but remember what if felt like to slip into League One? Nick Conrad says there is a brilliant documentary about Sunderland's relegation to the third tier that must be watched
If you haven't seen Sunderland 'Til I Die then I'm telling you it's worth the Netflix fee alone. The eight-part series has received rave reviews, telling the behind-the-scenes story of the worst seasons in the Black Cats' history. The inner operation of any football club is carefully guarded. This extreme sensitivity means television cameras are absolutely banned from the boardroom. In a break with convention, the North East club allowed a documentary crew to follow their progress in the Championship which followed their relegation from the Premier League. I suspect that permission was granted on the assumption that Sunderland would walk the Championship…instead they got a right old mauling!
This poignant, powerful, passionate documentary demonstrates the raw emotion behind the beautiful game. In cinematic quality it follows the season, from the initial hope that the club might return to top-flight football, to their ultimate second relegation in as many seasons. The tears, tantrums, managerial merry-go-round, workings of the transfers market and courtroom drama is all included. The story has as many twists and turns as a good thriller.
What can Canaries fans learn from this? Well, it makes you rather grateful for Deila Smith's steady support for the club over the decades. It also makes you appreciate how our club could have fallen on even rockier times. For our friends down the A140, this documentary will be uncomfortable to watch. The similarity with Ipswich Town's current plight is uncanny. It highlights this perilous business and the sad consequences of demotion. For supporters of other clubs, it's a good warning about what might happen if they lose form. It brilliantly humanises higher management, giving a deeper understanding of the fine margins involved and how the individuals, who we often rail against, hurt like the rest of us.
My vested interest in the documentary comes from a long-held interest in how football clubs are run as a business. We obsess over players, tactics and transfers but often neglect to show a similar interest in the boardroom antics. For me this documentary demonstrates all that is wrong with British football. Individuals holding clubs to ransom, agents being duplicitous and significant amounts of cash being splashed on a high risk strategy – potentially jeopardising a club followed and loved by thousands. Sunderland AFC is presented as a rudderless ship likened to the Titanic, destined to meet a similar fate. Over the course of the series Sunderland lose 23 matches, one owner, one chief executive, two managers, several players and their place in the championship.
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Despite the good ship 'Black Cat' taking on water, she hasn't sunk. The club is faring well in League One and are on course for a quick return to the Championship. The conclusion of the documentary is overwhelmingly positive, despite its devastating storyline for Sunderland. It left me with a sense of pride and a newfound appreciation of the spirit and passion of fans across the country. The series is shrouded in passion and emotion throughout, I actually felt a little emotional after watching it. Sunderland 'Til I Die simultaneously showcases everything that's right (the fans) and wrong (the ludicrous risks) with football.
I rarely feel compelled to write about television programmes. This one bucks the trend. Plot twists, villains, hero and a lovely soundtrack…this film has it all. So, was it a PR disaster allowing cameras to chart the demise of Sunderland AFC? Far from it…I think many of us now have a soft spot for the club and wish them well in their pursuit of promotion.
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