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Never Lose Faith - The Sunderland AFC Story

American broadcaster NBCSN’s documentary exploring the trials and tribulations of Sunderland fans is quite simply a brilliant analysis of what it means to be a Sunderland fan. If you haven’t watched it yet, you’re missing out.

Crystal Palace v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

In the documentary, Roger Bennett - a British-American journalist and broadcaster - looks to examine and understand the incredible relationship found between Sunderland fans and their club. It’s a nostalgic portrayal that for once shines a glowing light on the fans and our long-suffering relationship with the club we love.

Yanks love a good underdog story, and Sunderland’s annual tale of phoenix from the ashes is one that will certainly appeal to our American friends. Add the bonus inclusion of young US starlet Lynden Gooch, and you can understand NBCSN’s willingness to feature the documentary.

The 45-minute show is an inherently positive outlook on what it means to be a Mackem, and whilst the turbulence of the last several years is certainly examined thoroughly, the lasting impression is that the people of Sunderland are deserving of so much more.

Sunderland v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

From priests to pork products, millionaires to miners, the documentary covers a lot of ground in its analysis of our club. There is no spitefulness or belittling - instead, Bennett delivers a sincere examination of our recent history and does so with a great sense of respect.

After watching the show several times, I couldn’t help but think that Bennett’s documentary really unearthed some home-truths about the position we find ourselves in right now. The musings of Jimmy Montgomery were particularly interesting and really stirred the emotions. Monty was eager to explain just how passionate we are, commenting on the sheer visceral noise generated at the old Roker Park during his playing days:

When you experience that roar at the very beginning, it’s awesome.

His memories of Wembley during the ‘73 cup final summed up what it means to be a Sunderland fan - the overwhelming odds, the never-say-die attitude; the fanatical passion and energy that can lift the team to seemingly unimaginable heights. Think back to Chelsea at home last season, and even Hull at home this season - the fans can make the difference.

The Stadium of Light is a cauldron of emotion when we want it to be. Perhaps we need to look at ourselves and ask are we doing everything we can to encourage the lads onto victory? Faith simply cannot be lost - it’s what we thrive on.

The show went on to pay homage to the old industries - ship building, coal mining, and glass-making. Employers of fathers, grandfathers and ancestors long before those, the sheer graft and grit displayed by those men simply cannot be ignored. Sunderland fans demand a reciprocation of the values that make our region so unique on the field in response to the sacrifices made by fans off it.

AFC Bournemouth v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images

John O’Shea, Lynden Gooch and Jermain Defoe were all assured in their assertions that passion and hard-work are the most vital traits required to be Sunderland players. O’Shea in particular was quick to praise the culture forged by our industrial past - perhaps it’s an identity that has fallen by the wayside in recent years?

Kevin Ball was next up to be questioned on the required traits and values needed to be successful in the North-East of England, and following a similar pattern as those before him, Ball described the need to be hardworking and determined in order to be welcomed by the fans.

They fuel your fire these supporters... (but) the minute they see you stop working hard enough to see allow that ability to come through, I said they’ll have you. Simple as that because they’ll see you as a waste of talent.

Again, nail on the head. For too long we have relied on a resurgence in form, a sort of biblical revival to maintain our position in the top flight of football if you will, rather than showing those same levels of fight and determination from the get-go. It’s no mere coincidence that our initial victory this season came after a squad visit to the Nissan manufacturing plant. The vast majority of players are seemingly out of touch with the community they represent; Sunderland, however, seem to be changing that - and it’s about bloody time.

Lynden Gooch in particular was a real light of hope in his interviews on the show. The young Cali-Mackem was not only adamant in his praise of the area and club, but also humble and grounded enough to acknowledge the key to success on Wearside:

Living in this area, you’ve got to know what it takes to play for this football club, and to represent the people of this city. You have to work hard, that’s all they ask for.

Everyone works hard, that’s what they’re known for. They’re grafters, they’re hard workers.

Gooch appears to be one of those players that just get’s it, so to speak. He understands how lucky he is to be paid to play the sport he loves, and wants to repay the club who have placed so much faith in his talents and abilities - extremely refreshing. It’s this brand of humble, appreciative, passionate players that the club seem to be investing in, and one can only hope that they can fight our way to stability.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the show was the heavy religious overtones that could be found throughout. Father Marc Lyden-Smith spoke well of both the club, the fans and the area, but it was his analogy of the three pillars that was so intriguing. When asked by Bennett to expand on his pillar analogy, Fr. Lyden-Smith labeled them as:

Work, and traditionally that has been heavy industries such as ship building, pits - mines. The second pillar is faith, it’s a very religious city; monks came here over a thousand years ago that was a kind of cradle of Christianity in the North of England. And I suppose the third pillar which unites all the city whether they work down the pits, in the shipyards or in the shops - it doesn’t matter what religion they are - the third pillar that unites them all is the football club.

And he’s right. the club is indeed some form of city-wide faith that ensnares you and just won’t let go; it’s like Niall Quinn’s famous quip that the club simply gets under your skin. There is something woven deep in the very fabric of our club that intrinsically links it to the community which it represents.

It’s the fight and determination to succeed against all odds, it’s the passion and wholehearted efforts of those who watch week after week come rain, shine, win, draw or loss; it’s the visceral energy that’s tangible when you’re inside the Stadium of Light, and it’s the pure unbridled joy when things go our way.

That’s Sunderland.

Bennett and NBCSN got it so right, we never lose faith - and that is the story of Sunderland AFC.

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