Perhaps my most favourite thing about the very first series of ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ was that, despite all the chaos and madness going on around the club at the time, the warmth and spirit of the hard done to supporters and the community shone through.
Peter the taxi driver, Joan the chef, the countless families that the cameras followed throughout the season - they better than anyone else were able to show those watching at home, around the world, what it means to be a proud mackem. That has always stuck with me since the first series appeared, and I was delighted to see that the same theme is entwined throughout Fulwell73’s second offering, which hits screens on April 1st via Netflix.
This time, though, things were different - after introducing us to then new owners Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven in the final episode of the debut season, cameras followed the pair right throughout the 2018/19 season as they looked to turn around a broken business that was headed for bankruptcy before Ellis Short cleared the club’s astronomical debts.
Whilst Donald is indeed seen and often heard, it’s Methven who acts as the centrepiece, and it’s he who I suspect fans will be talking about most once the docuseries is made fully available to the public.
Nobody will be overly surprised by Charlie’s method of leadership - he’s strict and driven, and at times criticised by his employees for the way he chooses to act, but it’s clear to see - from the footage, at least - that his involvement was key in getting the club to achieve a series of milestones as the season rumbled on.
Unfortunately, however, his dressing down of a female employee on the sidelines at half time during Boxing Day’s narrow victory over Bradford - shown in episode three - made for painful viewing, and is perhaps what he’ll be most remembered for, and not the clear passion that he had for attempting to motivate a workforce who had evidently been emotionally burned from years of failure and fiscal difficulty, both on and off the pitch.
The protracted saga over Josh Maja’s Sunderland future dominates the early half of the series and in all honesty it was difficult having to re-watch footage of the young forward’s ascension to one of League One’s most deadly marksmen. I’d almost forgotten how good he actually was, so to see it all play out in front of me once again was painful.
Whilst we only really get to hear from the club on Maja’s situation - the Nigeria international is probed by the film makers to discuss it, but he won’t be drawn into it - the gripes of Sunderland’s transfer committee, particularly Richard Hill, Neil Fox and Stewart Donald, make it seem as though Maja’s agent had the club over a barrel, and that his departure was inevitable.
Hill - Sunderland’s ‘Head of Football Operations’ - in particular is not interested in playing games, and advises Donald to explore his options ahead of the January transfer window.
Unfortunately, we all remember very well how things played out - Maja left for what was a meagre sum of money, and as such the club spent the whole of January trying to replace him with Wigan striker Will Grigg. Fulwell73’s cameras were able to capture Donald at his weakest, when against the advice of his most trusted staff he paid over the odds in order to sign the Northern Ireland international and fulfil a promise he had made to the supporters - to sign a top League One striker.
Donald himself comes across as likeable throughout, if not a bit hapless. He’s evidently a nice person, but the indecisiveness over Maja’s contract and the way he handled the signing of Grigg from Wigan show him as an owner who lacks clarity; as a person who acts emotively, perhaps like a supporter would, and not always as a club owner with a financial responsibility to look after the club’s best interests. In truth, he appears out of his depth with Sunderland, and a conversation with Fox later in the series confirms that Donald doubted he’d be able to support the club financially over the long term.
The tough viewing for Sunderland supporters doesn’t end there though, with the final two episodes detailing the ins and outs of the club’s two failed attempts at winning silverware at Wembley. Blow-by-blow, kick for kick - the drama and tension will be enthralling to everyone but Lads fans, who will once again be made to relive two of the most painful defeats in modern times.
Still, the kindness and togetherness of the people is what shines through. When I think back to Wembley weekend for the EFL Trophy Final, it’s the coming together of the Sunderland people in London that I remember first and foremost.
Peter Farrer, the taxi driver who is one of the stars of the show, says it best himself to the cameras when stood in amongst thousands of his townfolk at Covent Garden: “Most of them haven’t got a pot to piss in... but they’re here.”
Truth. Hopefully that’s what people take away from six dramatic episodes of peek-from-behind-the-sofa television: that above all else, Sunderland AFC is not about whoever owns, manages or plays for the club, but the people who devote their lives to something that they know only exists to test their loyalty, and to ultimately disappoint them.
Sunderland Til I Die series two is available to stream from April 1st on Netflix.