Season two of ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ could hardly come at a better or worse time for Mackems stuck indoors.
After the release on Wednesday, Sunderland will become one of, if not THE most talked about football club in the nation as bored football fans, desperate content providers and football writers with little else to cover will gorge on the six-episode second season.
We’re likely to see double the number of blog posts, viral clips and tweets about the series at least, given the lack of alternatives available to people seeking a new sports related distraction.
I loved season one of ‘Sunderland Til I Die’. It felt like an authentic representation of the rollercoaster ride that is supporting Sunderland. From the delirious delusion that a great escape was possible after an unlikely 4-1 win at Pride Park, to our ridiculous barely believable Bristanbul comeback at Ashton Gate, the Fulwell73 team did a masterful job of capturing the adulation and irreplaceable excitement diehard football fans get when your team positively surprises you.
Equally, the series embodied that crushing, foreboding feeling I just couldn’t shake at 2pm every Saturday from February onwards. The team was terrible and very rarely would I walk into a stadium or see a Sunderland team I wasn’t convinced were about to lose and sleepwalk closer to a humiliating relegation.
The series perfectly captured the passion for football and unmistakable sense of desperation for a Sunderland win you’ll find across the city on any home matchday.
It made stars of ordinary Sunderland fans like Peter, the affable taxi driver, and showcased the good people working behind the scenes at the club, like the club chefs who sounded like helpless parents when describing the club’s turmoil and their inability to affect the atmosphere around the Academy of Light.
Nationally this authenticity gave the show prominence it otherwise wouldn’t have achieved. The series undoubtedly benefited by coming out a few months after Manchester City: All or Nothing, which was the sports documentary equivalent of Rob Burgundy telling everyone to come see how good he looks.
Where the Manchester City documentary had Pep Guardiola sounding like he truly believes he is Jesus Christ reincarnated, talking up his coaching abilities against a backdrop of endless victories for his City team, we had Simon Grayson stumbling his way through PowerPoint presentations and receiving his P45 before Christmas.
The contrast could hardly be greater.
Even when watching games and hearing fans excitement, soaking in the buzz before a match you knew pushed Sunderland closer to relegation, I was able to laugh and smile watching the show because, as Philip Butler outlined in the Roker Report Sunderland Til I Die Roundtable, the lie we could tell ourselves was that things are much better now - that Sunderland are on the mend, and ran by owners that have a much clearer vision for the team’s revival. That the new guys have a higher vested interest in restoring the club to a position and prominence in the game fans could truly be proud of.
This year that simply isn’t possible, and although it hasn’t been two years yet, every Sunderland fan carries baggage with this ownership group regardless of where they stand on the Donald Out campaign fan groups (including the Roker Report) launched at Christmas.
I’m worried this season of television is going to make me angry. Even watching the trailer was difficult - watching former executive director Charlie Methven tell club staff: “This is a failed f**ked-up business!” knowing his stay in Wearside would end soon after he intimated that Northerners don’t understand business in a fan group meeting is tough.
Methven denied to The Times a fallout with fan groups was the key reason for him leaving the club, but conceded it was a, “contributing factor.” If season two is the Charlie Methven show, a man Fulwell73 producers described to The Daily Mail as “TV Gold”, then maybe I won’t get past the first episode.
If Methven’s overwhelming personality is what forces me to pause the series and walk away out of sheer anger and frustration, listening and watching the club’s current owner Stewart Donald could provoke a much more complicated response.
I’ve not been impressed with the vast majority of the footballing decisions Donald has made since his arrival on Wearside, but I also don’t think for a second that Donald didn’t put as much effort as physically possible into helping Sunderland achieve promotion last season.
I appreciate the efforts Donald made to try and re-engage a disillusioned fan base in the summer of 2018, whilst also being concerned about reports surrounding how he purchased the club and his inability to deliver on boisterous statements he’s made as our custodian.
So, going in I have no idea whether I’ll feel pity for the version of Donald we’re about to be served up on Sunderland Til I Die. Or, whether watching him stroll into Sunderland with what was in my opinion an overconfident, naïve mindset will make me angry and-or upset. He’s the big unknown before I hit play on the series on April 1st.
I’d be amazed if the players come across as anything other than the ostensibly honest, humble professionals they’ve consistently presented themselves as over the past two seasons. Jack Ross, for all his flaws as a coach, is probably the most intelligent, level-headed Sunderland manager I can ever remember, at least when it comes to behind the camera interviews.
Donald’s trickier to categorise than any of the show’s other stars. The lasting image of the Oxford-based businessman in the trailer isn’t a pretty one. Donald is seen arched over his sofa, looking exhausted, his tight-fitting shirt looks ready to burst, whilst his hair is misshaped in a way that only happens to rich men when they’ve gone far too long without shower.
All the chatter around the upcoming season surrounds the Will Grigg transfer. It’s been presented in certain reviews as the season-defining turning point where Donald made one fatal mistake to cost us promotion. I think the importance of the Grigg transfer has been overstated, but we all now know with hindsight that signing him has been a total disaster. His astronomical transfer fee (in League One terms) combined with his wages means it’s an error the club haven’t been able to reverse yet.
Is this seminal mistake the only insight into Sunderland’s boss we’ll get, or will other aspects of his management be revealed to give us a clearer picture as to why he’s struggled so badly at Sunderland?
I know, there’s no rule that says as a Sunderland fan I have to watch the show, and not watching the show might be better for my mental health. But just ignoring it would prove an even bigger challenge.
The first season was great! Plus, as a Black Cats fanatic, even the slightest peak behind the curtain and minor revelations into how the club is really run,fascinate me. I’m obsessed enough with this football club to find player interviews at their homes interesting.
The small snippets of players interacting before and after training in the last season were fascinating - Aiden McGeady being the elder statesman who refused to take part in snowball fights could be interpreted anyone of a million ways to fit your personal narrative regarding one of Sunderland’s most divisive players.
Seeing the human behind the ‘Twitter punching bag’ that Jason Steele became at Sunderland was engrossing, and heart-breaking in equal measure.
The infamous Zlatan Ibrahimović scouting report highlighted just how basic Sunderland’s transfer strategy was under Martin Bain and Grayson. That tragicomedy would never have been revealed without the Netflix cameras.
The other major reason I’m excited to get stuck into another season is that I loved the conversation surrounding Sunderland following the series. As someone who left the North-East shortly after my sixth birthday, I’ve never had a close friend outside of my family who cares about Sunderland AFC.
Being bombarded by texts and WhatsApp messages, as well as having friends keen to engage in conversations about Sunderland AFC down the pub was a totally alien experience. For about three months friends would randomly get in touch to explain they’d just binged the show, and mention how much they’d enjoyed it.
There was something hilarious and also endearing about hearing theories from people who hadn’t watched a minute of Sunderland’s Championship season prior to the show, pinpointing where they thought it all went wrong. Whether that was the Ashley Fletcher signing, Chris Coleman’s tactics or the appointment of Simon Grayson - for a brief spell, most football fans in the country had an opinion on Sunderland.
Football fans across the world could bond over their hatred of Jack Rodwell and Lewis Grabban, the two undoubted villains of the piece. In all honesty, I even thought the “we saw you cry on Netflix” chant was quite funny the first time I heard it.
Knowing the series will end with Charlton’s final goal at Wembley doesn’t bother me ‘that’ much. Seeing Patrick Bauer wheel away in celebration when there was only seven seconds left, losing the play-offs in the most torturous way possible, still hurts. It will feel like an almighty gut-punch, but it’s in the past and we’ve endured far worse in our recent history.
Watching season one after the fact, it felt like a Shakespearean tragedy that ended up as an unintentional comedy. We were the team that thought they were gearing up for a promotion push, only to end up finishing rock bottom.
Watching our new owners repeat the mistakes of the man they hammered for leaving the club on the brink of bankruptcy won’t be anywhere near as fun.
Sunderland’s continued underachievement, coupled with Donald’s struggles to modernise the club and show any signs of finding a successful footballing formula for success, mean in the way season one could be enjoyed and dismissed as an unintentional comedy from a previous era, this year’s season may sit firmly in the horror genre.
I’ll be watching, but depending on how our new Oxford-based overlords come across it mightn’t be for long.