You think about what we all sacrifice to follow our team up and down the country, home and away. Travelling to Plymouth away would cost you the best part of an all-inclusive to Lanzarote, truth be told. It’s no wonder some of us could not countenance spending such an exorbitant sum on what turned out to be a drab 2-0 defeat - this season at least.
Not, however, in the world of Ian Wake.
And it’s with Ian that we open episode three. A man so desperately in love with his football club he would probably happily live inside a tent in the club shop if he could. The opening scenes express perfectly how so many of us feel about following Sunderland AFC; Ian has in many ways enacted the fantasies we all have - packed his place full of Sunderland memorabilia, then downsized to help fund the addiction of following his club - something which clearly has a vice-like grip on him.
We’ve followed this gentle, softly spoken man throughout the episodes with his trusty pal Michelle, through good, bad and the deepest of brown stuff. But he clearly loves the club so much - and though football has many naysayers and detractors, how can you criticise such devotion and passion?
It’s easy to write about people like Ian, and that’s what the programme makers, Fulwell ‘73 have to remember. It’s your supporters like Ian and Peter Farrer who prop up the series because the fans are the people who can truly transmit the passion. They are also the only cast of characters in a football club which only change when death takes them - more on that later.
This episode is all about the build up to Wembley. Up to this point, we’ve had 16 episodes of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, and it’s felt a little bit like they’ve all been for someone else, and not for our fans. A vehicle to have a laugh at tragic Sunderland, forever mired in failure and defeat. This time there’s no doubt, as the curtains come down on season three, that this final episode is for us.
It’s here we also see that letting Lynden Gooch go to Stoke was a terrible mistake. I imagine it would have been an easier task throwing kittens in the river Wear than telling Goochy we had accepted a bid from The Potters for his services. Personally, having seen the man talk about his love for the club, I fully support embalming him and sticking him in the club reception once he’s no longer here. It’s what he would have wanted.
Then there’s Ross Stewart telling the story of his early career that I’m sure most of us know, his Da shelling out the £500 to Kilwinning Rangers to allow Albion Rovers the chance to sign him - I wonder if he ever did get his money back?
Kristjaan Speakman pops up ever so briefly to demonstrate that he knows exactly what he’s doing in terms of recruitment - to be able to see that you could coach the attributes we subsequently saw Stewart display with such aplomb is a huge validation of his work. Then again, he’s also largely responsible for the best player in the world right now, so there’s no flies on him.
The episode segways nicely between preparations and the final itself through a touching tribute to Louise Wanless, our media and communications officer, who passed away in 2021. It’s clear that she meant so much to everyone at the club and of course featured prominently in the first two seasons. A shirt with her name on was placed in the dressing room pre-match.
And then we have the reason why we’ve all sat through this - Wembley.
The best thing you can say is it faithfully invokes the memories of the day. Yes it would have been nice to have captured Trafalgar the night beforehand, the journeys down by our contributors, but maybe that just didn’t make the cut.
What it needed to do was remind us all of what a special day that was and it most certainly succeeds even though - if I could be a little mischievous for a second - it was not a hard thing to do.
I remember at the time when we were 2-0 up being scared witless that Wycombe were going to come back into it, and that would be even more painful than Charlton. However the truth is Sunderland made mincemeat of the Chairboys that day, and the only moment of real jeopardy was Sam Vokes almost squeezing it under Anthony Patterson in the second half.
So isn’t it nice to just let the story tell itself? What was clearly needed in the first episode, and arguably the second was a bit of narration, Gina McKee-in-Premier-Passions-style to help knit the story together.
However this final part flows with ease. There need not be any contrived narrative, dodgy editing or ramped-up hyperbole that TV producers so often fall foul of. Arguably had this been the only episode of the whole season, it would not have taken away too much from the overall experience.
It all ends on a sad note, which I don’t want to reveal in case you haven’t yet seen it, but the quote from Father Marc Lynden Smith, who we heard from right at the very beginning of season one, is poignant:
If you’re with somebody surrounded by people that love them and even in their final moments they’re talking about Sunderland football club, about praying for the team and cheering the team on from the other side, this is so important in people’s lives and it’s going to be important in death as well.
And if that doesn’t sum up following Sunderland AFC, I’m not sure what will.
So there we have it - the curtain comes down on Sunderland ‘Til I Die.
Did I enjoy it? In bits, massively so. Could it have been better made? Without doubt. Do I wish it had never been commissioned? Well, the one thing that made me slightly bristle was the glee and mirth displayed by other football fans about our misfortunes being laid bare for all to see, as if their clubs are universally successful.
Yet the fact remains that even Jurgen Klopp says he has far more experience of finishing second than he does first. And that’s it really isn’t it — if you can’t win things, the next best option is glorious failure, and Sunderland AFC certainly did that.
Of course, I didn’t love the fact the world got to see our lowest ebb, but I’m delighted that we had the last word. People got to see our triumph, our celebration, our vindication. The journey was the journey - I’m not surprised about anything to do with our club anymore, but it still makes me laugh that across hours of footage over three seasons, the one scene almost everyone remembers is the discussion between Charlie Methven and the comms team about the pre-match playlist, his love for EDM and that sodding PA system.
That and the time Stewart Donald signed Will bloody Grigg.