Sports fans have had to adapt to get their fix over the past three months. Rewatching the 2005 Ashes, or dabbling in viewing the Korean (or Belorussian for that matter) football league come to mind as short term solutions. The return of the Bundesliga shows that there is light at the end of the sports tunnel. Yet sport is a long way off the status quo.
What is becoming more clear is that sports documentaries could be an equally suitable alternative. The Chicago Bulls’ documentary, The Last Dance has garnered plaudits, and the Amazon Prime Australian cricket series has been viewed with great intrigue. Yet Netflix and Amazon Prime have a plethora of other brilliant sport documentaries to keep the viewer entertained.
Most sports leagues around the world have a plethora of young talent fighting to be noticed, Netflix is no different with sports documentaries. One which deserves particular recognition is Sunderland Till I Die. This year Netflix brought out the second season of this show. For those who have not seen the first season. It revolves around Sunderland Football Club in the 2017-18 season. The side is beginning life in the English Championship (the 2nd tier of the English professional leagues). Having been relegated from the Premier League in the previous season, experts expected the side to be favourites to bounce back and return to the English topflight. The show presented the magic of documentary as a televised genre; you can’t follow a predictable narrative. The side went from being hot favourites to win the Championship to plummeting down the table. Poor player recruitment, the owner’s financial disinterest, and mismanagement were some of the many issues shown in the first series of the show as Sunderland bowed out of the Championship.
Season two, which covers Sunderland’s 2018-19 season in the English third tier (League One), continued to give a graphic and fast paced look into a football side trying to return to better days. The second season sees the arrival of new owners Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven. Whilst Season 1 was perhaps more interesting to the football fan, intrigued to see the downfall of one of England’s oldest football clubs, season two would be more than just a football fan. Large amounts of each episode look at the business model of a sports team. Questions are asked about how to make a football club sustainable and how to motivate a workforce.
Further season two dispels the illusion of glamour throughout all professional football. The show emphasizes the struggles of a lower league footballer who needs to secure one short term contract after another to protect himself financially. Further it shows the motivation of players to leave clubs for more money as seen with exciting season two prospect Josh Maja, who leaves Sunderland for Bordeaux. The scenes involving Maja capture the feeling of a football club’s management team, the viewer is feeling personally betrayed when Maja leaves.
What is worth pointing out with Sunderland Till I Die, and perhaps all sports documentaries for that matter, a very clear message is always being presented. A director can not portray the management team badly, as that is the group which allows filming to take place. Thus, in season one, a clear adversary is shown, Sunderland’s reluctant owner. The then Sunderland CEO, Martin Bain, and his support team are presented as victims of the owner’s Tartan wallet. In contrast, season two presents the new owners (Donald and Methven) as Sunderland’s knights in shining armour, who are banishing all the pretensions of Sunderland’s Premier League period, whilst constantly jousting with the inefficiencies which Bain left behind. The truth is potentially a middle ground between these two seasons. What is hard to find in either season are the moments where the management can be seen as the bad guys, where is the scene where an aging or injured player is not given a new contract? Whilst underlying messages are less noticeable in other sports documentaries, the sharp change in direction of Sunderland AFC between season one and two make it more apparent in Sunderland Till I Die.
Unlike many sports documentaries, this series pays particular focus on the supporters of a sports team. The documentary highlights a select group of Sunderland AFC supporters and captures their emotions throughout the series. From the triumph of winning the play off semi-final against Portsmouth in season two, to losing two finals at Wembley in that same season. Anyone watching the program will be able to see the triumphs and tribulations of being a Sunderland supporter.
The only other shortcoming of Sunderland Till I Die is that the season are relatively short in terms of episode number. Netflix makes binge watching TV far too straightforward an affair. Yet in comparison to Amazon Prime’s All or Nothing sport series, every minute of Sunderland Till I Die adds value, unlike All or Nothing at least Sunderland Till I Die is not ruined by being long winded. Sunderland Till I Die creates a unique football narrative, which whilst includes traditional aspects of a football documentary, it at least pushes the boat out in terms of helping the viewer to understand their supporters and Sunderland as a city. It is well worth a try for anyone feeling short of sport this summer.