REVIEW: ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ features new ownership but same heartbreak

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Courtesy of IMDB

Sunderland 'Til I Die

Everyone loves an underdog story, especially in sports. Nothing moves people quite like a group of lovable misfits who come together and pull off what seems almost impossible. Perhaps it’s because we can identify with the underdog, and because we know we’ll be left with a happy ending when all is said and done. However, real life is different and we see that when it comes to Sunderland AFC.

Season two of Netflix’s “Sunderland Til I Die” picks up where the first season left off following Sunderland AFC’s relegation from the Premier League. But in between filming season one and two, the team was relegated a second time. In picking things up, Sunderland are now in League One, the third-tier of English soccer.

Under new ownership, the six-episode arc follows owner Steward Donald and fellow executive Charlie Methven as they look to rebuild the club and secure promotion. Their goal is to give the club back to Sunderland fans. However, the club is in far worse financial shape than they envisioned.

Numerous changes are made both in an attempt to revitalize the team and to improve the bottom line. From season one, more than half the squad is sold or has their contracts rescinded. Along with that came a new manager in Jack Ross. 

Donald and Methven come across as decent guys who want to fulfill their promise. But they also come across as a bit over their heads and Methven, in particular, prioritizes maximizing revenue even if it means berating his staff on camera. The most notable example is in the third episode as he berates Sophie Ashcroft, the team’s corporate communications manager. The episode ends with Barcroft putting her things in her car as she’s been fired.

Donald says that perhaps he is not best suited to own the club because of how intensely he lives the games and how much it affects him whether they win or lose. It becomes evident when he submits bid after bid for Wigan striker Will Griff. They’ve budgeted roughly a million pounds but Donald gets desperate and winds up paying three million for him, despite those around him telling him it’s a bad idea.

The storyline in the first-half of the documentary involves goalscorer, Josh Maja. Featured in the first season, Maja has become the team’s starting striker. The majority of the matchday footage of Maja involves him scoring goals and coming into his own at Sunderland. But his contract is coming up and ownership is not at all confident that he will re-sign. During a one-on-one interview, Maja is asked about his situation. He doesn’t divulge anything other than his agent takes care of those things but he does smile tongue-in-cheek as if he’s made up his mind. Maja does leave the club to sign for Bordeaux in France. 

Much like season one, the true stars of the documentary are the Sunderland supporters themselves. Even after being relegated a second time, the town is buzzing anticipating the start of the new season. The supporters have bought into the message of the new ownership as they are desperate to have something to cheer about. But it wouldn’t be Sunderland if it wasn’t filled with heartbreak and Sunderland fans were dealt two significant blows.

Sunderland managed to make the final of the Checkatrade Trophy which meant a trip to Wembley Stadium in London. The cameras follow the fans as they make their way to London as they’re drinking and having a good time. The nerves come back during the game as Sunderland take an early lead, but rivals Portsmouth get back in the game and constantly threaten. It’s here where we see Methven’s antics once again as he goes into a tirade against manager Jack Ross. His wife has to repeatedly tell him to calm down. Sunderland ultimately lost in penalty kicks.

Despite a topsy-turvy season, Sunderland headed back to Wembley for a playoff final for a promotion against Charlton. This time, Sunderland fans believe it’s their time. The score is tied heading into the final minute. Charlton has the ball and a player sends in a cross. Slowed down, the ball heads into the area where a Charlton player shoots only to have the ball deflect against a Sunderland player before heading in. The Sunderland players fall to the ground knowing they’ve lost.

Fighting back tears, Sunderland fan Michelle Barraclough looks at her husband and says, “Why is it never us celebrating? Why is it never us?”

Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the feeling of Sunderland fans better than that. The feeling of always thinking things are going to be better only to have it yanked and be sent back to reality. When the game was over, some fans cried, others stared blankly onto the pitch and others applauded the team off. But the hurt was there. Evident for all to see. 

“Sunderland ‘Til I Die” encompasses what it is to be a fan of a team who isn’t the most glamorous or the most successful. It’s also how entrenched a community can become with a team who brings more heartache than triumph. But fans keep heading back because it’s who they are and what the team represents. It’s a part of their community and, in many ways, it’s become part of their identity.

Sunderland supporter Peter Farrar summed it up best: “It’s massive to this city if Sunderland’s a successful football team.”