REVIEW: ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die,’ Season 2

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Sunderland Til I die

Sunderland ‘Til I Die Season Two is a Netflix documentary series produced by Fulwell 73. The series focuses on both the Sunderland football club and the city itself at their lowest point following the team’s relegation into League One, the third tier of English football, in 2018. Still reeling from the humiliation, Sunderland AFC battled for promotion with the help of new owners Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven.

The biggest difference in this season is the change of tone. The first season had this feeling of shock, as the football team was fruitlessly trying to claw their way out of the Championship while at the mercy of a disinterested owner. Every figure in and out of the club seemed resigned to this fate and anger from the supporters fuelled the energy of the episodes. In season two, there’s a newfound feeling of tentative hope that comes from the new owners. The supporters and the staff seem optimistic about this new era, but they are all desperate to win promotion out of a league Sunderland doesn’t belong. This is a refreshing new direction, but also adds a sense of urgency for the football players.

Pacing is something that Sunderland ‘Til I Die season two suffers from, and it isn’t helped by the fact that it has lost 2 episodes that season 1 benefitted from. This means that the episodes have a tendency to omit details in place of having overly long scenes about the least interesting aspects of running a football club. Episodes 2 and 3 spend far too long within boardrooms and marketing meetings. This is frustrating because the series sells itself on showing the supporters and their connection to the club, yet the amount of scenes that consist of rich people talking to other rich people creates a huge disconnect.  

Part of the disconnect also comes from the focus on Methven attempting to change the culture within the inner workings of the football club. The problem with that is that he is an entirely unlikeable person. He is arrogant, rude, and unpleasant towards his staff. And while this could potentially be a great aspect to expose throughout the documentary, it actually felt tiring to watch him threaten the staff with redundancies. In fact, the most enjoyable parts of the episodes that centered around Methven were fun because they featured his colleagues complaining and insulting him behind his back. It was important for the producers to showcase who this man is and the effect he has on the people around him, but there was too much of it and it ended up becoming dull and uninteresting.

In contrast, Sunderland ‘Til I Die season two does show Donald in a kinder light, and he is much more of a fascinating figure to follow. Donald comes across as an incredibly excited but naive new chairman. His exposure to the world of agents and contracts and football finances would be fun to watch for viewers new to the sport because he’s learning about them at the same time the audience is. 

The behind the scenes conversations with the Sunderland players is a refreshing change from other football documentaries on the market. In the Premier League and the Championship, the top 2 tiers of the English football pyramid, players can look like inaccessible superstars. But the members of the squad the interviewers talk to in this series have a vulnerable side to them. Some, like Luke O’Nien, are young, nervous kids trying to improve. Others, like defender Jack Baldwin, have lengthy conversations talking about the personal financial uncertainty of being a lower league player, as well as the strain pressure from the fans has on his mental health. I felt that these segments make the audience so much more invested in the success and failure of these players. They feel more human than the superstars of the leagues above.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die season two truly comes to life when the cameras enter the Stadium of Light. The camera work makes the League One style of football look riveting to watch. The sound design helps the audience really feel the impact when players slide in for a tackle, or when their heads collide with each other in midair. The slow-motion cuts in just at the right time to follow the free kicks straight into the top corner. But they build the pressure and tension by showing just how worked up the fans get. Their roars, their tears, their cheers show just how much these games mean to every single one of them. The last two episodes of this series are where the pace starts to really ramp up. The race for promotion and success accelerates and heightens, and how much the fans need this is captured brilliantly.

Sunderland Til I DieWhat the show manages to do especially well is create real stakes for an industry that is often summarised as “22 men having a kickaround.” There are genuine, devastating consequences for Sunderland football club if the club does not claw its way out of the league. But not only that, the energy on the football team has a direct impact on the energy of the city of Sunderland as a whole. The greatest achievement of Sunderland ‘Til I Die is tapping into the emotions of the entire community and how they are so intrinsically linked to the red seats of that football stadium. So much so that the club enlists the help of the general public to fit the new seats into the stands. The supporters were clearly aware that it was a cheap marketing exercise by Donald and Methven’s team, but they went anyway. It’s an example of how suspicious they are of any owner traveling in from afar, yet they will always be there for that team. It’s a religion to them. So much so that the vicars pray for the team in their sermons.

The biggest thing I appreciated was that the supporters are not patronized at all by the documentary. It would have been very easy for it to be edited in a way that places the fans behind a pane of glass and tell viewers to point and laugh at those on display. But it doesn’t. Instead, it shows them for what they are — loyal. That football team is their biggest love beyond their family. The audience is shown the tattoos of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips. The stories about the 1973 FA Cup Final. The beards sprayed red before their trip down to London, like they’re preparing for battle. And it shows the sacrifices they make for their team. To use a very British phrase, many of them don’t have a pot to piss in. But they go anyway. 

Sunderland ‘Til I Die season two is a brilliant but congested addition to the series. The emotions of the season are still there, but it takes a long time to reach it. Being trapped within the boardrooms with unlikeable people makes the audience long for more pitchside action. The off-pitch side of the club is important, but there is too much emphasis on just the meetings. And the loss of two episodes between the seasons means that so much of the 9 months is squished and not given much time to flourish. But when the series goes back to what it does best, it’s hard not to get engaged. And the simply stunning title sequence drags the rating up by itself. Much like Sunderland’s season itself, this series is a promising struggle.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die Season Two is now available on Netflix.

Sunderland 'Til I Dies Season 2
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

Sunderland ‘Til I Die season two is a brilliant but congested addition to the series. The emotions of the season are still there, but it takes a long time to reach it. Being trapped within the boardrooms with unlikeable people makes the audience long for more pitchside action. The off-pitch side of the club is important, but there is too much emphasis on just the meetings. And the loss of two episodes between the seasons means that so much of the 9 months is squished and not given much time to flourish. But when the series goes back to what it does best, it’s hard not to get engaged. And the simply stunning title sequence drags the rating up by itself. Much like Sunderland’s season itself, this series is a promising struggle.