You want a feel-good story? Go watch First Team: Juventus. Netflix’s newest football doc gets hauntingly real.
The human experience is weird. We recognize ourselves in other people, but that doesn’t mean we sympathize. Precious few of us take joy from watching the fans of a wildly successful team achieve another wild success. We’re far more likely to identify with fans who suffer.
If that sounds like you then, friend, you should really check out Sunderland ‘Til I Die, now streaming on Netflix. Production company Fulwell 73, named after a stand at Sunderland’s old Roker Park and the year when they last won a trophy, set out to document Sunderland AFC’s first season after relegation from the Premier League. They got more than they bargained for, as the club suffered a second-straight relegation, meaning the Fulwell 73 crew got to be a fly on the wall for one of the most dismal professional soccer campaigns in recent memory.
Dramatic irony abounds as we meet nervous front-office workers, players determined to win the second division, and fans who don’t think it can get any worse. We also meet Chief Executive Martin Bain, who plays it cool but makes no attempt to hide the painful financial reality of relegation. The club is like a patient that has just gone into a coma: maybe they’ll bounce back up in no time, but with every minute that passes, the outcome looks worse.
The personalities driving the show come and go because that’s what people do in this profession. Some of the most compelling characters are young players like George Honeyman, a youth academy product whose dream debut is one of the show’s brightest moments, or Josh Maja, who appears talented enough that he could yet escape the wreck of his club. In a break with sports-doc tradition, these players often act like real people, frank about their hopes and fears. “Sometimes I cry and nobody knows,” defender Bryan Oviedo tells the camera in an intimate late-season moment. Midfielder Jonny Williams, on loan from Crystal Palace and struggling with injuries, allows the crew to document his consultation with a sports psychologist. This isn’t First Team: Juventus; this is a group of young men dealing with anxiety, loneliness, and humiliation.
The fans, too, are a complex and fascinating bunch, quick to criticize but still happy to schlep across England behind the worst team in the country. Anyone who loves a sports team but wishes they didn’t understands the people of Sunderland. In an on-the-nose cold open to the episode in which the team are finally relegated, a local undertaker speaks of fans’ unwavering passion as he and an assistant prepare for a funeral – we can just make out the red-and-white striped shirt in the coffin.
Watching this kind of dedication, especially amidst such grim results, highlights the unavoidable tension of playing high-industrial football in a post-industrial town. The episode covering the January transfer window – for my money, the height of the series – includes the story of Jack Rodwell, who signed with Sunderland from Manchester City at £60,000 a week back when Sunderland were doing that kind of deal. Now 26, with few on-field accomplishments to his name, Rodwell makes nearly as much per week as the average Sunderland family makes in a year. The locals are understandably eager to see him go, and Bain tells Rodwell he should terminate his contract for the good of the struggling club. Then again, if you were 26 and knew this was the last good contract you’d ever sign, would you walk away from all that money to do a kindness for the club that promised you the world?
The stakes in this show are high because it’s not simply a matter of wanting to win games. It’s a matter of being desperate to win games, for the sake of everyone’s livelihood. The first casualty we see is the sacking of manager Simon Grayson, but employees later remind us that relegation from the Premier League has already claimed the jobs of many of their colleagues. Another relegation means more layoffs.
You couldn’t have cast the role of the savior better than Sunderland did when they hired Chris Coleman, the former Welsh manager still basking in the glory of his impressive showing at Euro 2016. Aside from being super attractive, a point on which every man, woman, and child in Sunderland seems to agree, the new gaffer wins everyone over with pluckiness and warmth, plus a few good performances early on. Either he’s a gifted actor or Coleman is actually a really great dude – he’s upbeat, honest, and determined to succeed in a job nobody else would touch with a ten-foot pole. Alas, he (and Bain) will both go the way of Grayson by series’ end.
Everyone interviewed, and indeed most everyone else, agrees that what happened was not Coleman’s fault. Sunderland ‘Til I Die references mismanagement in the club’s past, but the club’s then-owner, Ellis Short, gets very little screen time. Obviously, he didn’t want to be involved in the documentary. Everyone interviewed, and indeed most everyone else, blames Short for not investing enough in the club, but I would’ve appreciated a bit more exploration of just how we got to this bleak point – surely it’s a bit more complicated than “Ellis Short is a wanker!”
Then again, the whole point is that this is more than a business. The quick, human moments – a ticketing officer discussing the next round of layoffs, a player waving goodbye as he leaves the training facility forever, or the guttingly sweet text Coleman sends to a club chef after being terminated – drive the show. We’re so used to gawking at the gears of industrialized football that it’s easy to view players, coaches, and everyone else as mere cogs. But here, as a club and a city are ground down to their rawest point, is the humanity that has invested so much of itself in the beautiful game. As with so many investments in the history of Sunderland, this one is dubious at best, but it’s the one we all make. It’s not a pretty story, but the beauty of Sunderland ‘Til I Die lies in its depiction of the lows – and with them, the hope for some equally awesome high – of a life devoted to sport.
– Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen, you can tell it’s going to be depressing from the first episode, when Bain admits the club is too poor to purchase a player from Aston Villa.
– The lads from the academy provide some of the cheeriest moments, be they ambushing the first team with snowballs or scoring on their senior debuts, as both Honeyman and Maja did.
– Sunderland’s new vice-chairman is determined that the club will no longer be a joke: “That piss-take party stops now!” It’s a sign of the times that I first thought he said “piss tape.”
– The deadline day episode was extremely emotional, but nothing got me quite like the sight of fans in a pub following a second-straight relegation, drowning their sorrows while singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
– Speaking of which, blimey, the title song (“Shipyards” by local band The Lake Poets) is a real tearjerker, innit?
– Did I mention Chris Coleman is super hot?
Stephen Wood is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Jacobin, Paste, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Follow him @TheStephenWood.