Joe Butterfield reviews Netflix’s venture into football documentary, a series that shows the spiraling fortunes of a club whose fan-base deserve better.
On 17th August 2018, Amazon Prime released the latest of their All or Nothing documentary series. Typically following the seasons of NFL teams, they made their first venture into non-American football and the Premier League, telling the story of Manchester City’s 2017/18 season. As a Manchester City fan this was absolute gold, a real gem of behind-the-scenes coverage and locker room access, the kind of coverage all fans dream of having into their club.
The series was great for fans of the club. It gave a real sense of the team spirit within the squad and staff, as well as giving us all a glimpse into the mentality of the world’s greatest manager, Pep Guardiola. It was a novelty to see Guardiola swear as if it wasn’t a big deal. It was great to see him give a half time team talk during the Capital One Cup final at his exuberant best, almost speaking in tongues as he physically plays out every instruction he’s giving in a game of charades that only his team can truly understand.
However, whilst I’m sure things like this were no doubt interesting for fans of other teams to a certain extent, many weren’t totally enamoured with the project. The TV series was no doubt influenced by the club, something that as a fan I’m more than willing to acknowledge. There’s not a single bit of negative coverage of the club throughout the whole thing beyond one single episode in which the results were bad. Yaya Touré’s doubtless fractured relationship with Guardiola is given zero air time. City’s players fracas with United’s at Old Trafford admittedly wasn’t filmed but it isn’t even vaguely alluded to in the aftermath. It was a squeaky-clean documentary. Great PR but, objectively, not a perfect documentary.
A week after the release of All or Nothing it was announced that Netflix was releasing a batch of original documentaries, one of which was to chronicle the 2017/18 season at Sunderland AFC. Many football fans, myself included, were looking forward to a comical series, true car crash television detailing just how bad the catastrophic double-relegation of the North-East club truly was. This was to be the anti-All or Nothing, whilst Amazon depicted the pinnacle of record-breaking sporting achievement, Netflix were to give us the comedy club. The shambolic breakdown of one of the country’s biggest clubs. Amazingly, what we got was completely different.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die is not only a great football documentary but a great sporting documentary. It perfectly encapsulates the mood of the season and the feeling amongst the fans and this is largely because they made sure to put the fans firmly in the forefront of the story being told. The opening to the series is quite a moving blend of football and religion, with a church service just down the road from the Stadium of Light seeing fans of the club coming together in prayer, giving an immediate sense of the community the club represents and just how much it relies on the club. The Stadium of Light is the religious pilgrimage; fans don’t make the weekly trip for the dazzling football or to watch the world’s greatest footballers play week in and week out. It’s faith which leads them back to the football ground, faith that the bad times will eventually come good and this is a compelling, running theme throughout the show.
These scenes with the fans contrast with the activity higher up at the club, which is given a lot of coverage throughout. We’re taken on this journey through board level by Hugo Boss model wannabe Martin Bain, the club’s CEO at the time who appeared to also be wholly in charge of transfers. He spends the whole documentary strolling from one meeting room to another wearing tight-fitting shirts and spouting off generic lines about how the club deserves to be doing better than it currently is and how he relishes the challenge to get there. A bit like Brendan Rodgers in Being Liverpool.
In one scene we see the club’s recruitment team come to Bain with a list of potential loan targets which is, at best, not particularly realistic. Will Hughes makes the list, for example, despite having just made an £8 million switch to Watford that same summer. As Bain points out, they’ve brought a list of players which most, if not all, Championship teams and some Premier League teams would also be looking to recruit and Sunderland are by no means the most attractive prospect for them. In a later scene we see the final week of the January transfer window as they desperately chase for a striker. An agent of a target who has principally agreed to move requests that the club “give him the weekend to talk it through with his family”. Bain, despite the looming deadline and mounting pressure to get a body in, bizarrely accepts this without even the slightest resistance and then basically shrugs it off as “the transfer window is tough” after the call. It very quickly becomes apparent where the issues lie and it isn’t just on the pitch.
Chris Coleman plays a big part in the documentary also. A ray of sunshine amidst the storm that is Sunderland’s season up to his appointment as he takes over from Simon Grayson, who looks a bit like a child has tried to mould a face out of plasticine, with a similar amount of personality. Coleman is a thoroughly likeable man from start to finish, involving himself with staff members at every level and breathing fresh life into a club that is clearly spiralling downwards. Whereas Grayson is seen at fan meetings very much towing the party line and seemingly making little effort to connect with the fanbase, Coleman seems to embrace the club, the community and the staff and fans certainly warm to it.
It is quite apparent that, whilst Sunderland were very open with their access, they had very little influence over the final product which was put together. Whilst All or Nothing shies away from any of the negatives that come with running a football club, even the average day to day disagreements or arguments, this documentary puts the negatives very much in focus. I suppose that’s naturally a lot more difficult to avoid when a team goes through a disastrous relegation season but it doesn’t only focus on the results.
As well as the previously mentioned transfer window issues we are given a brief look at the implications of Jack Rodwell’s £70,000 per week contract, fan emotions spilling over at half time as Bristol City take a 3-0 lead before half time, Chris Coleman all but squaring up to a fan outside the stadium after a game, Darren Gibson’s drunk tirade at a local pub in pre-season, everything is laid bare. But it isn’t quite the comedy that we all expected. Instead what we’re presented with is a tragedy of not just a football club but a community which is being dragged through the mud.
This is where the fans play their part. Whilst in All or Nothing fans were briefly interviewed to give a bit of lip service to “Manchester City used to be bad before the Sheikh” and “we don’t like Manchester United”, Sunderland ‘Til I Die uses the fans to tell the story of not only the club but the city as a whole. The club almost plays second fiddle to the community surrounding it as we see the emotional impact the football has on its fans throughout. It brilliantly captures the anticipation and foolish optimism before a game as fans outside the ground boldly predict 3-1 victories despite being in a terrible run of form. “We just need that one win under our belt and we’ll go on a run.” The anger and the fury at the manner of defeats as leads are routinely bottled. The sadness and frustration which follows. The acceptance that this is who your team is and there’s nothing you can do about it. A broad spectrum of emotion which every fan can relate to underpins every episode in the series and ultimately ensures that the likes of myself are totally invested. This is something which, as a City fan, I’m more than willing to admit was absent throughout the Amazon documentary.
The access with the players themselves is actually fairly limited. John O’Shea, despite being one of the club’s captains, is strangely absent throughout 99% of the documentary and Lee Cattermole, the squad’s longest serving member, also has little involvement. Instead it’s the newer players to the squad which take centre stage. George Honeyman, an academy graduate staking his claim as a regular starter for the first time, helps see the club’s predicament through the eyes of both a player and a fan and newly signed goalkeepers Jason Steele and Robbin Ruiter give us an idea of the state of the club in comparison to their previous ones. Darren Gibson is involved through a tumultuous season for him personally. But it’s Jonny Williams’s story which is the most compelling. As a player who is brought on loan from Crystal Palace, he’s hit with long term injury fairly early on and his mental struggles are admirably put out there for all to see.
After watching All or Nothing I thought that the bar had been raised for football documentaries. Being Liverpool and First Team Juventus both suffered from a very Americanised style and a tendency to eulogise about the brilliance and traditions of the institutions they’re supposedly documenting neutrally, whilst the Amazon documentary wasn’t quite as in your face with the propaganda. The documentary obviously exists to attract more fans to the club, there’s no denying that, and to that end it succeeds. I’m sure plenty of overseas supporters will have watched the documentary and found a new affinity for City after spending time with the squad and Guardiola, as well as watching them break record after record.
Yet here I find myself, four months later, finding that the bar has been raised once again. Admittedly, this is probably largely to do with the difference in story that is being told. A club who have just been relegated finding themselves suffering a shock second consecutive relegation is objectively a better story than a club who are expected to win the league end up winning the league very comfortably. There’s little drama, from a documentary standpoint, in watching a winning machine win game after game and that’s why episode seven of the City documentary is the best one as it shows some level of adversity that the team have to deal with.
Sure, Sunderland ‘Til I Die doesn’t have the same exciting dressing room bollockings that the Amazon documentary had and there’s much less emphasis on how the teams are actually prepared for the games they’re heading into, or the tactics that are employed. But what it does have is the emotional hook to pull in viewers who aren’t just Sunderland fans. I could feel my heart sink as Sunderland’s relegation was confirmed, as if I didn’t already know it was coming, watching one woman’s voice begin to crack as she wipes away a tear and admit, after relentless faith that it’d all come good, “I think that’s it.”
As a Manchester City fan, All or nothing gave me exactly what I wanted – behind the scenes access to a record-breaking season with an insight into Guardiola’s processes. However, if All or Nothing is the documentary for Manchester City fans, then Sunderland ‘Til I Die is the documentary for football fans.