In an age with no football to look forward to for the foreseeable future, it was refreshing to hear that a second season of Netflix’s terrific docu-series Sunderland ‘Til I Die was dropping on April Fools’ Day this year. They call it coincidence, but we all see what game they’re playing here. The series chronicles the Black Cats’ 2018/19 season in League One, under new ownership and management, after finishing bottom of the Championship the previous season and succumbing to their second consecutive relegation.
Now, for the uber-vigilant among you, you’ll notice I haven’t done an in-depth review of the first season, which was released and subsequently viewed by myself before I set up this clusterf*ck of a website. So, for those of you wanting a review of the first series, here it is: it’s great. It’s a wacky and over-dramatic eight-episode romp that makes you question whether you should feel sorry for a group of people trying their best to get their football club out of a dire situation, or whether or not we should be laughing with them all the way to League One. It gave us many classic moments from those eight episodes, such as the frequent false dawns sprung by the club winning one game, the year they went without winning at the Stadium of Light, their onslaught of awful transfers (namely Robin Reuter and Lewis Grabban), Jack Rodwell refusing to f*ck off out of the club so he could continue to get paid for doing nowt, and manager Chris Coleman maintaining a cool and classy approach to the whole situation, never letting it get the better of him, before unleashing the fury of a thousand gods on some hapless bloke who called him a pr*ck. He’s a married man with six kids, after all.
We were also introduced to former chief executive Martin Bain, a Mark Strong lookalike who looks as though he did dirty work for the Kray twins in a past life, and who appears with an espresso on his desk in every other shot he’s in. He looked like he was trying his best, but he was fired at the end of the season, and we last saw him driving off into the sunset, never to be heard from again.
Season two picks up where season one left off, with Bain gone and owner Ellis Short having sold Sunderland to “mysterious” businessman Stewart Donald. Donald doesn’t really give off a very “mysterious” vibe in this season, letting us into his family home, giving lengthy interviews, and you can even find a brief business history on his Wikipedia page. Although the same Wikipedia page also lists his birth year as either “1974 or 1975”, so he’s probably at least a bit shady.
Mr. Donald takes centre-stage this season, as the series strips back its focus on performances on the pitch (probably because they didn’t lose most of their games last season), and looks more at the business side of things. This means we also spend a lot of time with Bain’s replacement, Charlie Methven. Methven reminds me of evil banker Colin Firth in Mary Poppins Returns (pointless film if ever I saw one), where he seems charming an innocent enough to begin with, but, like all bankers, they turn out to be a right piece of sh*t in the end, because money matters and people don’t. Now, in fairness, Methven never actually turns to the dark side in this series, but you do get a sense that the honest and direct attitude he takes with the fans is either exaggerated because he’s got cameras on him, or because secretly he just wants to turn a profit. As someone who claims to be a football enthusiast, he doesn’t really seem to give much of a sh*t apart from when money is involved, and refers to the club as “we” and “us” like he’s been there a lifetime. Even when he’s seen yelling at the club during a poor second half against Portsmouth, it’s really just because he knows there’s a load of money to be lost if they don’t win the match. His Eton and Oxford upbringing really comes through.
Anyway, we begin with Donald and Methven inheriting a club that has been run into the ground by the previous owner, and is something they like to make a point of in pretty much every episode. They do some nice PR work by letting the fans drill in some new seats at the stadium with the players, namely new signing Luke O’Nien, who seemed to be the only player who actually wanted something to do with this show’s production. Jack Ross, who looks like Hugh Jackman’s forgotten Scottish cousin, is named as Sunderland’s new manager, tasked with the unenviable duty of guiding the club straight out of League One, on the back of suffering consecutive relegations, a water-tight wage bill, and an exodus of half the first-team. Yikes.
The season starts off alright, as hot prospect Josh Maja bangs in the goals to get Sunderland dreaming of a promotion push. However, the January transfer window rolls around and sees Maja’s “agent” negotiate a move to Bordeaux, apparently without the knowledge of anyone at the club, or Maja himself. It makes a previous scene where he turns on the Christmas lights in the Sunderland city centre and tells an old lady he’ll “definitely be here next season” all the more emotional/hilarious, whichever way you want to look at it.
This leads Mr. Donald on a last-minute hunt to find a replacement, and through the tried and tested process of scouting players via YouTube, he stumbles upon living meme Will Grigg. A frantic approach to sign him spans several days, and results in the striker joining from Wigan for £3million, a record figure for a League One player. So much for cost-cutting and efficient money-handling, I guess.
Sadly, the move didn’t work. While Maja scored 16 goals from 30 games before leaving, Grigg only managed 5 in 22, and he hasn’t exactly picked up the pace since. Sunderland’s push for automatic promotion was subsequently derailed, leaving them to have to go through the play-offs, which didn’t exactly go well. After narrowly overcoming Portsmouth in the semi-finals, a last-minute Charlton winner, seen from about ten different angles in slow-motion, saw the club destined to be stuck in the third tier for another season.
It wasn’t entirely doom and gloom, as the club had a previous outing at Wembley that season, as they reached the final of the EFL Trophy, and it was brilliant hearing all the Sunderland fans go on about how much they’ve always loved the competition and how wonderful it is, despite the fact it was the first time they’ve played in it since 1988, as well as the fact it is literally the most pointless and irrelevant football tournament on the face of the earth. Anyway, this is the Portsmouth match I alluded to earlier where Herr Methven lost his aforementioned sh*t, because the owners also want a whole trophy to with promotion. To cut a long story short, they lose the game on penalties, resulting in neither a trophy nor promotion to cap of a season of improvement, but ultimately one that is still no good for anyone associated with the club.
At least while the club didn’t get what they wanted on the pitch, they installed some new seats and got a new song playing over the PR system, so I guess we can count that as a positive. The club also broke the attendance record for a Third Division match, something Methven was oddly specific about doing, to the extent that he threatened a woman with her job if they didn’t break it, then upon breaking it after some clear meddling with the numbers, the woman was seemingly fired anyway. Probably gone to join Martin Bain on a remote island somewhere.
All in all, what did I think of season 2? It was a very entertaining watch. It was a shame that the number of episodes had been reduced from eight to six, as it would have been nice to have more documented action from on the pitch, especially since in this series we were also treated to out-of-place Brexit metaphors and Jesus imagery. However, those six episodes do still give us a great insight into the mindset of the new owners and fans, and seeing things through their eyes makes the series all the more enjoyable. You really get a sense of how the fans are feeling, although their attitude of “everything’s unfair and always has been unfair” is, to me, pretty ludicrous, considering that before their plight they’d literally spent nine straight seasons playing Premier League football. If they thought they had it bad, they should take a look and see what happened to Bury.
At the time of the current season’s suspension, Sunderland have sacked Ross to bring in Phil Parkinson, are sitting one place outside the play-off spots in seventh, and Donald is looking to sell the club. Things worked out just as planned, I guess.
Hopefully this isn’t the last of we see of Sunderland’s shenanigans, so if you’re bored one day and want to indulge yourself in somethingfresh and entertaining, go and watch Sunderland ‘Til I Die. It’s well worth your time. Stay safe, and happy viewing.