The Collegian
Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Film Fridays | “Sunderland ‘Til I Die,’” until I die

<p><em>Graphic by Carissa Gurgul</em></p>

Graphic by Carissa Gurgul

Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

The opening frame of “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” is a church. Residents of the northern English town file in under shepherd statuary as organ-led hymns play over them. They stand as one community united on Sunday, and they urge with their spirits, if not their words, for their pastor to pray for their football team, “Gathered as a communion of faith, we bring our prayers before the Lord. Let us pray for Sunderland Football Club and for our city.”

In the working-class town of Sunderland, England, the football (as in soccer) club is for many, an important distraction from daily life, and for some, an integral part of their being. This Netflix docu-series follows the team during its greatest time of despair ever since its founding in 1879. 

The first season follows the team during the 2017-2018 season when the team has just been relegated. This means that, essentially, Sunderland finished last in the top league (think MLB) and so will now be playing in the English near-equivalent of Triple-A (think top of the minor leagues). 

Sunderland had been in the top flight of English football, the Premier League, for most of its history and had high hopes of winning Triple-A (called the English Football League Championship — yes, confusing that the English call their second-tier league the Championship). 

Sunderland had the most expensive roster in all of the Championship, and they had one of the biggest stadiums, the Stadium of Light, which can fit nearly 50,000 people. Success in English football is closely tied to a club’s wealth because there is no salary cap as in American sports. A club can often spend as much as its owner is willing to in order to acquire talented players. 

So, it seemed that Sunderland was in a great position to yo-yo back up to the Premier League. 

And then disaster struck in every conceivable way throughout the 2017-2018 season. 

The club deals with injuries to important players, discontent in the locker room, multiple coaching changes, a player getting arrested for a DUI who was then kicked off the team. Plus, it turned out they had no real money to spend, and few players wanted to come to Sunderland anyway. 

It was a complete crisis, and this football team is covered with the tone of a climate change documentary. They may as well have had David Attenborough ponder whether the town would be submerged in the North Sea by 2020. 

For everyone involved, this is dire, dire stuff, and the docu-series follows not just behind-the-scenes access to players, coaches and diehard season ticket holders. They also get access to upper management, who have to handle the team’s bloated and unsustainable budget. 

It is the most access you’re likely to ever see into how a sports team is run, and this insight is during an absolutely chaotic and devastating time. They did not win a single game at home for a year. They finished in last place of their league at the end of the 2017-2018 season and were relegated again to the third tier of English football (which is called League One, for some reason). 

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The first season is absolutely soul-crushing, and even if you know all of what is going to happen going in, I guarantee you will be living and dying on every goal just like the home fans — and  there are just depressingly few Sunderland goals. 

The second season, which follows the 2018-2019 season, was just released on April 1, and it is a cruel kind of April Fool’s joke. I binged it in a day and was drunk with the fervor of fans who are tattooed with past championship trophies, beards dyed red and white for game day, teaching their sons and daughters to laud and condemn their home team with a passion that could only live inside an underdog town like Sunderland. 

I won’t completely spoil the second season’s ending, but there is new ownership. There is a new coach, new upper management, all with bright ideas and can-do attitudes. They want to turn this ship around so desperately, and, well, how close they get is truly poetry. 

“Sunderland ‘Til I Die” is aptly titled, and it is a great reminder of in what way sports matter to people and whom they matter for the most. 

Sunderland is a city not much bigger in population than Richmond. It’s described in the documentary as blue-collar, middle to lower class, northern, industrial. It’s easy to get invested in what these people are invested in, and it’s easy to see how their football team is truly their city’s pearl. When that pearl is not just scuffed up, but buried under mountains of dirt, ash and brine, it cuts deep to the heart. 

Maybe it’s not so crazy to pray for a football team. 

Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at conner.evans@richmond.edu.

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