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Sunderland ’Til I Die Is TV’s Best Show About Failure

The Netflix documentary series is the next best thing to watching sports themselves.

Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

In the movies, underdog sports teams always come from gritty, struggling, preferably postindustrial places. Major League wouldn’t work if it were set in Miami, instead of Cleveland. Rocky’s determination in Rocky is melded to Philadelphia: He draws his strength from the city itself, pumping his fists and jumping into the air after ascending the steps of the city’s art museum. Underdog sports teams are avatars for their downtrodden communities. They ultimately prevail by embodying the pluck and mettle of the people, taking down well-heeled, cosmopolitan competitors along the way (in Major League’s case, the Yankees). In the process, they elevate the cities they represent, which rise to reclaim the glory they lost a long time ago.

The first season of Sunderland ’Til I Die, Netflix’s documentary about Sunderland Association Football Club, the storied but recently relegated soccer team from England’s northeast, was intended to follow this trajectory. With an emphasis on the club’s passionate working-class supporters, a grandiloquent score, and frequent drone shots of the city and its massive stadium, it was meant to follow the team as it marched its way back to the heights (and riches) of the English Premier League. Along the way, the team would redeem the city, which has never quite recovered after the English economy moved on from cotton and coal in the last century.

But Sunderland’s 2018–2019 season did not work out as intended. Instead, everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. The team’s defense was abysmal; their top scorer jumped ship during the transfer window in January. Veteran Darron Gibson started the season drunkenly bitching about the club in a pub and ended it being arrested for drunk driving. Practically everyone with us at the start of the year was gone by the end: two managers, an executive, an owner, and several players. Instead of reaching the promised land of the Premier League, Sunderland was unable even to keep its perch in the second division; it was relegated again, to England’s third division.

All of that chaos created something remarkable. The cameras captured nearly everything. There was no one to block access, a true feat in the hermetic world of top-flight sports, where millions of dollars are spent manicuring the images of teams and athletes. The result was an intricate portrait of the sports world’s most profound, but rarely explored, phenomenon: failure. Now back for a second season, Sunderland ’Til I Die once again hopes to capture a soccer team—and a people—on the ascent. Instead, it provides a different, but just as compelling, look at catastrophe.

The canvas is wider in the second season. The emphasis on the city and the fans is still there—its fourth episode opens with a Leave rally, an acknowledgment that the city is overwhelmingly pro-Brexit. But it also takes us much deeper behind the scenes, with a focus on the club’s owner, Stewart Donald, and its director, Charlie Methven, both of whom come from the south of England and are trying to prove their worth to skeptical fans—and keep the club afloat financially. Sunderland AFC, in season two, is a metaphor for larger struggles, both in English and global soccer.

In the first episode, Methven tells the team that Sunderland “is a failed, fucked-up business, and unless you guys understand that, you’re never going to make it in this world.” He sounds a bit like Alec Baldwin delivering his Glengarry Glen Ross monologue: “This. Was. Fucked,” he says. “A hundred percent fucked!” (Perhaps consciously, Methven is also echoing the impeccable profanity of Sunderland ’Til I Die’s predecessor, 1998’s Premier Passions, a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking that tracked Sunderland AFC’s first disastrous season in the Premier League.) If Sunderland is to survive, it has to claw its way out of the third division by either finishing in the top two of the second division or winning the final promotion slot in a four-team playoff.

The financial stress weighs heavily on the club’s leaders, particularly Donald. Seemingly in the throes of a midlife crisis, Donald is thin-skinned and prone to nervous fits. His decisions are impulsive and emotional. Donald and Methven don’t fit in—they’re not working-class and there’s something dodgy about both of them. They offer a fascinating glimpse into how decisions—decisions with immense financial and personal repercussions—are actually made at the top.

Donald’s flightiness leads to two catastrophic mistakes. Furious with the way he’s being treated by the agent of his young star, the goal machine Josh Maja, Donald sells him in January, rather than let him walk for free at the end of the season. (The show presents this as a fait accompli engineered by Maja and his agent, but I’m not so certain.) Donald then wildly overspends to bring in replacement Will Grigg, who can barely find the back of the net.

In contrast to much of what passes for fly-on-the-wall sports documentaries these days, the profiles in Sunderland ’Til I Die are insightful and occasionally profound. The latest crop of sports docuseries, like Amazon’s All or Nothing or HBO’s Hard Knocks, are carefully managed. A recent season of All or Nothing, which follows Manchester City’s record-busting 2017–18 campaign, is perhaps best described as an anti-documentary. Manchester City—which is, it should be noted, owned by the human rights–trampling United Arab Emirates—is portrayed as the emblem of soccer perfection. A similar self-aggrandizing dynamic can be seen in the articles “written” by superstar players in The Players Tribune, or documentaries about how great these players are as people, such as Sergio Ramos’s El Corazon, a series so propagandistic it could have been directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

Sunderland ’Til I Die is an indictment of modern soccer and its corporate culture. The agents are conniving. The owners and directors are obsessed with profit. The fans are fickle and impatient. The players are greedy. The overwhelming focus on money weakens soccer’s cultural value and disconnects it from communities.

Donald casts himself as a kind of millionaire Don Quixote, tilting at the corporate culture that has consumed sports. “Oxford United became like every other club that I saw … it all became about the finances,” he says, talking about the team he grew up supporting. “And it just lost that feeling that you had in the ’80s and ’90s. Getting involved in Sunderland gave me a chance to run a team in what I perceived as an old-fashioned way. Everyone could feel like they own their football club again.”

The idea that the players themselves are grubby and selfish mostly comes from Donald and Methven. The actual portraits we get of Sunderland’s team tell a different story. Maja, the only one who could be described as a star, is put in an awkward position: He can remain with a third-division English team, or he can try and make it big. (He ends up in Bordeaux, a midtable team in France’s first division, and you can hardly blame him.)

The other players are shell-shocked—either young and scared or old and broken. Their mistakes haunt them and grind them down. The wife of defender Jack Baldwin clearly wants him to stop, for both his mental health and the sake of their finances. Benched after poor play, Baldwin tells the cameras he was almost grateful, saying if he had made a mistake he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself. Another defender, Tom Flanagan, talks about getting harassed in a supermarket by a fan and his wife.

Sunderland AFC’s first season in England’s third division is, in many ways, the inverse of its time in its second division. Things start off very well. The team is consistently on the cusp of automatic promotion; so close it can taste the second division. Rather than an almost comical race to the bottom, the second season is a slog to the top, even if it is full of setbacks that ultimately cannot be overcome: Sunderland AFC as Sisyphus. The team reaches a cup final at Wembley—only to lose in a penalty shootout. It narrowly misses automatic promotion but makes the playoff final—only to lose in the sixth minute of stoppage time.

Failure is at the heart of sports fandom. There is meaning in failure, even if it’s agonizing. Underdog sports movies end with the city and the team coming together, having triumphed over the forces of defeat and decay. In real life, failure often follows success—just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers. And after that, there’s more failure—just ask Sunderland AFC.