Sunderland Till I Die: Being In-charge of Someone Else’s Emotions

If season One of Sunderland Till I Die documented a heartbreak, season two is a tragedy of titanic proportions. At a time when sports is away from our TV screens, this documentary just showcases how much sports means to each one of us.

Season 2 starts with the introduction of sorts of new owners. Stewart Donald and frontman Charlie Methven were both Southerners, trying to keep alive a dying club up North. Given this background and the state they find the club in, this was always going to be an uphill task. They bring a young popular manager Jack Ross and he starts to rebuild the team.

The new owners, set to bring about a cultural change at the club. For years at the club, the get out of jail card was to send the bill was sent to a rich man sitting thousands of miles away. It was not a sustainable business model. They needed to change the entire club culture. From the very 1st minute, this was impressed upon everyone. Off the pitch, there were difficulties, given that the club was still viewed as a rich Premier League club. Agents and players have that backdrop in mind when negotiating deals. On it, things look a lot more hunky-dory, with the Black Cats in and around the top three spots.

Charlie Methven gets to work with building a repo with the fans. At the same time, he focuses on disrupting the processes. This is perhaps the most intriguing part of the series. Sunderland’s old staff were set in their ways. Charlie, while he didn’t provide a lot of direction, demanded action. His expectations were on a different level to how the staff looked at the situation. Something had to give. We do see at least one lay off. Some scenes display how bullish he could be. The typical rich owner trope of ‘oh they leave at 04:49 pm is thrown around. Nonetheless, at times he did succeed in getting things done as was the case when the club set an attendance record on Boxing Day.

But on the backdrop is the story of Josh Maja. The young striker who has been scoring goals for fun and Sunderland seemed destined for promotion. Soon, we see the dark side of the football industry. As Maja provides half-hearted assurances to fans and in front of the camera, his agent works on a move. The owners who were bulldozing over everyone else at the club were at the mercy of a young black man. I won’t lie, it felt good, having endured such bosses.

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Anyhow, Josh Maja was sold and a fight to sign another striker ensued. All the principles and talk about financial discipline went out of the window as Stewart Donald breaks the bank for Wigan ace Will Grigg. We often hear about how owners and managers under pressure wilt and gamble when they shouldn’t. Sunderland Till I Die provides a clear illustration of this as the owners go against all advice to make the move. Another aspect we see how much a cup run and a trip to Wembley means to the fans. Cliches do have some weightage.

As the rest of the season continues, Donald’s family puts pressure on him to sell. He refuses but still starts looking for an investor. On the field, results were mixed. Two heart breaks in a penalty shootout loss in the Checkatrade Trophy Final and a last-minute goal in the Play-off Final, make the season a disaster. Players felt under pressure, from the crowds and the demands of the management. Both central defenders spoke out and in different ways showed that they almost feared making a mistake would cost them their job (or worse).

Perhaps it is the pressure for playing for such a big club. Sunderland Football Club is the lifeblood of the city, and for years, fans have been disappointed. The emotion of sport is highlighted beautifully. In the end, Charlie Methven says “whatever I am doing hasn’t quite worked”, he perhaps is looking for a way out.

Yet, the fans keep believing and hoping for better days ahead. And that is what sport is about, belief!

Asjad Khan

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