'Sunderland Till I Die' Season 2 is another tragicomic slice of football life
The first season of Sunderland 'Til I Die was a tragicomic odyssey into a Premier League club's equivalent of The Upside Down. Instead of bouncing straight back to the top table, Sunderland were relegated again from the Championship to League One.
Out went wantaway owner Ellis Short and chief exec Martin Bain; in came new brooms Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven. The cameras hung around to see what happened. As you might know, things didn't get any less tragicomic last season.
Key voices from the first season are still around. Peter, the taxi driver who's been coming to Sunderland games since 1963, is still there, as is Joyce, the club's head cook. Club captain George Honeyman continues to be an adorable sunbeam. Methven is the standout character in this new series, though.
Everything about him smells a bit off. He says "season cards" rather than season tickets. He pushes his hair back so it looks like it's got Cadillac-style fins. In the first episode he attempts a Glengarry Glen Ross-style foul-mouthed rant at staff to impress upon them how f**ked everything is.
"On an operational basis, this business was losing, and planning to lose, 30 to 40 million [pounds] a year," he says. A pause for dramatic effect. "It is a failed" – he draws a big line through some figures on his whiteboard – "f**ked-up business, and unless you guys understand that, you'll never f**king make it in this world."
He looks around. "This. Was. F**ked." He smiles. "Hundred per cent f**ked." Nobody seems to know how much the club was paying in interest the previous season. "It was in my presentation to all staff," says Methven, clicking his pen irritably.
Sunderland went almost a full calendar year without winning at the Stadium of Light, and Methven wants to turn it into a fortress. For some reason, his weapon of choice is trance. Sergei Prokofiev's Dance of the Knights has been Sunderland's walk-out music at the start of games since the Stadium of Light opened, but Methven has some thoughts.
"My personal instinct is: new start, fresh beginnings, new sound," he says, tapping on his laptop. "This is how I'd do it if I was DJ."
Tiesto's 'Adagio For Strings' bangs tinnily into the meeting room. Looks are exchanged. Later, while trying out the PA system with matchday announcer Frankie Francis, he tries to get across what he wants.
"You know those massive raves?" Methven says.
"Like a nightclub?" says Francis.
"Yeah," says Methven, "or at least a very large-scale one."
If Methven is eerily smooth, Donald seems to carry the weight of Wearside on his shoulders. He literally crumples during the January transfer negotiations for Will Grigg, eventually forking out a whopping £3 million – a little over Methven's £1.25 million valuation – to try to replace striker Josh Maja. You feel sorry for him.
If the first season of Sunderland 'Til I Die was about pride and place, and the crumbling but abiding love between the city and its club, the second is about money. Sunderland's wage bill is £34 million. In League One. £34 million. League One. The majority of the playing staff leave. In come off-cuts, youngsters and low-price punts.
The two seasons of Sunderland 'Til I Die feel like they've come from completely different eras in footballing history. The first saw a tightening of belts and some essential pruning. Since then, we've seen Bury expelled from the Football League after collapsing financially, and a former director chain herself to a drainpipe at the ground in protest. We saw Bolton Wanderers pad out their squad with youth players after an exodus left them with six senior professionals. Southend United have just been served a winding up order. Other clubs like Macclesfield Town, Oldham Athletic and Coventry City have struggled to keep their heads above water too.
This is the company Sunderland keep now. They're not a yo-yo club plotting a return to stability; they're a business sprinting toward a cliff edge. More clubs will collapse. The season starts and ends with games against Charlton Athletic – the second a play-off final at Wembley – though with strikingly different endings. The value of that final isn't just monetary, it's existential. The shock and pain is even more visceral than it was in the first season.
While many of the football club documentaries which followed Sunderland 'Til I Die were little more than very well produced exercises in myth-building, none can touch this one for capturing the everyday suffering fans endure.
Watch Sunderland 'Til I Die on Netflix.