A BBC film crew working on a Sir David Attenborough wildlife documentary once sparked controversy by rescuing several penguins trapped in a ravine from certain death. Their life-saving intervention prompted an absorbing debate on ethics and whether observers tasked with recording what was unfolding in front of them had done the right thing by flying in the face of natural selection and giving the subjects of their film a literal dig-out.
The second series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, due to drop on Netflix on Wednesday, features a fascinating episode centred around last season’s January transfer deadline day following the club’s ignominious drop to League One after back-to-back relegations. Having been powerless to stop Josh Maja leaving for Bordeaux for little more than a pittance, the club’s owner, Stewart Donald, finds himself trapped in a highly stressful game of brinkmanship with the hierarchy at Wigan as he tries to sign a replacement striker in Will Grigg.
Having been advised by Jack Ross, Sunderland’s since-departed manager, that Grigg is not worth more than the £1.25m Wigan had turned down, an increasingly panic-stricken Donald makes another bid, then paces his office gripping a phone that stubbornly refuses to ring. With the clock ticking, he visibly buckles before making what was later revealed to be a sixth and final offer of £3m for the Northern Ireland international and a deal is finalised with seconds to spare.
Relief all round, particularly in the Wigan boardroom, one suspects, but it was moments before Donald made that ill-fated phone call that Sunderland fans now blessed with 20-20 hindsight will feel somebody from behind the camera should have stepped in to prevent the quite obviously frazzled owner from taking what has thus far proved a costly gamble. They didn’t and a year later Grigg turned down a loan to Salford City.
“We don’t ever get involved,” says Leo Pearlman, lifelong Sunderland fan and executive producer of the acclaimed documentary. “As a fan you set aside that fiscal responsibility and you think back to Stewart promising fans he’d buy a top League One striker who would score the goals to get us out of this division. As a fan, speaking from the heart, even though I knew this was way too much money and there was no way he should be spending that, I still wanted him to push the button and do it.”
The second series opens where the first left off, with Donald and his executive director, Charlie Methven, having taken ownership of a club Pearlman describes as being “rotten to its core” at the time. Neatly bookended by a last-second opening day League One win over Charlton Athletic and a heartbreaking play-off final defeat by the same opponents, it chronicles the efforts of the entrepreneurial and ambitious owners to re-engage a thoroughly disillusioned fanbase with a club teetering on the brink of oblivion.
In the third tier for only the second time in their history, Sunderland’s costs are extraordinarily high and season-ticket sales understandably sluggish. Promotion is essential and an unmotivated squad that sleepwalked to relegation has to be disbanded and cheaper, more enthusiastic recruits found. Symbolic of the decline, even the Stadium of Light’s once bright red seats, sun-bleached a tired pink after 21 years of exposure, are replaced by willing supporters invited to turn up in their droves with drills and spanners. In the name of progress, Sergei Prokofiev is ditched, with the Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die replacing the Russian composer’s Dance of the Knights as the team’s walk-out music.
Early in the opening episode, the administrative staff look shellshocked as Methven, a middle-aged, plummy-toned southerner with a penchant for burgundy trousers, embarks on a foul-mouthed rant about the club’s descent to the status of national laughing stock. “That’s an absolutely fair description,” says Methven, upon being asked how these Wearsiders reacted to being addressed in such a fashion by a posh Old Etonian blow-in. “That was a very conscious decision and the reason is that people inside the club, while deeply aware and very hurt by failures on the pitch, had never really been brought to confront the reality that the part of the club that they have an involvement in – the non-playing side of the club – was the foundation of the problems on the pitch.”
Openness, transparency and accountability were the watchwords by which Donald and Methven swore upon their arrival and the latter’s propensity to speak his mind landed him in hot water this season when he was forced to apologise for accusing fans of not understanding how business works. He has stepped down from his director’s role for family reasons but remains a shareholder.
“To see and hear yourself to quite such a degree when you’ve made it through to middle age in relative anonymity is a very strange, discombobulating, discomforting thing in general because unless we’re serious narcissists we tend to be very self-critical,” he says, when asked what viewers might make of him. “All I can say, having watched it, is that it is a fair depiction of what and whom I am. And Stewart as well, that is who we are.”
Despite Sunderland failing by a whisker to win promotion and losing two Wembley finals, last season was something of a triumph compared with the disastrous campaign chronicled in the first series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die and Pearlman laughs when asked how his documentaries stack up against last year’s no-warts-at-all version following a title-winning season at Manchester City.
“You’re always looking for an uplifting message and I think we managed to achieve that in these two seasons in the toughest of circumstances,” he says. “Even in such a terrible season, which everyone looks back on now and says was awful because Sunderland didn’t get promoted, that moment the night before the Checkatrade cup final when 100,000 Sunderland fans took over Trafalgar Square, even now I have goosebumps and chills when I think back to standing amongst those fans. Would I swap that moment? No. That’s one of those moments that I will remember for the rest of my life. That’s what football is, it’s about the moment.”
While the co-owners and to a lesser extent Ross, his players and various backroom staff are front and centre in Pearlman’s documentary, the city of Sunderland and those who live in it are the undisputed stars. “It’s just crackers, man,” muses Peter Farrer, a long-suffering devotee surveying the ribald crowd roistering outside King’s Cross station as they greet the team before the Checkatrade Trophy final against Portsmouth. “I don’t think it’s about football at the minute. It’s about Sunderland and the people of Sunderland. Half of these people haven’t got nothing, y’na? Half of them haven’t got a pot to piss in. But they’re here.”
The elderly taxi driver’s view is one with which Pearlman concurs. “The city and Sunderland football club are completely intertwined. The two exist to feed one another. It’s a truly unique place to my mind in that you have this one club that is the beating heart of the city. The collapse of big industry over the years meant the one thing that was left that people had to be proud of was their football club. And you see it in Season One, where people are saying: ‘If this goes under there’s nothing left here.’ As soon as you understand that, then it becomes obvious that the show itself has to be as much about the city as it is about the football club because the two can’t be pulled apart.”
For now, the fight goes on to escape from that ravine.