Genre: Sports Documentary/Docudrama
Year Released: 2018
Running Time: Docuseries, 8 episodes, 37-42 minutes each
Rating/Recommended Audience: TV-MA
Related Films/Series: Sunderland ’Til I Die 2
For Fans Of: Premier Passions, First Team: Juventus, All Or Nothing: Manchester City, The Class of ’92
-Sunderland ’Til I Die was created by Fulwell 73. Some of their work involves I Am Bolt, but they have worked on music videos for One Direction, Demi Lovato, Robbie Williams, and Elton John to name a few. Interestingly enough, the name of that company has a connection to the city. Fulwell is a reference to Fulwell end which was a stand-in for Roker Park (Sunderland A.F.C’s former stadium) and 73 refers to 1973 which was the last time the team won a championship.
-Sunderland is a city in Northeast England. It has a population of over 174,000 people and the closest major English city to it is Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It is actually a sister city of Washington, DC of all places which makes Sunderland the only city on the planet that’s a sister city to America’s capital that isn’t a capital city itself. Some of the most famous people associated with that city are Lewis Carroll (creator of Alice in Wonderland), Zambian-Scottish singer Emeli Sande (who was actually born there before moving to Scotland), George Bellamy from The Tornadoes (also the father of Matt Bellamy from Muse), Shakespeare in Love director David Parfitt, and British-Canadian actor Callum Keith Rennie who has been featured on Iridium Eye before in the movie Wilby Wonderful.
-Hilarious in Hindsight: Sunderland A.F.C. plays in the Stadium of Light. Funny enough, there is a stadium of the same name albeit in a different language with Estadio de Luz which is in Lisbon, Portugal. They house the S. L. Benfica soccer team, but the Sunderland stadium first. Here’s another random fact about the stadium in England: The attendance record of over 54k people wasn’t because of a home game. It was because of Rihanna’s 2013 tour. Think about it. A Barbadian singer drew that many people there.
-[Spoilers limited] One of the managers was Chris Coleman who’s a retired Welsh soccer player. He has played for the Welsh national team, Manchester City, Crystal Palace, and in his hometown with Swansea City. This would also mean that this is the second British documentary I would’ve reviewed that involved a Swansea Jack. The other person who was featured on Iridium Eye would be the teacher-turned-pro wrestler Eddie Dennis.
-One of the strikers that features in the second half of the series is Josh Maja. He’s from Lewisham, South London, England, and has played for Crystal Palace (that would be his home team) and Fulham. Outside of his tenure in the English soccer scene, he’s also a member of Nigeria’s national team since both of his parents are from that country.
-The theme song is “Shipyards” by The Lake Poets. There’s actually a strong sense of authenticity with the song and lyrics considering this one-man band is also from Sunderland. The imagery of the ships directly references the formally biggest employer for decades in that city.
We’ve got an Iridium Eye first, everyone. This review involves the first-ever docuseries ever to be featured on this blog. That has certainly never happened before unless you count me reviewing both Bananas!* and its sequel Big Boys Gone Bananas!* on here a while ago. Hey, I’m doing my best to expand my horizons as a critic. A soccer documentary was certainly an unexpected pick for a docuseries, but this wouldn’t be the first time I covered anything related to the world’s most popular sport. As some may remember, I reviewed the Iranian neorealism/comedy/drama Offside which involved a World Cup qualifier match as a major backdrop as well as the action being filmed directly in the stadium as the game happened in real life. One could also make a case for the Colombian film Colors of the Mountain since soccer plays a big role in the plot despite the civil war setting. I guess after reviewing Fire In Babylon, I’m making a trend to cover more sports-related films. This docuseries was recommended by me by my dad of all people since he has been getting into some sports documentaries featured on Netflix. I was intrigued and I wanted to give my own thoughts on one of their original series.
Will this British docuseries score goals or will I relegate it into the trashcan of mediocrity?
Sunderland ’Til I Die covers the journey of the soccer team Sunderland A.F.C. (the team will be addressed as either the Sunderland team or SAFC) in their 2017-18 season. The city that housed this team since the late 19th century has passionate fans but has seen hard times. This part of Tyne and Wear used to be a major place of employment with shipyards and crews for decades. Unfortunately, that industry died out which meant a lot of unemployment in this blue-collar Northern English town. SAFC became the new biggest employer not just with the soccer players, but with managers, receptionists, cooks, groundskeepers, etc which made them a beacon of hope in the city. Things got worse when 2017 rolled around when SAFC got relegated from the Premier League (England’s top soccer league) to the English Football League’s Championship division. This means fewer eyeballs on their TV matches and less money going around for the historic soccer team. They get a new manager to help them get back into the Premier League standings, but there’s a shortage of players, losing streaks, and a lack of morale despite the passionate support from the local fans. How will SAFC be a light unto Sunderland?
I haven’t really followed English soccer with the exception of seeing some clips here and there of the Premier League on TV. I have never heard of this team before, but I became interested from the first episode. Sunderland ’Til I Die utilizes a great mix of soccer action, behind-the-scenes dialogue, training, fan interviews, and the business side all in one quite seamlessly. For someone who wasn’t familiar with the rules and different leagues, this docuseries did a great job explaining for those that don’t know without babying the audience while at the same time not over-explaining during each brief educational moment. That was a great balance. I do admit that Sunderland’s fan base was very ardent and I don’t think most American sports teams have this passionate of a fan base. They will drive hours on end for away games, make loud chants for their team, have the logo or players tattooed on them, the fans in wheelchairs have custom wheels with the team’s insignia, and the local funeral home has done requests for putting SAFC gear for dead people or at least have red and white flowers to represent the team’s colors. That passion was infectious enough for me to want to root for them to get back into the Premier League. The camera work was quite cinematic. The soccer game scenes are quite intense with the slow-mo, stop/start filming, closeups, in-game stats, and the inter-cut fan footage all working well. Outside of the field, you get multiple cityscape shots of Sunderland in both the beautiful and recessed areas. Each episode was fast-paced and I wanted to know what happens next in the season. The team despite being based in a homogeneous part of England actually had a diverse section of players and I liked how some of them got focused. Josh Maja was a young upstart who joins the main SAFC team days away from being nineteen years old and scored a goal early on in his career. It was amazing people supported him. Another highlight was the Yorkshire-based striker Ashley Fletcher. He has a lot of self-doubt in his abilities as a player and I could tell that when he scored, his self-esteem grew a bit. I found him to be very relatable as a person as I still struggle with confidence issues, so seeing someone who looked like me doing his best to succeed in his field certainly helped. The drama on and off the court was certainly intense with rowdy fans, some backstage business politics at certain points, and absolute battles of soccer games. Those were some of the things that kept me going when it came to watching this.
Sunderland ’Til I Die did get some fouls though. Despite having a depleted roster compared to other soccer teams (trade-ins and injuries aside), I felt that it got hard to keep track of all the players or staff. Some certainly get their time to shine, but I had to take extensive notes on who was who, and not everyone was featured in the docuseries. I do wish they would go into a bit more of the history besides fast recaps of archived footage. Since SAFC has been around for over a century, one could easily bring up some facts without looking like a history lesson of sorts. Doing my own independent research, I found out that they had an inter-county rivalry with Newcastle United, but none of that was ever brought up. I get that Newcastle’s team is in the Premier League which puts them one league above where SAFC was for a good portion of the series [spoilers avoided], but that was something I would’ve liked to have seen mentioned at some point. Then, there’s the drama of the whole series. I do applaud the organic storytelling that one certainly couldn’t make up, but I certainly know that there will be some viewers who will not expect the outcome before one gets to the last episode. I do hope that the upcoming sequel can tie up some things with the 18-19 season, but I feel that even a basic Google search on SAFC’s modern track record can make this a bit of a downer in hindsight. While the business aspect was a nice touch, I thought that some of the managers and owners got more shine than the players in half the series which got a bit overboard for me.
This was an unexpected, yet fine watch. Sunderland ’Til I Die’s docudrama elements will put one on the edge of their seat regardless if they know anything about soccer. The cinematography is pristine in several instances with the top-notch camera work, editing, and match graphics. I do wish that more of the players would be highlighted and get some more of their perspectives. Sunderland ’Til I Die was a surprise watching it and even I wanted them to succeed in the end. I am looking forward to the second season once it’s released.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you like soccer (especially British soccer).
Subtract 1-2 points if you don’t like sports documentaries.
-Wonderful cinematography and editing
-Easy for fans and non-fans to follow
-Great balance between SAFC from multiple angles
-Some will feel disappointed by parts of the ending
-Can focus too much on the managers and owners at times
-Missing historical aspects
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Warning: Sunderland ’Til I Die got a TV-MA rating which does make sense. It’s nowhere near as crude as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or as gory as Game of Thrones, but this series isn’t for the kids. The language gets extremely strong in multiple episodes and fans can be seen flipping off people or flashing the V-sign (it doesn’t mean anything in America, but it’s VERY offensive in the UK if you know the meaning). There’s smoking and lots of drinking. One aspect of the latter involves an SAFC player getting a DWI and one sees the aftermath of multiple cars wrecked even though no one died. The soccer fans can be quite rowdy and violent, so expect some fighting, and one scene literally involves an angry fan beating up a cameraman.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Sunderland ‘Til I Die is property of Netflix. The title card is from Chronicle Live and is property of Netflix.