AKA: Sunderland ’Til I Die (season 2), Sunderland ’Til I Die (2020)
Genre: Sports Documentary/Docudrama
Year Released: 2020
Running Time: Docuseries, 6 episodes, 30-53 minutes each
Rating/Recommended Audience: TV-MA
Related Films/Series: Sunderland ’Til I Die
For Fans Of: Premier Passions, First Team: Juventus, All Or Nothing: Manchester City, The Class of ’92
-Major spoilers from the first STID series will be mentioned. There are also a few spoilers mentioned in this series. Reader be warned.
-One must watch the first series before watching STID2.
-One of the most recent midfielders in this season is Luke O’Nien. He’s originally from Hemel Hempstead, England (a Northwest suburb of London) and his previous exploits in soccer have been with Watford, Wealdstone, and the Wycombe Wanderers. O’Nien still plays with SAFC at the time of this review. He also qualifies to play for England’s team as well as Singapore’s team due to his maternal side of the family being from that nation. Interestingly enough, O’Nien is the great-nephew of late Singaporean politician Lim Kim San.
-The current owner of SAFC is Stewart Donald who was seen starting with the first season’s last episode. He’s originally from Witney, Oxfordshire and actually was a former owner of a different soccer team with Eastleigh F. C. His other business exploits include an insurance company where he was a CEO there.
-Hilarious in Hindsight: When the Sunderland fans go to London for one of the Wembley games (spoilers minimized), they can be seen in front of a pub called The White Lion. You best believe I was making Kimba jokes in my head when I saw them partying it up before the match. Wow, I never thought I would namedrop that anime lion in a soccer docuseries review…
-The Lake Poets who does the theme song got to be shown on camera where they played that same song as part of the halftime show for one of SAFC’s home games.
-The famous “Will Grigg’s on Fire” song/chant is a parody of “Freed from Desire” by Gala. Bristol-based EDM duo make their own version of the song which actually charted in the UK.
-SAFC was founded by a Scottish teacher-turned-soccer player named James Allan. The original name for the team was “Sunderland and District Teachers AFC”. Yes, this started out as an all-teacher team before expanding to others back in the 19th century. Also, I seem to have a habit of reviewing things involving former teachers either directly or indirectly.
-I have a couple of BritWres facts associated with the city of Sunderland. Conor Renshaw is from there and sometimes wears SAFC-based outfits in the ring. Also, Chuck Mambo and TK Cooper AKA Escaping the Midcard (Hey, I reviewed documentaries involving them!) made their official tag team debut in Sunderland.
-Culture Bonus: The team slogan of “Ha’way the lads!” means “Come on, lads!” in the Tyne and Wear dialects with this case being considered “Mackem” slang. Also, Mackem is the term for both SAFC fans or people directly from Sunderland itself. It allegedly comes from a common saying in the shipyard days where the workers claimed that they “Mack (make) ’em [boats] and they [the other businesses] tack (take) ’em.” if you talked in an old-school Tyneside accent.
I finally got to review something that came out this year. Consider this the first thing I’ve reviewed from the new decade. However, 2020 has been such a stressful year mainly due to the Coronavirus pandemic, that I wish it could’ve been 2019 again despite some issues I had last year (long story). When I heard that Sunderland ’Til I Die’s sequel would be released on April 1st, I got excited. This was the first docuseries I ever reviewed and I never thought I would get into watching this show. Whoever thought a recommendation from my own dad of all people would lead to this interest in covering a documentary project with this Tyneside soccer team? I certainly enjoyed the first season of this soccer series, so there was some glimmer of light in checking out this long awaited sequel covering the lives and careers of the black cats.
What fortunes wait for this Northeastern English soccer team?
Sunderland ’Til I Die 2 takes place right after the first series and covers the 2018-2019 soccer season. SAFC suffered another relegation all the way down to League One which is the third tier of British soccer. This was devastating for them since their TV games have less viewership, they’re further away from the Premier League, and they have less money to go around for both the players and overall staff. The team is bought up by Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven who are trying to make this a worthy team to get promoted starting with the Championship League (the same league they were in last season). However, there are struggles as the squad is nearly halved, they have to cut costs, and the team has to win all their games for any hope of promotion just to be back in the second tier. How will SAFC fare under another round of new management, less money, and toiling in one of the lowest leagues of soccer in the UK?
I was certainly impressed with the first series and I wanted to see what happened after the fact despite not really following the British soccer scene. A lot of what made Sunderland ’Til I Die work the first go around does continue over here. The cinematography was still brilliant with the camera work, tasteful usages of slow-mo during matches, sound isolation or silence to increase dramatic tension, and various graphs when necessary. A lot of the interviews were great with the new members of the SAFC roster, returning players or faculty, and some of the fans show up again to get some shine again. The natural story is there and it does make the SAFC organization look like even bigger underdogs. They went through several managers in the 2017-2018 season as documented in the first iteration and went through yet another relegation, so the team has to start from square one and they have no chance to get to the Premier League in 2018-2019. Despite them being underdogs, they aren’t completely innocent. The new owners have moments of having bad tempers when things are going wrong during games, the faculty had no business savvy when it came to budgeting, and Stewart Donald can come off as selfish at times like his attempts to get a top striker Will Grigg from Wigan to play for SAFC during the transfer window. It gets to the point where he throws a lot of money where Grigg becomes the highest paid transfer in League One history. The business side is certainly more emphasized than the initial season of Sunderland ’Til I Die, but it’s done in a way that makes sense and is easy for anyone to follow. They show some of the numbers, why those numbers matter, and the history of the SAFC organization from a financial standpoint. It never got to be the point where all I heard was “business, business, numbers, numbers” like Uni-Kitty from The Lego Movie injecting herself in the commentary, so that was a good choice of the directors in that regard. Although the business side is shown more often especially in the first half of Sunderland ’Til I Die 2, the soccer action is still intense and one could argue that it’s better this go around with a lot of the matches. You still have the typical season games, but things take a very exhilarating turn when they get the opportunity to play at Wembley Arena which is awesome. I won’t explain how this happened or why it happened for SAFC to compete in one of the most renowned venues on the planet, but this was a great piece of natural storytelling with even higher stakes than the first season. There’s even a natural feud which happens between them and Portsmouth that ends up with multiple games between the two soccer teams which you rarely ever got to see in the first season. That rivalry kept me on the edge of my seat. There was also some meta-aspects shown in this series. You had the aforementioned halftime performance from The Lake Poets at the Stadium of Light, clear Sunderland ’Til I Die digital ads on the field marquis during home games, and one fan even gets the logo from the show tattooed on his arm. This does make sense since the first season was already streaming while STID2 was being filmed, so it didn’t come off as tacky self-promotional stuff, but just something that would naturally be there especially in Sunderland, England.
Now, Sunderland ’Til I Die 2 does miss a few goals in places. Much like season one, it was really hard to keep track of all the players in that season’s roster. What really doesn’t help is how half the squad gets let go in episode 1. The only roster members who get focused on are newcomer Luke O’Nien, Josh Maja (until THAT real life plot twist), and to a much lesser extent Will Grigg which kind of surprised me. You would think that in episode 3 onward where Stewart Donald is making multiple offers for him to be transferred from that team in the Northwest Manchester suburbs over to Sunderland that he would get tons of screen presence, but it wasn’t as much as I thought. One could make a case that Stewart Donald and Charlie Metven are portrayed as the “main characters”, if you will in this docuseries. They certainly have an impact which I don’t deny, but some of their screen time could’ve easily have gone to multiple players. Sure, season one did emphasize the managers more than the players, but I thought the players in the previous season got more interview time than here with the exception of a couple of people (O’Nien probably getting the most interview screen time as far as the players are concerned). Going back to my first review, I did mention something about the Newcastle-Sunderland rivalry and it briefly gets touched on when SAFC takes on Newcastle United’s U21 (Under 21) squad or when some of the fans from Sunderland are decked out in SAFC gear while in Newcastle Upon Tyne to get on a train and some local Geordies (people from that city) boo the Mackems. If I didn’t do my research I would’ve had no idea why they did so even though it was a blip into that rivalry. Earlier on, the soccer matches get sped up in fast ways that I had no idea how they won or lost or who they played against. Sunderland ’Til I Die 2 does get very awkward and even harsher in hindsight when you consider how this got released in 2020. I won’t spoil the ending of this series, but it is really hard to get into that spirit of hope for the SAFC fans as they wish for better things in the next season. That season would be the 2019-2020 calendar. While I don’t know the stats of SAFC or any of the teams after the events of this docuseries, but I certainly know that this current season is suspended because of COVID-19. In Netflix and Fulwell 73’s defense, they wouldn’t have expected this to happen, but it’s colossally poor timing when it got released in April as countries were going through lockdown and shelter in place rules. Out of context and in isolation (quarantine pun not intended), I would’ve liked Sunderland ’Til I Die 2 even more, but watching that last episode and what went down does hurt some of that enjoyment. There are times where real life can make things better or worse in hindsight when it comes to watching things.
Sunderland ’Til I Die 2 is certainly a worthy sequel to an intriguing soccer docuseries. The parts I liked about this second iteration I really liked and in some cases even more than the first one. The good things about the original season do get transferred over here more often than not. The production is just as crisp as ever and there’s a healthy mix of both the business and soccer aspects even if the storytelling balances them out differently. I do wish the players would get more interview time and not just limit it to two or three of the people on the team. Unfortunately, the whole pandemic issue makes the last episode awkward to watch despite the soccer action and natural drama involved during that last match let alone the aftermath. Sunderland ’Til I Die 2 is still recommended for soccer and non-soccer fans alike. Recommended.
Ha’way the lads!
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you’re a fan of SAFC or at least the British soccer scene.
Subtract 1-3 points if you want more insight into the soccer players for interviews.
-Production is still top-notch
-The soccer elements have improved especially in the 2nd half
-The business side of soccer is explained very well in an approachable manner
-Soccer elements get sped up too much in the first half
-Too much emphasis on the new owners and managers
-Sorry, Sunderland fans of 2019, but 2020 is going to REALLY hamper your joy of the game due to the Rona.
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Warning: Sunderland ’Til I Die 2 also got a TV-MA rating which still makes sense. The biggest issue would still be the strong profanity used in multiple episodes. The new business owners have moments of cluster F-bombs whenever there’s a bad play and even during a couple of the business meetings (If I cussed that much at work, then I’d be fired!). There are multiple scenes of angry and frustrated SAFC fans who are more than willing to throw up the V-sign AKA the British middle finger when something’s going wrong. There’s smoking and drinking although the latter doesn’t get as bad as one former player having a DWI in the previous season. These British soccer fans have moments of violence with fights between rival teams and one match even had some Portsmouth fans dropping a smoke bomb at SAFC fans in the middle of one of their games.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Sunderland ‘Til I Die 2 is property of Netflix. The screenshot is from YouTube is property of Netflix.