Most sports documentaries deal with either triumph or tragedy.
“Sunderland ‘Til I Die” isn’t like most sports documentaries. The first episode brings viewers into a church, where a pastor is leading his congregation in a plea to higher powers to help them “understand what football means to our community” and “show them how football can help unite.” The prayer, which asks to help the hardworking people of Sunderland manage their anger when the team is underperforming and to help the players make the most of their abilities, closes with an acknowledgment that the “success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city.”
If the desperation and dedication in those words seem just a liiil bit overstated, the next 5 hours and 43 minutes will prove them to sum up the stakes perfectly for both Sunderland AFC and the citizens of the city that bears the same name. If anything, they’re an understatement. This is the reality for a small town long ago left behind by its key industries – for whom football is not an escape from life, but closer to life itself.
whichever team you support, Sunderland 'Til I Die is a heroic, heartbreaking, and essential watch. coming 14 december pic.twitter.com/burs9lYbHX
— Netflix UK & Ireland (@NetflixUK) December 10, 2018
It’s a warts-and-all look at a team in their first season after relegation to the Championship – a season, which, spoiler alert, goes wrong in every conceivable way, and even a few ways you’d never have imagined.
But despite (or perhaps because of) its doomed fate and comedy of errors, the documentary is a captivating look at sports far below the highest level, and at what support means. It has unprecedented access – even going to a sports psychologist session with an aging (ahem, 24-year-old), perennially hurt player grappling with his self-image and isolation from the team. You’ll spend time with the practice compound’s kitchen staff and with fans in their homes with their children as they curse the boys on the field.
And when the team hits an unimaginable low point well into the later episodes, fans in a small countryside pub react by swaying arm in arm – wiping away tears as they sing “I Can’t Help Falling In Love (With You)” and shouting into the camera, “We’ll be back.”
Somehow, it’s both tragedy and triumph. Sunderland ‘Til I Die, indeed.