As a point of disclosure, it took me a few tries to get through Manchester City: All or Nothing. Not because the Amazon Prime series on the Premier League champions wasn’t gorgeous to look at—it is a sheeny portrait of a well-oiled, zero-emission footballing machine powering toward 100 points and a league title. It’s just that the show was only ever almost engaging. I wasn’t so much watching it as leaving it on for an hour or two at a time, and learning, by osmosis, a few tidbits about Sergio Agüero and Benjamin Mendy that I couldn’t find on Instagram or read in The Telegraph. More broadly, All or Nothing can tell you about how good Manchester City is at being a big football club, but not necessarily about what the club represents, beyond excellence—which, fair enough. It’s a good commercial, but it’s a commercial.
By sharp contrast, Sunderland ’Til I Die, a new Netflix docuseries that arrived over Christmas break, is about how bad Sunderland are at being a big football club. It’s equal parts love letter and Zapruder film, a window into a working-class city whose dearly beloved home team cannot help but disappoint, bitterly, ad infinitum. It’s a Hindenburg crash stretched out over eight episodes, and it’s incredible. You should watch it at your earliest convenience. Like, right now, if you can.
Sunderland were relegated from the Premier League after the 2016-17 season, and then relegated further after finishing dead last in the Championship in the 2017-18 season. ’Til I Die examines their most recent disaster, but from the onset, it hints at a redemption story centered on promotion. You get the sense that Fulwell 73—the company, owned by Sunderland fans, that produced the series—had a rough plot in mind when it started out. It probably went something like: New manager Simon Grayson fashions a life raft out of a disjointed roster and gets a steadying win over Celtic in the final game of preseason; Sunderland start their campaign off strong; and the club returns to the Premier League post-haste. In real life, none of that happens. It turns out having no first-choice keepers is a bit of a problem, Sunderland lose that game 5-0, and fragile optimism begins to metastasize into resentment.
I’m not exaggerating, in the slightest, when I say that everything—everything—goes wrong. Spoilers, as it were, follow. Their top scorer abandons ship in the January transfer window; one newly signed keeper has his confidence shattered and the other, his index finger; the veteran presence in the locker room is arrested for drunk driving and ultimately has his contract terminated. Before the final credits roll, the Black Cats have lost 23 games, shipped 80 goals, cycled through two managers, and seen off both an owner and a chief executive. That last exit, though, may be what makes the series as captivating as it is—there are no extra hands on the wheel, no one to control any of the messaging, and thus, not a whole lot of detail spared. The filmmakers were given genuinely unbelievable behind-the-scenes access, and I was taken to places I’ve never really been before: in a sports psychologist’s office working through a midfielder’s fears of failure and isolation; at a fan club meeting with Sunderland staff where everyone struggles mightily to balance outrage and realistic expectations; on the team bus with the team chef as she watches on TV the men she’s come to think of as her own boys fight to avoid the drop. ’Til I Die really hauls you up to northeast England and bulldozes you with feeling. I mean, peep the intro.
Maybe the best thing ’Til I Die does is center the experience of people who love a club whose modern history has been largely defined by crisis, dysfunction, and imminent misery. Sunderland technically have more top-flight titles than Manchester City, but the last one came in 1936. Since 2007, the best they’ve done is live to fight another day. Since 2010, they’ve sacked at least one manager per year. Being that the series focuses on Sunderland’s first season in the second division in a decade, there’s no shortage of seething fans on the street with commentary to unload. And, ultra-fittingly, in place of some polished, distant voice-over by Ben Kingsley, the story is told by actual season-ticket holders. They fill you in on club history, they grouse about personnel decisions, they panic every matchday, they wildly celebrate every small victory.
The series opens in a church, the congregation sporting Sunderland jerseys and scarves, praying earnestly. They ask God if he could help them out with a win, though not in so few words, since they’re facing their second relegation in two seasons and all. Sunderland of course lose the game in question in the most soul-crushing way imaginable, and still the fans hope beyond hope. It’s a beautiful scene of folk-agony at the pub later on: The young and old, in various states of drunk, lock arms and belt a teary rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” A grinning bald guy raises his pint to the camera and winks. “We’ll be back!” Till they die, indeed.