• Malcolm Combe

Sunderland 'Til I Die, or at least until the end of lockdown

Over the long Easter Weekend I started a binge watch of the docuseries Sunderland ‘Til I Die. This follows the compelling slow-moving car crash that was Sunderland Association Football Club’s 2017/18 season in the English (and Welsh) Championship, the second tier of English league football.

The Championship is a brutal and punishing league, featuring twenty-four teams who each play each other twice over the course of a season, culminating in the bottom three teams being relegated to League 1 (which, despite its name, is the third tier of the English football hierarchy). At the other end of the Championship table, three teams are promoted to the Premier League – the first and top tier of the English game. The (contrasting) financial implications for a team of relegation and promotion are huge. To put the scale of the Championship in context, the Premier League – comprises twenty teams. It was that higher division that Sunderland were relegated from in the campaign before the arrival of the camera crew. That delicious circumstance plays a decisive role in the developing storyline in the season at hand.

Perhaps it would help to set out my own back story with association fitba. I was never much of a player, or at least I was never deemed much of a player when it came to that most demoralising of Scottish school institutions as each team captain took turn about to pick players. I would be having a good day if I was picked in the fourth from last turn. Every so often I would make an incisive pass and surprise even my team mates (normally including the person who hadn’t bothered to make the run that was crying out to be made) at this useful contribution, then this would rapidly be forgotten at the next team selection, at which point more strapping specimens would once again be selected in precedence. (Incidentally, there is a scene in Sunderland ‘Til I Die when a talent scout deems a potential target unworthy as he was wearing gloves. Such enlightened thinking has surely made the Great British game the great success that it is.) In full disclosure mode, I might acknowledge that I did also have the potential to be an absolute footballing bombscare. For example, as an undergrad I received a late call up from my friends to help a numerically-challenged 5-a-side team in the Strathclyde Law School mini-league. My team mates figured the safest position for me would be goalkeeper. They immediately regretted this when I let a gentle pass back go straight through me and into my own net. Oh well.

That is enough of a confessional for me as a player. What about me as a football fan? I love following fitba. It is unashamedly my sporting escapism of choice. I have followed the Scottish national team to Wales, Ireland, the Netherlands and Lithuania. I was there when Daniel van Buyten scored a late equaliser for ten-man Belgium at Hampden, when Chris Iwelumo came off the bench to lift the game against Norway and was doing a great job of that until the ball bounced off his standing leg to trundle past the post rather than into the open goal gaping in front of him, and when that goal-scoring machine Gary Caldwell netted the only goal of the game against France. I won’t claim to be a die-hard Tartan Army member compared to some, but I’ve got the bruises to prove my support.

Then there is the domestic side of the game. Although I grew up in Renfrewshire approximately 15 miles from the Lord Hope Building, my own footballing loyalties have always been to Aberdeen Football Club. My dad comes from Aberdeen, and there was no way he was ever going to let me support either of the Old Firm. My “choice” of team was somewhat character-building, as the only Dons fan in Johnstone High School as Rangers were busy winning “nine in a row”. Anyway, I used to get to a few games at Pittodrie (Aberdeen’s home ground) when visiting my family in Aberdeen, and would take in away matches in the central belt pretty regularly. I’ve also held a season ticket for Pittodrie on numerous occasions; first when I was in Aberdeen studying for my Diploma in Legal Practice, and more recently when I was living and working in the city.

Aberdeen FC have never quite had a season like Sunderland had in 17/18, but the 05/06 season (when I took friends from overseas to witness exciting goalless draws against Livingston and Dunfermline) maybe had a certain resonance. Perhaps a bigger but still intangible connection to Sunderland is that the Dons are from a “one-club” city in the north east. As a result of that, I have always felt a certain affinity with all of the one-club cities in the north east of England. I appreciate this might seem confusing for those who are actually from Tyneside, Teesside and Wearside, who would regard affection to any one football club from that vicinity as immediately ruling out affection to any other, but there it is. A further tenuous connection is that few years ago I went to Newcastle for a friend’s stag do. Newcastle United were not playing at home that weekend, so we jumped on the Metro to take in Sunderland v West Brom. Despite leading twice, Sunderland contrived to lose by three goals to two. Unbeknownst to me, this footballing microcosm was perfect preparation for the longer rollercoaster ride of Sunderland ‘Til I Die. Incidentally, one of my favourite bands, The Wildhearts (who themselves hail from the north east of England), once sang that no-one likes a long rollercoaster ride”. One can imagine being on this particular journey as a Sunderland fan might not have been fun throughout, but rubbernecking on a slick docuseries is strangely compelling.

Anyway, back to that docuseries. It really is compelling viewing. A knowledge of football might help, but this is far from compulsory. In fact, part of me wishes I could view the documentary as someone who cares little about football, just so I could react with proper incredulity as to how much money is at stake and how much some people care about what is, I freely admit, a glorified displacement activity.

Taking the baggage that I have though, anyone with a passing interest in Scottish football, and certainly anyone who follows Rangers, will immediately recognise Martin Bain as one of the backroom movers and shakers. The makers of the programme would no doubt have loved having him as part of the documentary, as he cuts about in a nice car with a nice watch yet struggles to do his best for the team with the budget that has been passed down to him by his chairman. Aiden McGeady, the former Celtic player and Republic of Ireland international who tormented teams around Scotland with goals and assists, also stars. For some reason he never quite fully recaptures his magic and at one stage seems to struggle to make the manager’s new 4-3-3 formation work for him. Celtic also feature early in the documentary, when they thump Sunderland 5-0 in a pre-season friendly in what must have been quite an away day for the Glaswegians.

Of course, this is not a show that is in any way aimed specifically at Scots, and I would imagine that it really could draw people in from any part of the world. For those that are sceptical as to whether you can get into any story about any league, read Joe McGinniss’ The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: I never knew I cared so much about the Italian Serie B until I read that.

Even when you know the outcome of the season, you suddenly feel invested in an evening away game at Brentford. (That finished 3-3, despite Sunderland being 3-1 up at half-time… I mean SERIOUSLY, lads…) Then, aside from the actual football results (albeit suitably or subtly affected by them), so many other aspects of the show capture your attention. The honest and matter of fact interviews and other coverage that catalogues the switch from the initial optimism of bouncing straight back to the first tier of English football to the realisation of being in a relegation dogfight. The injury woes. The problems in front of goal. The managerial merry-go-round. The transfer windows – the drama! The former striker coming back to haunt you. The atypical camera angles for coverage of football matches, with suitably dramatic musical accompaniment. The city recovering (or perhaps not recovering) from the end of its heavy industries, and a creative response to that which is evident in the show’s theme tune. The salt of the earth fans and backroom team, who live and breathe the club. The big earner players who apparently don’t. The bogeyman chairman. There is even a not-so-slow-moving car crash and a related court case involving a (soon to be ex) player. It really is all there.

As to why this show might be something that has caught my attention now, maybe I am pining for a footballing fix. This is a show that many football fans, deprived of the real thing owing to the public health restrictions that apply to large gatherings, can enjoy from the comfort of a living room. That being the case, viewing the show in the midst of a lockdown can feel a bit strange; suddenly the sight of fans in packed pubs and stadia seems surreal. Maybe one day we will be able to watch this again without thinking, “here, those people are far too close!” How I miss those carefree days of relative proximity to fellow members of the football clan.

Until then, Sunderland ‘Til I Die will provide the fix that I need. I wonder if Sunderland will do any better in the 2018/19 campaign. Tune in to find out…

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