Sunderland ‘Til I Die swaps chaos for competence and delivers a heart-wrenching twist

Sunderland’s co-owner seemed to be voicing the lament of the executives of a streaming giant. “I think Roy Keane would have been fun, definitely good for the Netflix series,” said Juan Sartori, part way through the first episode. It could have been, he said, a third “disaster series”. Which would surely have suited Netflix fine; the simple presence of Keane on camera, win or lose, comedic or caustic, explosive or excoriating, might have done wonders for subscriptions.

Instead, Sunderland ‘Til I Die showcases the quiet competence of Alex Neil, the decidedly sensible choice as manager to replace Lee Johnson: first and last spotted on the show looking mournful after a 6-0 defeat in the third tier, arguably the lowest point in Sunderland’s history. “We are totally embarrassing,” declares a fan on a phone-in at the start, but this is no anger drama. It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say the 2021-22 season ended Sunderland’s four-year stay in the third tier.

The neutrals may find success less compelling entertainment than failure. A sequel is shorn of schadenfreude, lacking in hubristic errors. Nor are there characters who acquire their own brand of infamy, courtesy of a documentary. The players are a likeable bunch: Luke O’Nien, with his puppyish enthusiasm, the American Mackem Lynden Gooch, the loan ranger in search of a home, Patrick Roberts, and Ross Stewart, both amused and bemused by his nickname, the ‘Loch Ness Drogba’; there is no successor to Jack Rodwell and Darron Gibson, who may argue their depiction as villains of the piece were unfair but who filled that role.

Nor has anyone adopted the mantle of Martin Bain, the David Brent of chief executives. Conspicuous by their absence, too, are former owners Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven; lacking the latter’s Old Etonian arrogance, Sunderland contrived to find a buyer – albeit, it transpires, only of a minority stake – who is also the antithesis of the earthier Wearsiders found both in the stands and in the front of the camera.

Sunderland return to Wembley in the third and final season of the Netflix show (Courtesy of Netflix)
Sunderland return to Wembley in the third and final season of the Netflix show (Courtesy of Netflix)

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, the technocratic boy-king, feels an alien presence, as though a member of Kraftwerk was parachuted into Sunderland. A precociously young billionaire, Louis-Dreyfus looks different and distant, though he is humanised when he talks about his late father Robert, the former majority shareholder in Marseille. For Dreyfus, football becomes as much of a family affair as it is for the fans.

Yet the sense is that Netflix have filmed the wrong season. This year – with the unnecessary and unpopular sacking of Tony Mowbray, his replacement Michael Beale’s struggle for acceptance as the crowd have turned on him – may have proved more compelling viewing. A focus on Dreyfus’ decision-making of late would be instructive. A fourth season now would be welcome.

But amid the almost disconcerting combination of pleasant players, capable management and clear-headed ownership combining for progress, the heart of the show is provided by the Sunderland public; by the everymen and women who constitute the vast, long-suffering support.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus assumes control of the club as we follow Sunderland during the 2021-22 season (Courtesy of Netflix)
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus assumes control of the club as we follow Sunderland during the 2021-22 season (Courtesy of Netflix)

There is gallows humour. “Sleeping giant,” says one fan. “We’ve been asleep for a while, haven’t we?” replies another. Some swim in the North Sea in January. There ought not to be a need for a reminder of the importance of football to a community but when so much about the game can seem consumed in whataboutery and toxic tribalism, the sight of the series’ unlikely stars at Wembley, where none have seen Sunderland win since 1973 and some never have, illustrates that, regardless of the context, the rest of us should rarely begrudge fans the joy their club can bring.

At the end, the title is given added poignancy and the show further meaning by a horrible, heart-wrenching twist. If that is testament to the film-making, it is largely because of the people. And they, really, are what Sunderland ‘Til I Die is about.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die series 3 will be available on Netflix as a box set from February 13th (series one and two also still available)