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The football documentary that lifted a city

The thriving but separate worlds of sport and on-demand streaming have been reconciled – as they always would, sooner or later, no matter how worried Sky Sports executives are by the prospect.

The most vivid illustration of this arrived last month in the unlikeliest of forms, with the most improbable of subjects: Sunderland Association Football Club in Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Til I Die, which gave the Black Cats the Manchester City: All Or Nothing treatment.

Or did it?

The thing is Sunderland ‘Til I Die was nothing like the much-vaunted Amazon Prime documentary on the English Premier League champions, released in August. I showed a friend the trailer for Sunderland ‘Til I Die. “But didn’t they go down last season?”, he said.

At the end of the 2017-18 season, Sunderland were indeed relegated from the Championship, England’s second tier, to the third, League One. When filming began for the documentary, the cameras were meant to follow the team’s pursuit of an instant return to the Premier League.

Astonishingly, the opposite happened, and it made for compelling viewing. The eight-part series was well-received across the board, from critics to Sunderland supporters – even if their enjoyment was bittersweet, the show binged through splayed fingers over the penultimate weekend before Christmas.

Sunderland fans in the Stadium of Light. Credit: Craig Sugden/Netflix

On Boxing Day, Sunderland broke the League One attendance record, with 46,039 fans at their home game against Bradford. The newly released Sunderland ‘Til I Die and its surrounding buzz couldn’t have hurt. Sunderland AFC saw its stock rise this Christmas, even if Netflix had just recounted its almighty fall.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die, produced by Sunderland fans Leo Pearlman and Ben Turner, saw its success instantly reciprocated by a city that had somewhat fallen out of love with its team. The Stadium of Light had been conspicuously half-empty in Sunderland ‘Til I Die, attendances averaging below 30,000 that season.

It helps that Sunderland’s League One campaign is going well. At time of publication they sit fifth, in position for the play-offs that offer a chance of a return to the Championship. “Dear Lord, help Sunderland,” prays Father Marc Lyden-Smith in episode one, “because the success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city.”

That poignant sequence in St. Mary’s church, and even title itself, exemplifies something that set Sunderland ‘Til I Die apart from the polished but oddly cold All Or Nothing: a central relationship with fractured faith. It’s something any haggard football supporter can relate to.

Unprecedented success such as Manchester City’s is the exception rather than the rule. The blue side of Manchester was a winning machine during the Amazon series. Great for all associated with that club – not so interesting for those of us watching at home.

This documentary preserves the inseparable nature of Sunderland’s football club and its city. In All Or Nothing, Manchester City’s sleek training complex could be in any city, in any country. Even Sunderland ‘Til I Die‘s simple title sequence, set to Shipyardsby local band The Lake Poets, is an ode to the area’s industrial past.

Martin Bain: mercurial. Credit: Sunderland AFC/Getty Images

Without a narrator, working class locals such as cab driver Peter Farrier, contextualize the calamitous failings on the pitch. All Or Nothing was narrated by a Manchester local, but it was actor Sir Ben Kingsley. There may be no starker illustration of the sharp difference between the two documentaries – one strikingly relatable, one lofty and distant.

Then there is the issue of would- be protagonists. The closest thing to this in All Or Nothing is the sleek Spaniard Pep Guardiola, the most coveted coach in the sport leading one of its most complete teams. In Sunderland ‘Til I Die, the mercurial, espresso-sipping chief executive Martin Bain is arguably the central figure.

Bain’s face grows gaunter as the series progresses, each failed transfer dealing or league defeat adding another wrinkle to the former Rangers executive’s features. He seems helpless – and he is, little but a fall guy for the shortcomings and absence of owner Ellis Short and his money.

It’s surprising how much sympathy one feels for someone with a six-figure salary. This sense of jeopardy, of real people struggling to live up to the hopes and dreams of a city, and that city crying out for its true love to come good again, is why Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a tremendous success.

It’s why sport and TV have a relationship beyond ‘Super Sundays’ and live broadcasting rights.

And it’s given Sunderland AFC new life – just ask any of the 46,039 who were there on December 26.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die is on Netflix now

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