Sunderland ‘Til I Die: do we really want to see behind-the-scenes?



By Rory Macnair, third year French and Spanish student

The recent Sunderland AFC Netflix documentary has received its fair share of attention, but will the format really take off?

Professional sport has come to dominate the entertainment industry, but with the explosion in popularity of streaming services such as Netflix and Prime Video, more and more viewers are turning their attention to a new wave of behind-the-scenes documentaries.

The most recent, Sunderland ‘Til I Die, focuses on the 2017/18 season of then-Championship football club Sunderland AFC. With an almost all-access camera crew covering club ownership issues, coaching changes and player disputes, the documentary follows the team’s painful experience and subsequent relegation while exploring its importance to the city and its people.

While this genre of content provides excellent entertainment for both sports fans and the general viewer, it raises several questions about the relationship between professional sport and the modern-day media.

Sport, specifically football, attracts an enormous audience both at live events and on screen so there is little doubt about the popularity of these behind-the-scenes documentaries. The recent examples of Sunderland ‘Til I Die on Netflix and All or Nothing: Manchester City on Prime Video highlight the huge demand for this kind of content with both series receiving a positive reception.

One of the most common aspects praised by critics of STID is that it takes the sport out of its entertainment context and stresses the significance of the football club as part of the city’s culture. With numerous interviews and focus points in the Sunderland community, the documentary removes the superficial and exoticised aspects of the sport and instead draws the viewer’s attention to how the people of Sunderland are unified and inspired by their team.

The documentary frequently visits a local church in which the performance of the club is integrated into weekly prayers. However, rather than typically comparing football fandom with dutiful worship to produce a generic marketing campaign, the producers present a very real and almost vulnerable connection between the club and the people who eagerly tune in each week.

These intimate moments throughout the production are exactly why this genre has taken off so dramatically. They highlight the human aspect of sport and remind us how and why sport becomes part of who we are.

Being able to imagine yourself as that hopeful face in the stands, that teary-eyed character by the radio or that beer-fueled supporter shouting in the pub creates an empathy which is often lost in the presentation of sport in the media.

All of these characters may appear in Sky Sports adverts or Betway posters, but the fact that this support is framed by a club in such an awful state brings a sentimental value that is so rarely depicted.

A problem arises when one begins to question the presentation of the club itself. Of course, creating a story and directing certain narratives are inevitable when filming for the purpose of entertainment, but if this genre of sports media really kicks off, it will affect people’s perspectives of the teams into which they invest so much.

A portion of the documentary focuses on manager Simon Grayson who, in large part thanks to the stubborn wallet of the club’s owner, fails to bring any high profile players into the club. Grayson is ultimately portrayed as something of a villain in the narrative and with his eventual dismissal, the long awaited hero Chris Coleman arrives to take the reins.

Grayson himself commented on the documentary, stating that 'I was disappointed that they didn’t portray myself and my staff how we are...We didn’t really get the air time to show our personality'. Those close to the club will know that to some extent Grayson is right and it seems that his character was moulded into something of a negative presence whose departure would serve as a moment of hope for the story.

Grayson argues that 'When it went onto Chris {Coleman}, you saw a different side to him' which again fits into this idea of building a story since even with the arrival of Coleman, Sunderland were relegated to the third division and he left for greener pastures.

It becomes hard, at least as a fan of the club on display, to appreciate what you are viewing when you begin to feel that certain moments and truths are lost for the sake of creating a sellable story.

This leads us to the question: do we really want to see everything that goes on behind closed doors?

There is undeniably an ugly side to professional sport. Whether it is the huge amounts of money that change hands throughout the organisation or the blunt, all-business attitudes of owners and coaches, a great deal of normally-unseen operations may be best kept behind those very doors.

Interactions such as these risk severing the connection between fan and club as one loses the passion and excitement felt at matches and begins to question the inner-workings of the sport.

Every year the NFL produces a similar documentary, 'Hard Knocks', for one of its 32 franchises. This production very rarely shies away from the back room exchanges, showing the often emotional meetings that occur when players are annually cut from the team.

This kind of raw footage certainly captures the intrigue of the viewer and gives them an insight into the real feelings behind the players, but these powerful moments can end up being jarring for the casual sports fan.

A certain level of detachment is necessary to enjoy sport. Before watching STID, it is easy to immerse yourself in the match and enjoy the energy and emotion that comes from watching athletes playing a sport that both you and they love.

However, seeing backstage and learning that Jack Rodwell refuses to train on £70,000 a week while Sunderland are forced to make the majority of their kitchen staff redundant adds a harsh reality to the sport and makes you question your emotional investment.

These documentaries do well to fill the void of the sporting off-season, but they find themselves toeing the line of truth and entertainment. When that truth becomes a bit too real, you may wish you had never asked to see how the sausage gets made.

Featured image by Flickr / Walt Jabsco

What is your opinion about this genre of sporting documentary? Let us know!

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