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"We saw you crying on Netflix!"
It was moment that the producers of Sunderland ‘Till I Due knew that they had created a crossover TV hit. After the first series was broadcast on Netflix in December 2018, opposition fans seized on the unfortunate events of the club's 2017/18 season and taunted the Black Cats supporters.
“They only chant when they’re jealous,” laughs Ben Turner, one of the producers atthe series' production company Fulwell 73.
“Giving Sunderland something to make other fans jealous, that’s very satisfying."
A great football documentary has to do much more than capture a success or failure in the life of a sports team or individual competitor. It needs to reach beyond fans of that particular sport.
“When we were first pitching these shows, we did a film The Class of 92, which came out before there were quite so many sports documentaries,” Recalls Turner.
“I remember pitching that and getting the question back, which is quite justified: ‘What is the point?’ It’s not as good as watching the game itself because we know what the outcome is. It has to amount to more than whether the team win or lose, because everyone knows Man United won the treble that season.
“You have to get in touch with a bigger story. I think our first season with Sunderland it was the time of Trump being elected, the Rust Belt and the disenfranchisement of these cities where large swathes had been left behind. It was a story that really spoke to that. There is a resonance to that story.”
The second series has a new focus. Series 1 ended with the Black Cats getting relegated from the Championship and in financial ruin. Series two begins with a wave of optimism as new owner Stewart Donald and his ‘charismatic’ executive director Charlie Methven attempt to haul the club back to life.
Funnier, and filled with even more passion and heartache than the first run, the new series is even more engrossing and binge-able than the original.
Here are three reasons Sunderland ‘Till I Die series 2 is a must-watch…
Meet executive director Charlie Methven
Any concerns that the second series might get a bit stale as Sunderland’s woes continued in League One can be put to bed, as the arrival of Charlie Methven – imagine David Brent crossed with an over-eager Apprentice candidate – gives the series an instant star.
“As soon as we started filming, we knew [Charlie] would be good,” admits Turner.
In the first episode viewers will witness an incredible meeting led by Methven, where he pitches ideas for relaunching the soundtrack that greets fans to the stadium. The meeting is pure David Brent in its awkwardness, but just like the famous TV character, Methven brings an infectious enthusiasm and endearing quality to proceedings.
“It was certainly easier than the first series where we dealing with an absentee owner,” said Turner.
“When we were doing the second series we had to ask, ‘Why are we doing this? What is this going to add?’ Thankfully, the new owners taking over and doing everything they could to revitalise the club, answered that.”
Viewers may find Methven a source of amusement, but proud Sunderland fan Turner clearly has a soft spot for their new star.
“We have these two rich owners coming up North to get this club back on its feet and falling in love with the romance of the place and actually in the end, making some relatively bad decisions based on that romance. Which is really interesting because Charlie is a brilliant businessman and Stuart knows what he’s doing.
“But then the signing of Will Grigg – it’s not very sound business. What makes you lose that business sense? It’s something to do with the romance.”
It's a sporting tale that resonates beyond Sunderland
The crossover appeal of Sunderland ‘Till I Die was no accident.
Little details such as the explanations of the Play-Off system in football were included because Fullwell are making this series for Netflix and believe it can be enjoyed by a viewer in Milwaukee as much as by football fans in the North-East of England.
The producers also didn’t lose heart that Sunderland’s manager for the season, Jack Ross, wasn’t keen on being filmed.
“The Manchester City doc [All or Nothing] got access to Pep Guardiola and all respect to Jack Ross, but Pep is probably more interesting. So to try do something like that, and a lesser version, you’ve seen it all before,” he said.
“The story we wanted to tell was more unique. In the end what we ended up with, it was beneficial that we didn’t get as much time with Jack.”
Turner believes that the repeated failures of Sunderland and the continuing disappointment for their fans is a universal experience that stretches way beyond the Stadium of Light.
“I think most sports teams around the world are crap and lose most of the team. That’s the shared experience for everyone in sport,” he said.
“I’ve grown up around Tottenham and Arsenal fans and all they do to me is moan about their bloody clubs. Even when Sunderland are getting relegated for the second time in succession, all they do is moan to me about their teams losing in the Champions League final and how I should feel sorry for them. I just think, ‘Oh really’. But that is the shared experience.
“Only one team ends a season happy. And that’s common to sport and all of us.”
The second series also takes place with the backdrop of Brexit, which Turner believes feeds into the narrative of the series.
“It’s a more interesting and nuanced look at something that is part of the national conversation. I don’t think everybody making these docs, thinks of them that way. But we do,” he explains.
“My mum hates Sunderland Football Club. So our goal is always for her to watch it and enjoy it.”
It's a love letter to Sunderland AFC
Being a Sunderland fan makes filming this series a double-edged sword for Turner.
“It’s been a long while since I felt that gutted at the end of a season. I’d really been sucked in by the optimism and believed it would be different this time around,” he admits.
“For normal fans, you lose the game, have a few beers and then move on with your summer. But for me, that was the start of me continually revisiting this story and trying to tell it in a way that is evocative and frankly as upsetting as possible. You do start to wonder, how did I get into this?”
On the flip-side Turner took his kids to watch their first game after series one and could see the “sense of pride” the show had brought to the club.
“I love Sunderland and I’m crap at football, so this was the closest I was ever going to get to doing something for the club. It was very, very gratifying,” he said.
Turner says that his personal perspective on the club makes it easier to get a unique and special vision for the series, but any football fans envious of his behind-the-scenes access should be aware that the process of making the series isn't just about watching your team play every week and meeting the players.
To make the series work, the producers have to attend every single press conference, training session and matchday or they risk missing a turning point in a game or failing to capture a dramatic off-field incident.
“It is so stressful,” explains Turner. “You can’t have cameras everywhere making a show like this. We had a few crews out there who got into the cycle of a football club who moved between the training, the management, the fans and they built the relationships and trust with the right people at the club.
“But the whole thing is very stressful, because you can never get enough. It’s only when you get to the edit that you realise its all OK and the audience will understand if you don’t capture every moment. But when you’re in the filming stages, it is incredibly stressful.”
Sunderland 'Till I Die series 2 is streaming now on Netflix.
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