“The piss-take party stops now,” boldly declared new Sunderland part-owner Charlie Methven during an introductory press conference to open season two of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the club during the 2018-19 season. The six-part series begins with a promise of a new era after the club were relegated from the Premier League down to League One in consecutive seasons. Methven and partner Stewart Donald emphasized the importance of rediscovering the club’s identity and financial sustainability following several wayward seasons. Released at the start of April, just weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic suspended league play across all levels in England, the documentary commemorates the simpler times when we obsessed over transfers and tactics as opposed to the very existence of lower league sides dependent on matchday revenue for survival.
Unlike the Premier League’s reliance on television, the three tiers and 72 clubs across the English Football League are funded largely through gate receipts and supporter attendance. Thus lower league matches must not only restart sometime soon, but also find a way to pack tens of thousands back into stadiums. To help mitigate losses, the EFL and Premier League donated a combined $215 million to keep teams afloat. And like their Premier League counterparts, EFL players were asked to take a 25 percent wage cut to help their club survive. Though there is one obvious difference: the average Premier League player makes over $78,000 per week. Their League One peers average $2400 each paycheck.
“You’re going to require everybody to take a bit of the pain - as everybody is throughout society. That’s why the focus at the moment is on the players sharing some of that pain,” said Tranmere chairman Mark Palacios, currently in League Two, messaging financial sacrifice as a product of the larger social order. The owner also added that the current crisis was the perfect opportunity to reset the overall market for clubs and players with an eye towards sustainability and realism.
Yet clubs were in financial disarray even before the pandemic: Bury was already expelled from the EFL. Southend United and Macclesfield Town failed to pay players on time; Bolton were in administration for parts of 2019. In an example of documentary meeting the moment, Sunderland recently furloughed its first-team players and staff. And with EFL sides receiving their share of television revenue at the start of the year, finishing out the season in empty stadiums could further increase costs. Echoing the mistrust within ownership groups throughout the Premier League, one Championship chairman observed “solidarity was never going to be achieved” in whether all 72 teams would come together to create a plan without matches.
Trust and solidarity are simple words, yet the lack of each appear to cost millions.
Methven and Donald themselves inherited a side losing almost $40 million a season due to the apathy of the club’s previous owner. Even more damaging, that sense of listlessness consumed the general mood around the club. Far from the glamour of how we perceive club ownership from games like Football Manager, the episodes portray the day-to-day slog of solving a jigsaw puzzle on the spreadsheet and in employee morale. One storyline focused on a gimmicky attempt to have the most supporters ever in a League One match. While the initiative was driven by matchday revenue (driven by, argued, and fought for by the breakout star Methven), seeing 46,000 supporters in a stadium adds a subtext of melancholy that the filmmakers surely could not have predicted.
“I get goosebumps just thinking about it and wondering in all honesty when am I going to get back to that kind of moment again,” said series producer Leo Pearlman of the moment when thousands of Sunderland supporters packed a square in London to celebrate their club making the EFL final.
Though much of Sunderland’s financial situation was self-inflicted, thus one could raise a question of why certain clubs should be saved if they were so unsustainable in the first place. This also raises discussions about the meaning of lower league football in a country’s footballing ecosystem. From a Premier League lens, the fate of Southend United or Bolton will make little difference to their revenue-generating global brands. We have to use a different framework of value, something more philosophical and emotional: it is about the relationship between supporter, club, and city. Lower league sides represent the ability to dream, of going from League One, to the Championship, and maybe one day, into the Premier League.
“Eight in 10 people in England and Wales live within a 15-mile radius of an EFL club, so whether it’s offering practical, emotional, or physical support, the help football Clubs are providing should not be underestimated,” wrote EFL chief Rick Parry in an open letter about the close connection between club and community.
A club in the footballing pyramid isn’t only defined by its success at the top level, but also by its very existence. The existential threat of promotion and relegation, that a club could potentially no longer exist if they continue to lose, makes survival a significant act. That anxiety may not scale to Premier League standards, but as the documentary shows, it is an overall mood that has tangible effects on behavior and day-to-day reality.
Donald reiterated throughout the series that he would sell the club if supporters turned on him. Following a joint statement from several supporter groups, Donald put the club back onto the market just a year-and-a-half following the triumphant press conference that opened season two.
Yet it was Methven’s outsider perspective that shook up the complacency of the staff, in questioning how things were done just because that’s how they always were done. Methven, who drew comparisons between Gordon Gekko and Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, provided a standout moment in explaining why playing house music before matcheswould signal a new era of the club.
A gift of the documentary form is how real life continues to unfold long after its release; with the club potentially changing hands again, season two becomes a fish-out-of-water narrative of two cosmopolitan figures attempting to navigate a foreign culture. If this was cinema, our main characters would change and learn a lesson about themselves. In reality, all that’s left are fans let down once again.
There was also the risk of glamorizing Sunderland’s working class qualities, especially as we analyze the series from a distance. Likewise, when Methven and Donald discuss how much they love the North East as compared to the (posh?) South, they seem to be trying to convince themselves while saying it outloud. Regardless, the series draws plaudits from viewers in Sunderland.
“It makes for a challenging and at times difficult watch, though there is more than enough to leave Sunderland fans proud and defiant,” wrote Sunderland Echo football columnist Phil Smith
In another example of adding context since the time of the documentary’s release, rivals Newcastle were on the verge of being purchased by a billionaire consortium. One of their ambitions is to brand themselves as the “club of the North,” though penetrating the relationship between Sunderland and its supporters appears impossible judging by what we’ve seen. The simultaneous acts of Sunderland and Newcastle getting sold and bought shows the fleeting nature of club ownership, and how lifelong fandom is built on the shaky ground of finances and whims of individuals.
But supporters endure those changes together. As Sunderland’s season ended, supporters turned inward, asking if anything good happens to both city and club. Imagine how those same events would play out now, as we face an extended period without fans. What was framed then as another low moment in a club’s history could end up being a document of what pre-pandemic sporting life was like, when supporters would crowd outside of bars for hours beforehand, singing and being alive in the moment. Players, managers, and even owners come and leave, but the spirit of a city is forever.