The Netflix series Sunderland ‘Til I Die had a bit of everything – a confrontation with a fan, a player who didn’t want to play and a disastrous campaign that ended in relegation.
Released in December, it was the product of 10 months spent following Sunderland AFC during the 2017-18 season.
Newly relegated from the Premier League and hoping to make a swift return, the Black Cats instead went through two managers and a change of ownership on the way down to League One.
David Soutar, director and series producer, and Ben Turner, executive producer and Sunderland supporter, shared their thoughts on the process of making a documentary about a dysfunctional football club.
Did you experience much resistance from the players?
Former Sunderland captain John O’Shea, who joined Reading last summer, revealed in a recent interview with BBC Radio 5 Live that “99% of the squad” didn’t want the documentary to happen.
Soutar: “That was definitely the group mentality. But the idea that 99% of them were against it doesn’t really work because most of them would be doing stuff with us individually and talking to us about what was going on, although some players made it very clear that they didn’t want to be part of it.
“But as John said in that interview, he understood the bigger picture and it was never a personal thing against the crew or the team. I think that some of them just worked out pretty quickly that they didn’t want that year documented and they didn’t want to be associated with it, because it’s a tough enough thing for them to have on their footballing CV, let alone to have it attached to them on a wider platform.”
Was there an awareness that some people might not come across well?
One of the standout moments of the programme is when midfielder Jack Rodwell tells a team-mate there is “no chance” he will play in an upcoming game. Chief executive Martin Bain featured heavily and left the club after relegation. And midfielder Darron Gibson has to turn around opinions after being filmed criticising team-mates before the season even begins.
Turner: “I think Martin [Bain] probably came across better than his image was. Most people thought he didn’t really care. He cared very deeply but he was in an incredibly tough position.
“Someone like Jack Rodwell – we’re always looking for the unexpected and I think people judge footballers too quickly. How many of them would walk away from that kind of money [reportedly £70,000 a week ]?
“Most football clubs, while we love them as supporters, they’re not desperately loyal to the players. They’ll offload them if they’re not performing. We would have been interested to explore someone like Jack Rodwell’s story a lot deeper.”
Soutar: “Absolutely. And we tried as well with him. I sort of compare how he comes across in the show to Darron Gibson. If you look at both of them, they both had tough seasons and fans completely dismissed them.
“But we tried to explain to Jack that if he tells us his side of the story and gives us a different perspective then we can show that. If he doesn’t give us that then we can’t. Whereas with Darron, when he gave that simple explanation and apology about his drunken slur at the beginning of the year, it showed a different side to him.
“It showed that he did care and he wasn’t hiding away from these things that were happening. But with Jack we never got the opportunity to do that.
“We didn’t go out of our way to intentionally make anyone look bad but we knew that fans were going to go for certain people because that’s what they do.”
Why do you think viewers responded to Jonny Williams in the way they did?
The Welsh midfielder, on loan from Crystal Palace, experienced a difficult season with injuries and living away from home. He is involved in emotional scenes when discussing his mental struggles with a sports psychologist.
Turner: “I think he was prepared to show a vulnerability that most people try to paper over. He’s an example of what we were trying to communicate to some of the people who were less keen to be involved. There’s a very dominant stereotype of what a footballer is but that tells a very small part of the story.
“I think because he was willing to open up and share what he was going through, then people sympathised with that. In a way people can relate to that more than a guy standing there with his arms aloft having just scored and feeling like he’s on top of the world.”
What was it like seeing people you worked with leave, like managers Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman?
Simon Grayson started the season in charge but was sacked in October. His replacement Chris Coleman was released before the final game of the season, with relegation confirmed.
Turner: “It’s a strange thing because the story was amazing to follow but you’re certainly not standing there hoping that it goes that way. And you definitely feel for them when it goes wrong. For as much as they’re not comfortable being filmed, you’d rather not be documenting that.”
What happened when the camera was smashed by a supporter?
At an away game against Bristol City in February, where Sunderland went 3-0 down in the first half, a couple of fans took exception to being filmed and confronted the cameraman.
Soutar: “That was when the frustration was really starting to bubble up. It was two individuals who didn’t want to be filmed and that was the way that they deemed appropriate to communicate that to us, and to our cameraman. He tried to stand his ground and protect the camera, and instantly wanted to carry on and start filming again with our other camera.
“The majority of fans were absolutely brilliant with us. We built up such great relationships with some of them. It was just two individuals throughout a whole year of 50-odd games and at that moment tensions spilled over and they took their frustration out on us.”
How is the second series shaping up?
Turner: “You’re always at the mercy of following the story but what’s particularly unique about the second series is the access we get to Stewart [Donald] and Charlie [Methven], the new owners, and how they’re overhauling the club. They are interesting and special characters and it’s been amazing. I think we’re more embedded there than we could ever have imagined and it’s utterly fascinating watching them work.”