I WAS relatively late to the excellent series, Sunderland ‘Til I Die, largely because I am naturally cynical about carefully-scripted documentaries that supposedly tell the inside story of a club or institution. However, having watched the entire two-series offering, I not only feel I know Sunderland a little better, but the revealing content confirmed conventional business and football are very uncomfortable bedfellows.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, the co-owners, both came across as entrepreneurial, and hard-working people. They may be disciples of marketing speak and corporate jargon, but they are also football fans. They seemed decent, ambitious, competitive and energetic.
Were they suitable owners for Sunderland, a club that has been described as a “sleeping giant”, “100% f*****” and a “basket case”? As we know, the football world is not like the rest of the business community. Common sense often goes missing, accountability is a quality that is rarely found and the heart rules the head. All businesses are results-driven, but while regular sectors base their performance on the balance sheet, a football club’s success is judged on scorelines. It is not easy for pragmatic, target-driven people to pass on their strategy to many of the people running clubs.
Sunderland is an under-achiever par excellence with an excellent stadium, there’s scarcely a person left alive who can remember when they were among the genuinely top names in the English game. Even the FA Cup triumph of 1973 is so far back in time that a 20 year-old at Wembley May 5 1973 would be pushing 70 today. The club has enjoyed the impetus of increased support from the launch of a new stadium, but on the pitch, Sunderland have recently been in freefall, with two successive relegations in 2017 and 2018. I was there the afternoon they dropped into League One at the end of 2017-18, making a complete hash of a very average Burton Albion team. The atmosphere was toxic and somewhat soul-destroying.
Donald came from the non-league world, specifically Eastleigh. He brought with him Richard Hill as head of Football Operations. Hill was manager of Stevenage when I covered them for the Hertfordshire Mercury for two seasons. His career has ebbed and flowed for the past 20-plus years, but there’s no denying he lives and loves the game.
Sunderland fans were so tired and disillusioned with previous owner Ellis Short they welcomed Donald and Methven with open arms, even though like Short they were not from the north-east. There has always been a lot of emphasis on understanding the region and the people, but in this cosmopolitan world, should that still be so relevant? The history of Sunderland (the city) is based on ship-building and pits, a heritage that forms the basis of the soundtrack of the series, but the last shipyard closed 30 years ago, a victim, to some extent, of creeping globalisation. Today, Sunderland is one of the worst areas in the United Kingdom for finding work.
Football supporters everywhere are fickle, to such an extent that their emotions get a little carried away – they are black and white (no pun intended) in their opinions and assumptions. Everyone is great until they are not. In other words, they love you on the way up and hate you on the way down.
Methven approached his workforce like an operations manager from the City of London, all white board messaging and missions. You wondered if it was lost on an industry where the difference between success and failure can often be one goal. Two relegations have left the club’s finances in a mess and unfortunately, the new regime had to make some difficult decisions. The new owners didn’t pretend to be a “silver bullet” solution to Sunderland’s economic situation and told the assembled supporters that clubs with billionaire benefactors made the fan base largely irrelevant. At clubs where every piece of income is hard-won, the fans’ contribution is greatly valued.
Donald later admitted to being on a big learning curve – “dealing with agents is the worst part of football”, he said as one of their most promising players, Joshua Maja, kept the club guessing over his future before leaving for Bordeaux.
The entire series underlined how fragile the margins between success and failure are in football. It also portrayed Sunderland as a club where expectation rises and falls almost on a daily basis and perception of the current situation changes constantly, from the security of employees (the catering staff were the stars of the show!) to fan satisfaction.
The assumption is nobody cares more than the fans, yet the emotions of people like Donald and Methven demonstrate how involvement breeds passion. As successful professional people, they don’t easily contemplate failure and doubtless despise being associated with something that doesn’t work.
The difference between people like club owners and the fans is the former can leave Sunderland while people who seem to live in replica shirts and club leisurewear cannot possibly desert the ship. Their personal well-being depends on the success and failure of a football team.
The film is very much “warts and all”, which probably makes some club officials wince now, but it tells a heart-rending tale of failure and false dawns and more than a little sadness at how a big club from football’s pioneering years has struggled to remain stable.
In the end, you feel for so many people – for manager Chris Coleman who tried to raise the phoenix, for ever-upbeat chef Joyce Rome, for the long-suffering fans who dye their hair, tattoo their skin with messages of loyalty and live and breath the club, and for Stewart Donald and his backroom team. There are many TV films made about football clubs, but I have never seen one that reflects how people can become so devoted to chasing causes that are all-too-frequently lost.
Sunderland’s loyal fans eventually fell out of love with the Stewart Donald regime, prompting him to step down as chairman and put the club up for sale early this year. He desperately wants to get out. And so the drama continues at one of the grand old names of football…