Sunderland ’Til I Die (2018) takes your eye off the truth

Sunderland 'Til I Die (2018-2019)

Football clubs used to publish just a single documentary film about themselves every so often, but now they’ve migrated to massive streaming series. Usually I avoid football club and player movies because I know they are going to amount to a very long marketing video. I made an exception for the Netflix series Sunderland ’Til I Die. And here’s why.

The entire 14 episodes (2 seasons), I kept wondering why this series was made. Even if the club were paid $5-10M to participate, what were the makers (Fulwell73) and the subjects (Sunderland AFC) hoping to achieve? Who would have thought people would watch 9.5 hours of a club going down in flames? Having been relegated from the Premier League to the Championship, they get relegated again in Series Season 1 (the 2017-2018 playing season).

Some might say, well, it’s like watching a car wreck! You can’t turn your eyes away! Or as Greggo of the FTCUTD podcast told me, it’s #RelegationPorn.

For me, the length of the series was excruciating and I really had to tough it out. (Netflix, please learn to play at more than one speed!) Sometimes I thought the title of the series should have been “Sunderland ’Til You Die” or “People in Cars in Sunderland”.

Yes, there are a few really good episodes, you get a lot of insight into how football works, and the cinematography of the games is theatrically fantastic. But otherwise it’s a trial by binge. Soldiering on, I hung in there because (a) there’s a pandemic going on, and (b) I wanted the answer to my question. So here it is.

Winners or Losers

In an interview with the Sunderland Echo, producer Leo Pearlman of Fulwell73 says the series was never meant to be a promotional piece for the club or to help sell it. All 3 principals of Fulwell73 are huge Sunderland fans and named their company in honor of SAFC. Sunderland trusted the filmmakers to do justice to their fans and their city. Fulwell73 already had a relationship with Netflix, and they only had to convince Netflix that the SAFC story would be comparable to the fan-owned Green Bay Packers.

No one can deny that self-promotion has been a major impact of the series. The exposure amongst Netflix’s 145M subscribers has put SAFC in the global eye and gained it new followers. The series’ success has raised the profiles of the club and the filmmakers.

I think the intention all along was that the series would follow Sunderland in the 2017-2018 Championship season as it climbed its way back into the Premiership. Instead, Season 1 shows how things can go bad even when SAFC jettisons coach Simon Grayson halfway through the season to get top manager Chris Coleman.

Coleman’s greatest success was with Gareth Bale and the Wales National Team, but he can’t turn things around, for a multitude of reasons. Absentee American owner Ellis Short refuses to put any more money into the club, too many players don’t want to be there, too many key players get injured, and a few bad referee calls come at the most critical moments. Welcome to League One. Ellis Short finally sells the team.

In Season 2, the 2018-2019 League One season, no doubt the filmmakers’ intention remained roughly the same, this time to record Sunderland climbing back into the Championship as a new additional step to return to the EPL. Under new ownership and hard-driving tactics from Charlie Methven, SAFC rebuilds its fan base, sells tickets, cuts costs drastically, and starts winning games, largely with the help of 19-year-old goalscorer Josh Maja. But then, a fatal misstep.

Rather than resign Maja, SAFC sells him for a pittance in the January transfer window, and Stewart Donald falls into the trap of new ownership. The series captures Donald agonizing to give the fans a big signing, surrendering in the 11th hour to the pressure to make a deal, any deal. But Will Grigg’s signing doesn’t help the team, and SAFC doesn’t make it out of League One.

Interspersed with all this internal club drama are interludes and car rides with long-time, long-suffering fans. Priests lead prayers for the club at church services. The sentiment of less devout fans fluctuates with the wins and the losses, alternating between blowing kisses and spitting rage. The series culminates in a huge feel-good gathering in Trafalgar Square for the Checkatrade final at Wembley.

The fans are the only constant in the series, but they don’t really offer any drama to the narrative. It makes you realize that the fans aren’t what moves the story, they are instead a major facet of the Sunderland product and brand. Without those fans, what would you have? A lot of unsold jerseys and an empty stadium.

A bit about propaganda

When we are in a state of war or political campaigns, we label manipulative media as propaganda. But if we’re not in a state of controversy, we instead refer to persuasive media as marketing communications or brand management. Sunderland ’Til I Die is somewhere inbetween.

A key factor in making propaganda successful is that it must contain some truth. The Power Corrupts podcast cites the World War 2 example of Lord Haw-Haw. William Joyce’s propaganda broadcasts from Germany included real descriptions of regional locations he had been to, so that he could add names and places when describing bombings in England and Germany. Those bits of facts increased the believability of the disinformation he included in his radio show. (He was executed as a traitor after Germany fell.)

Similarly, the SAFC drama about the Jan-2019 transfer window is the bit of truth that makes you believe the earnestness of owner Stewart Donald. You are made to believe he is an owner who was swept up by his fandom for the club. But I believe the passion in Donald’s footage is his passion for money, the thing he knows best. Because if SAFC doesn’t get promoted out of League One, then his 2 year plan to turn a quick profit vaporizes like water droplets on a hot skillet. He bets an extra £3M on Will Grigg because it could lead to a £300M return to the EPL. It’s really all about flipping the club, and it always was.

The financial picture of a leveraged buyout

We can surmise Donald’s real intentions from the recent reports about his SAFC purchase and his recent attempts to sell Sunderland again. I asked my venture capitalist hubby to explain the financial transactions that were described in a May-11-2020 article in the Sunderland Echo. This is how hubby thinks Donald’s purchase of SAFC worked, along with a diagram.

The 2018 Madrox leveraged buyout of Sunderland AFC
The 2018 Madrox leveraged buyout of Sunderland AFC
  • Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven incorporated Madrox Partners Ltd in May-2018 to purchase SAFC. (According to the Daily Mail in May-2019, their respective ownership was 94% and 6%.) They loaned Madrox a combined £5M to use as the purchase deposit for the club. They issued this as personal loans rather than direct capital in anticipation that if Madrox went bankrupt, they as debtors would be the first in line to be paid off. 
  • The EPL is presumed to have given SAFC £40M in parachute payments in 2018. SAFC then made an inter-company loan of all this money to Madrox so that it could pay Ellis Short the remaining £32M of the purchase price.
  • In Aug-2018 the new owners brought in Uruguayan investor Juan Satori, who is believed to have paid £3M for a 20% stake in Madrox.
  • Donald and Methven cut expenses and increased ticket sales at SAFC so that, according to the TV series, the club stopped operating at a loss.
  • In Oct-2019, they took a £10M bridge loan from American investors FPP, although my hubby thinks the amount has to be more like £17-20M. According to the Daily Mail in May-2020, SAFC has written off (forgiven) its £40M loan to Madrox. Madrox has said this was a condition of obtaining the FPP loan. The forgiveness would assure FPP that they are Madrox’ most senior debtors.
  • Donald has said he promises to pay back the money to the club (hubby estimates as £20M), but it is only a verbal promise, and Donald is not obliged to do so. It is most likely he will declare that force majeure prevents him from repayment.
  • Should Madrox sell Sunderland for £40M, Donald would make £15.8M on his investment, a 3.4x ROI over 2 years, and Methven would net almost £1M.

Who’s to blame for SAFC’s downfall?

Sunderland ’Til I Die is a broad and detailed look at the internal operations of a football club that today we know is on a sure path to irrelevance. The series would make you believe that some players are at fault: transfer targets didn’t want to come there, players didn’t want to be there, they got injured, they wouldn’t give up their salaries, they lacked confidence. Or maybe SAFC was a mess because the office staff wouldn’t change their profligate ways and didn’t even understand why or how to make the club profitable.

I wondered how much the show affected the club’s record, but by my calculations, the points per League One game were essentially the same before and after the series debuted on Dec-14-2018 (1.31 versus 1.33 ppg, respectively).

Contrary to the series viewpoint, I think it’s pretty safe to blame the owners and only the owners for the downfall of Sunderland AFC. First, blame Ellis Short for expecting the club to run itself. Then, blame Stewart Donald and the football league for allowing a man in the middle of a mid-life crisis to buy the club when he didn’t have the money to keep SAFC afloat if they didn’t get promoted.

In Conclusion

I recommend the series to young lads who think they want to be pro footballers. Season 1 makes it pretty clear how easily an injury can hurt a player’s career path, and how one bad season can lead to a path to nowhere. Football is a game of opportunity, and if you can’t grab and hold onto it when it’s in your hands, it rarely comes back in reach, whether you are a player or an owner.

And to the fans of Sunderland AFC, thank you for your joy and your enthusiasm. Best and sincere wishes for your recovery, because you have been hit with 2 diseases that don’t spare communities: coronavirus and business greed.

This is the fifth Fulwell73 production I have seen. Like the films about Ryan Giggs and Justin Fashanu, the Sunderland series doesn’t burn bridges with its participants. They show a little dirt, but they leave their subjects smelling as sweet as lavender soap. Use your own judgment when watching Fulwell73 documentaries.

Update Jun-25-2020: For an interesting reveal on parachute payments and why they are bad for English football, refer to the Football Today podcast with researcher Rob Wilson, from May-17-2020

7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7