Phil Smith's Sunderland '˜Til I Die review: A beautiful and fundamentally true piece of work

Midway through a season that has never got started, a player is at his nadir.

Wednesday, 12th December 2018, 11:00 am
Images from Sunderland 'Til I Die.

Lonely, frustrated, disillusioned, riddled with doubts.

His torment is laid bare for all to see.

Chris Coleman celebrates a Sunderland win over Derby County

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A little later, a supporter sits at home and listens as his side plumb the depths at Bristol City, before launching what is still, to this day, an inexplicable comeback.

His reactions are utterly authentic, utterly relatable and is it impossible not to giggle.

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At the end, a staff member is left shellshocked and heartbroken by another managerial depature.

Not from a tactical or football point of view, just at the sheer human pain of it.

This is Sunderland ‘Til I die at its absolute best.

It is not especially revelatory, dramatically altering the narrative of arguably the worst season in Sunderland’s history.

But it adds emotive layers to the story, reflecting the human emotions tied up in the woeful performances of the pitch.

The managers who can’t quite find the solutions.

The players who (by and large) just can’t find the performances they are so desperately looking for.

The staff behind the scenes for whom defeat means job insecurity but above all else, a deep sense of ache for the club that is their life.

This series has been pitched as the antithesis of the glossy, PR film that depicted Manchester City’s rise to the Premier League title this season.

To what extent that is true is debatable.

While there is some enjoyable transfer gossip, and some eye-catching deadline day scenes, the series is happy to avoid being explosive.

Undoubtedly, the series suffers from a lack of dressing room access and the absence of Pep’s magnetic charisma, which anchored that documentary and held it together during the more mundane moments of the season.

Placing the supporters at the heart of the narrative is where the two differ significantly and the producers have captured the city beautifully.

In the opening episodes, it feels a touch forced, the narrative of a poverty-ridden city with only football to keep it going is perhaps pushed a little too hard.

The series finds its feet, however, in the days before Simon Grayson’s departure.

The tension enveloping the club is captured wonderfully, focusing on Grayson and Chief Executive Martin Bain as they grapple with the inevitable conclusion they both want to avoid, but both know is coming.

The arrival of Chris Coleman precipitates a genuinely captivating run of episodes.

Though some supporters will feel the anger they felt towards Ellis Short is the elephant in the room, the portrayal of that long winter of discontent is evocative and deeply moving.

The lurch between raw fury and total apathy is on show, the desire for Coleman to turn things around slamming against the reality of the club’s unsalvageabale predicament.

The sheer ecstasy that greets that surreal, cathartic night at Derby County only serves to exacerbate the pain of what followed.

It’s hope perfectly juxtaposed against reality.

The story of a football supporter, particularly at this club, faithfully told.

It goes without saying that much of the footage of the city is beautiful and will leave a lump in the throat of anyone who has an attachment to it.

When the series throws off its early shackles of framing the city in its troubled recent past, it is able to truly capture its spirit and unique imagination.

That is a fine and welcome achievement.

How big a wave this series will make in football remains to be seen.

The failings of those in charge are laid bare for all to see but the producers have clearly made a concerted effort to tell a different story.

What they have produced may not be explosive but it is a beautiful and fundamentally true piece of work.