Having produced television programmes for 25 years, including sports documentaries, I believe I can recognise a good one when I see it. The first series of ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ was a revealing watch, allowing access to all areas of a modern day football club. The good, bad and not so pretty.
I’ve been involved in behind the scenes, warts ‘n all football films in times past. They are not easy to produce. Full co-operation of everyone at a club is required. Club owners, manager and players. Sometimes they first agree to allow the director to film anywhere, only to ban the cameras from dressing rooms when they don’t want people to see or hear what can take place.
I tipped Sunderland to be relegated from the Premier League to the Championship, and again for them to drop into League 1 the following season. VG Tips members were on.
I wasn’t revelling in those winning bets. Having spent some time on Wearside and making friends there back in the 90’s, I have long had plenty of time for Sunderland supporters, if not always for those who have run that club over the years.
Series 1 of ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ was compelling viewing. In equal parts, funny and shocking. I’ve watched all six parts of Season 2 and while it may lack the impact of its predecessor, it is a must watch.
It’s missing any dressing room filming. I expect manager Jack Ross didn’t want the cameras witnessing the player reactions to the ups and downs of what was a frustrating season for the team. They twice made it to Wembley and came away with nothing. Not seeing footballers throwing their boots across the dressing room in anger was noticeable by its absence throughout series two. The film, therefore, concentrates more on the fans. Their home lives as well as their passionate support at matches.
Episode 1 has a corking scene. New Executive Director Charlie Methven has a meeting with his marketing team. Men and women whose expressions scream out: “Oh no, not another public relations twerp.” Boys and girls who have evidently grown weary of new brooms coming into Sunderland and trying to put a rocket up their backsides. One strokes his beard and nervously taps his pen. Another makes a point of being seen to write down what Charlie says (in my experience a sure sign they couldn’t give a stuff about his comments, but want to keep their job).
If you miss ‘The Office’ rest assured that David Brent is alive and well and wearing Rioja coloured tight trousers.
Methven wants new music for the team to come out to. He wants it more modern. He wants it louder. He wants the Stadium of Light to sound as though it is staging “a massive rave…. a bit Ibiza.” At this point the young pen tapper does his best impersonation of Gareth from ‘The Office’ telling his new boss: “It doesn’t matter what you play unless you get a new P.A. system.’ Methven appears speechless (although I suspect some judicious editing was employed at that point).
When in his twenties Methven was working on the diary desk of the Daily Telegraph alongside the now Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The newspaper says Methven was a “waspish diarist.” Or, as with Johnson, inventing stories about wealthy socialites.
Inevitable, therefore, that Methven should end up in Public Relations. An industry where just how good you are at talking bollocks dictates how high up the PR ladder you climb. There’s no shortage of Methven spouting twaddle in episode 1. He tells the press that for too long other clubs have looked upon Sunderland as an easy three points and promises: “That piss take party stops now.”
As he meets what he calls “a disillusioned, disunited and fragmented marketing team” he reassures them it’s not their fault that Sunderland AFC is a “failed and fucked up business” and “that unless you understand that, you’ll never make it in this world.”
The club, he tells them, was paying £7 million in interest payments on a debt of between £30 and £40 million. All of the revenue from ticket sales went on paying those annual interest payments.
Working in Public Relations clearly involves mixing your metaphors. Methven tells his team: “Every day counts now. We are still in a firefight. We are still with our backs to the wall. We are still digging ourselves out of the trench… and we need all you guys in that trench with us.”
To be fair to the man, he seemingly did care about results. He’s not one of those football boardroom men who sit on their hands and show no emotion during a match. He’s effing and jeffing with the best of them. But, as with almost all directors of a football club, he thinks he knows how to manage a football team better than an experienced coach.
Jack Ross was certainly a pragmatic manager while at Sunderland. 19 draws says much about how he preferred to come away with one point rather than none. For those who subscribe to my betting tips service at VG Tips, backing Sunderland to draw last season was as close to printing money as possible for any football punter. There was a period of the season when they did little else. Bookies were slow to cotton on to that and shrink the odds for a draw in any Sunderland game. I had fun taking advantage of that fact.
Watching the series and season unfold, I was struck by one development that played a vital role in Sunderland’s failure to be promoted. Josh Maja was scoring for fun as Sunderland’s best striker. The club needed to keep him but his agent was on a nice little earner if he got the youngster to move to play for Bordeaux. The agent put his own bank account before what was best for his client.
Keeping Josh Maja at Sunderland until May should have been the number one priority.
But Sunderland owner Stewart Donald did not appear to sit down with the player at any stage. To say to Maja: ‘If you want to leave, do so in the summer and not January. Stay here, keep scoring, get us promoted and you will forever be a hero at the club. Then, if you want to move abroad, you have my blessing.’
But what happened next was irresponsible, bordering on crazy. Once Maja had moved to France the Sunderland owner panicked over getting a replacement before the January transfer window closed. His manager at that time, Jack Ross, told him not to pay more than £1.25 million for Wigan striker Will Grigg because, as Ross rightly said: “He’s not worth it.” He told Stewart Donald not to panic buy. Donald agreed not to. So he followed the advice of his manager, right? Nope. Wrong. With the countdown clock for the January transfer window ticking fast, Stewart Donald paid £3 million for Will Grigg. A purchase that has so not worked out the club has already tried to move him on. But Grigg refused to go out on loan to Salford City.
Away from the pitch, Charlie Methven appeared to turn on the wrong member of staff. I spotted fairly soon in the series which members of his support team were coasting. One in particular whose facial expressions made clear they thought Methven was full of shit. But that employee was not sacked.
In episode three, however, up pops the likeable and honest Sophie Ashcroft. Her title was Corporate Communications Manager. Every Charlie Methven type must have someone to pick on. Sophie was the recipient of verbal abuse from Methven. True, she spoke on camera of how she doubted the targets set by Methven could be attained. But she spoke fairly about his right to aim high. Whether or not he got wind of what she was saying on camera while the filming was continuing, I do not know. The pair appeared to rub each other up the wrong way and he swore at her pitchside when he was desperate to know if an unrealistic attendance target he had set for a game had been reached. Sophie Ashcroft was calm and collected. Charlie Methven, not for the first or last time, was most definitely not.
That episode ends with a shot from above of Sophie Ashcroft packing her car with the contents of her desk and hugging colleagues goodbye. But while she left that role, according to her LinkedIn page, she currently works as the Head of Marketing & Communications at The Foundation of Light, Sunderland AFC’s own charity. So Sophie stayed longer than the right Charlie who wanted shot of her. For his part, Methven left the club after filming was completed citing impending fatherhood as the reason.
The most loyal participants remain the fans. Sunderland supporters have suffered for too long. In series 2 of Sunderland ‘Til I Die their pain is there for all to see. Losing one cup final at Wembley is bad enough. Losing two in the same season is cruel.
Stewart Donald still owns the club. I imagine his wish to sell up and move on will only have increased what with the financial pressures being experienced by all football clubs during the Coronavirus health crisis that has seen the football season suspended. The jury is out as to whether the 2019-20 football season will ever be completed.
Whenever football returns so will my own football analysis and betting tips. Right now there’s an opportunity for new subscribers to join VG Tips at a vastly reduced rate and their membership would only begin when football in the UK resumes. When football and horse racing fixtures start once again, the monthly and annual membership fees for those joining thereafter will revert to their regular, higher sums.