More than a beautiful game
Credit: Naomi Baker/Getty Images   

Sunderland shirts and scarves are dotted around the church as the congregation takes their seats. Chaplain to the football club, Father Marc Lyden-Smith starts his sermon. He is entreating his parish to pray for Sunderland Football Club: “because the success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city.”

This is the opening to the Netflix series Sunderland ‘Til I Die. It charts Sunderland’s disastrous 2017-18 season in the Championship, English football’s second tier, as they suffer another relegation and drop down to League One. The series’ message in these opening moments is clear. In Sunderland, football is a religion.

Released in December, Sunderland ‘Til I Die garnered critical acclaim. Many saw it as a more authentic portrayal of life at a football club than All or Nothing, the fly-on-the-wall series about Manchester City released by rival streaming service Amazon Prime a few months earlier. The contrast between the two is striking, not just artistically, but politically.

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Central to the Sunderland series’ success was the decision to profile lifelong supporters of the club alongside its players and managers. We see fans from all walks of life, united in the passion that they feel towards their football club. Sometimes, this goes beyond what casual observers would recognize as normal football fandom. During one particularly poor performance, a frustrated fan attacks the camera. Meanwhile, in the opening to another episode, we see an undertaker discuss the ways in which fans have incorporated Sunderland Football Club into their funerals. The show’s title, lifted from one of the supporters’ signature chants, is to be taken literally.

One fan, taxi driver Peter Farrer, becomes as much a protagonist as the players. Driving through the city, he reflects on Sunderland’s once dominant shipbuilding industry – everyone, he claims, has a relation who’s either worked in the shipyards or the pits. It’s no coincidence that the show’s theme tune is a melancholic ode to these hardworking ancestors (‘Shipyards’ by the Lake Poets). Those jobs are gone.

Which is in part why Sunderland AFC is about more than football for its fans. If it were to go under, Farrer says, “it would be another nail in the coffin, just like the shipyards and the pits.”

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In focusing on the city as much as its football club, the documentary frames the struggles of the latter amid the backdrop of the former’s post-industrial decline. And in doing so, it becomes clearer why football holds such a special place in the hearts of the people of Sunderland. Simply put, while manufacturing remains central to the city, football is one of the few markers of their identity that has stood the test of time.

In Sunderland, like many other old industrial towns and cities across Britain, the alienating impact of the loss of key industries is keenly felt. 40% of the city’s residents are not working due to sickness – which is more than 60% higher than the rate nationally. It’s easy to see how the hope and pride gained from Sunderland AFC is so vital, and why the failings of the club are all the more galling. In a BBC radio phone-in featured in the series, one fan says that he’s “absolutely fed up” with the club’s form. “Fed up, like we all are in the North East.”

In good times, football clubs have the ability to fill that void, literally giving a city’s inhabitants something to shout about, and offering one of the few remaining public arenas in which people can come together and enjoy a shared experience. Father Lyden-Smith’s sermon recognises the sense of belonging that a football club can bring to a community. Scenes of his parishioners at church are intercut with shots of thousands of supporters at the Stadium of the Light. While the two can go hand-in-hand, the club also offers a more secularised form of communion.

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There is also a more literal dependency. It’s no coincidence Farrer ranks it alongside the shipyards and the pits, nor that Father Lyden-Smith draws such a direct link between its success and that of the city. When their relegation to League One is confirmed, and talks of restructuring begin, there is a palpable sense of anxiety – the many local people who make up the club’s backroom staff fear they’ll be out of a job. The club is one of the city’s biggest employers.

That helps explain why much of the fans’ anger throughout the show is directed towards Ellis Short, then club owner, for his mismanagement and seeming abandonment of the place. The last episode details a takeover by new owners, with its bittersweet conclusion suggesting that increased investment will lead to an uptick in fortunes on the pitch.

That could turn out to be the case, with Sunderland currently pushing for promotion from League One and enjoying record attendances. However, in documenting this transition, what the show inadvertently makes the argument for is greater fan involvement in the running and ownership of football clubs.

In Germany, the 50+1 rule means that private investors cannot own more than 49% of a club in the Bundesliga, thereby maintaining the tradition of German clubs being non-profit members associations. The result is football clubs that are much more accommodating to fans’ interests, particularly when it comes to ticket prices.

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While a direct application of that rule in the UK may prove impossible, or even unwanted, it is a model that marries the social and economic value of these clubs as vital local institutions – institutions that, in struggling communities, provide so much more than entertainment.

In contrast to Sunderland ‘Til I Die, Manchester City’s documentary has very little to say about the city and its fans, focusing instead on the club’s star players and legendary Spanish manager. Yet while fans may be delighted with the club’s success on the pitch, that doesn’t mean all Mancunians are happy off of it. Local action groups have protested what they see as suspect property development deals between the council and Manchester City’s owners, and meetings organised by Greater Manchester Housing Action and Amnesty International Manchester, have drawn a connection between such deals and the city’s wider housing crisis.

And the club is rumoured to be one of many flirting with the idea of a European Super League. If realised, this could result in Manchester City leaving the Premier League in order to play matches across Europe. Even in success, the corporatisation of football can distance clubs from the localities that they were designed to represent.

Where Sunderland’s club was threatened with obsolescence, Manchester’s is flirting with relocation. Given the significance of football clubs to a place’s identity – to the fabric of local communities – we should be wary of letting them suffer the same fate as previously pivotal industries. Regardless of the success new ownership can bring, football clubs are too important to our social fabric to be left entirely to the benevolence of billionaires.