Specialists in Failure

Documentaries aren’t truth, they aren’t myth, they are stories all on their own. Indeed, documentaries about products sell those products, but what happens when the product up for sale is a soccer team, or an entire city? That is the central question of Netflix’s two season soccer docuseries Sunderland ‘Til I Die, originally pitched to raise the profile of Sunderland AFC, as private equity leech Ellis Short looked to sell the team relegated to the second division of English soccer, The Championship. However, the first season ends in failure to return to the first division, and what’s worse, they fall into League One, the third division of the soccer pyramid where the second season of the show begins.

For those who watched the Premier League during Sunderland’s ten year stay, they weren’t a fearsome opponent so much as an annoying one. They relished ruining the day, spoiling the party for more successful teams, nicking a 1-0 win at their massive Stadium of Light. They dead-cat bounced all the way to 10th in 2010, but mostly spent their decade term fiddling away and escaping the dreaded relegation, despite by all metrics (aside from trophies) suggesting they are a “big English club.” Their stadium is the ninth largest in England, larger even than my beloved Chelsea FC, and until their recent double relegation, they possessed a player payroll near the top of the charts in Europe. They were specialists in failure, to borrow Jose Mourinho’s phrase, never the worst, but never all that good anyway.sunderland 2

The promotional materials for Sunderland ‘Til I Die pitches the series with “No one loves football like Sunderland. No one needs football like Sunderland,” and the underlying argument of the show is that the downtrodden northeast English city, formerly a shipping and mining mecca, needs a successful soccer team to escape the dredges of their lives. To be sure, there is passion and love for the club shown by fans, we even follow a few through the ups and downs of both seasons. However, the documentary centers itself not on the ways in which the working class escapes the crushes of capitalism through sport, but how cosmopolitan, private equity thinking attempts to save the blighted soccer club, which the new owners want to turn for a profit. Their failure to change the results of the club, however, opens the series up for socialist analysis.

Dance of the Knights

Sunderland AFC’s biggest moment in their history came in 1973 when they won the FA Cup final. It is no small irony that this win occurred before the Thatcher years and before neoliberalism ravaged, then finished off, the remaining industries in the area.

Sunderland, the city, still votes Labour, but that stronghold has weakened over the last few election cycles. In 2016, Sunderland and the surrounding areas, with the exception of Newcastle, voted “Remain,” however, in the parliamentary elections that same year, the UKIP party was the second highest earner behind Labour. In 2017, the right-wing votes consolidated under a Tory, but Labour won in a landslide. Finally, in 2019, Labour lost 18% of its vote share, approximately 10,000 votes, that either went Tory or to another right-wing party, like the Brexit party. The disillusionment of this Labour voting-bloc, and the slow, but steady, enchantment with the right-wing is a well-trod tale in UK politics and as socialists there have been plenty of explanations for this development pointing to New Labour’s administrative neoliberalism.

However, in the docuseries, the most explicit instance of politics, is what appears to be a Brexit Party rally demanding a hard Brexit. The scene is overlaid with one of the principle fans we follow discussing that a lot of people around here voted “Leave:” “most of these people are working class people who support Brexit.”

This scene is supposed to be representative of the larger atmosphere around the city, and while the data doesn’t align with his statement, the docuseries uses this moment to sharply contrast the sleek new consortium of owners from the south of England and their efforts to fix the broken club from a financial side and bring success on the field with it. The new consortium of owners is “quite down to earth” for southerners, and one of them admits “if things all go horribly wrong we’ll go back to being pretentious southerners who don’t know what they’re doing.” Starting season two of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, Ellis Short has sold to a consortium headed by Stewart Donald, about which the docuseries shares little, beyond his previous successful investment in Oxford United.

Donald bought the club debt free and sought to make the club “fully sustainable.” He, throughout the docuseries, is shown in the stands with fans, not in an owner’s box, at the bar drinking with season ticket holders and expressing deep anger at the rancorous play on the field. Donald’s wealth comes from years in elite brokerage circles as part of Bridle Insurance, recently acquired by the Finch Group Insurance Brokers, who offer services to protect your fine art and overseas real estate acquisitions.

Donald is portrayed as a down to earth, committed owner, frankly reminiscent of the way in which Joe Biden is often discussed as a sort of “working class whisperer,” someone who, despite his immense wealth knows how to have a pint and a laugh. Donald says about his term as owner that “in an ideal world we would be here for a while.” As socialists, we can see this is an obvious smokescreen to obscure his class position and his failure to deliver results represents a boon for class analysis: his wealth doesn’t make him better at managing the team than anyone else in the stands. In fact, the fans begin to suggest his wealth represents an obstacle to his success because he wants a cheap buck, a quick return to glory and then sell the team for a profit.

His business partner, the more muscularly capitalist of the two, however, argues the disconnect is cultural rather than material: the biggest thing is “the culture and the people” among the staff, that has led to on field failure. Charlie Methven, a former PR consultant with former clients including fellow specialists in failure, Tottenham Hotspur FC, suggests that “men from the south” of England have a disconnect with the people in Sunderland that they can’t close. There are cultural reasons these gaps exist, and yet, the distinctions he can’t square come from his material position. He tries to make Sunderland sexy by changing the pregame theme song from the symphonic and menacing “Dance of the Knights” into a glossy, beat and airhorn heavy club soundtrack. The radio announcer quips they’re trying to bring “a bit of trance music. A bit of Ibiza.”

He lords over his staff to sellout the stadium on Boxing Day and the tension created here is shocking as he abuses one of his employees to get him numbers to prove that he met his target. He scolds “I’m not a corporation I don’t need to be treated like a fool.” In pitching marketing strategies during a meeting, he uses the failed Labour referendum phrase “Together Stronger” without much irony to rally his staff, he gives them “aggressive targets” and “punchy demands” at the cost of “even a few tears along the way.” To be fair to Methven, there is waste in the organization given they have fallen two leagues in English soccer and their television revenue has declined with them. But, amidst his speech about unity, “not ruining what we are trying to build, we have to be together no matter what,” the documentarians show B-roll of a series of lay-offs amongst the staff to cut payroll despite the investment from the consortium.

The results on the pitch then don’t follow the money. The January transfer window focuses solely on the heightening negotiations for Will Grigg, who they sign for a League One record spend. These targets are data points meant to demonstrate both their commitment to success for the club and their ability to deliver, but in the end, they can’t. The team isn’t promoted despite their investment and commitment, they finish with their worst league record ever, and in some of the penultimate scenes, Donald discusses with his wife the possibility of selling the club after only one year of investment.

The ownerships anger, when contrasted with that of the fans, comes from lack of return on their monetary investment, while fans have spent money as well, their anger and frustration arises from history, the topsy-turvy yo-yo of results on the field.  The owners want to keep “emotions steady” while the fans around them are “swirling,” they want to “harness the passions,” but not for anything more than profit from them, not to better the fans’ lives. The ownership’s passion is a welcome shift from the cold accounting scenes within some episodes but its particularly hard to hear men discuss marketing strategies on a tv show and then watch them curse like the long serving fans while they know their mics are hot.

The consortium promised a capitalist solution, profit and on-field success, to a long-term problem: the slow pattern of neoliberal evisceration in the city and disillusioning relegation on the field. The ending, where Donald considers selling the club opens the door for a socialist alternative to Sunderland, one where the fans own the club, more radical than the Green Bay Packers or Barcelona FC. News reports since the beginning of the new season suggest Donald is ready to sell the club, I ask, could the fans buy it?

‘Til I Die

The consortium desired a quick fix, a quick profit-making scheme and bet big and lost based on an incorrect assessment of the city and club. The distinctions in the show develop along these lines, the owners who want profit now, and the fans, those committed to the cause of Sunderland AFC and their desire to see long term success. The affective elements of the show, however, the soul if you will, rests solely with the fans, and their often silly grasp at such an ephemeral experience as sport. Perhaps my relationship with the fans is one of shared misery and joy, but the nodes of their passions are worth considering as socialists.

Two arcs make up the majority of the show, the first involving youngster Josh Maja and his contract negotiations in the beginning of the season and the later push for promotion that ends in failure.sunderland 1

The Maja saga extends over two episodes as ownership and the player’s agent play hide and go seek with contract offers. Maja deflects back to his agent throughout. These scenes are contentious because the team is high flying on Maja’s wings. He represents a slice of hope for the fans and team. He leaves and the team has to scramble to find a replacement, which they do in the lackluster Will Grigg.

Similarly, the slow walk to relegation and the fans’ reaction to it becomes particularly difficult to watch as their frustration with ownership and the team boils higher. The fans are shown lamenting every missed opportunity or conceded goal, and screeching and singing in unison at each scored one.

The dual pain and pleasure phenomenon of the fans and their commitment is compared often to military allegiance or a birth right of disappointment. One of the emotive scenes is on Armed Forces Day as players and fans pay homage to fallen soldiers. Had this been an American sports series, this display would have been a bit more imperialist and on the nose, but the creators splice in play on the field to make the mirror effect representative of commitment, not one of war. Throughout, when discussing the fans, they are called “passionate football people,” “people [who] want to be part of something. One “kind of [falls] back in love with the club,” another “really [does] think” he’s got his club back. They are people who come “together when there’s an issue.” The Spartan mode the fans are discussed in suggests there is space for solidarity rather than simply allegiance in the world of the series, people who come together, people in a down-trodden, working class city who want more, want something better and deserve it by virtue of being human beings. In the final episode, a man says to his wife after the final loss of the season “come here, I got you.”

The pain and pleasure of sport in the face of capitalist avarice and cynical profiteering is something socialists should seize on. Sports, especially in America, may seem like simply a capitalist endeavor. The NFL has billions in profit, the NCAA profits off sport slave labor, the NBA has titanic marketing deals for individual athletes. But ask any socialist in the stands, or at a bar watching sports, how they can hold both the exploitation of athletes for profit and fandom in their heads and the answer is quite simple: sport is a construction of human achievement, one designed to show off and elevate individuals and teams to god-status, to express the dual realities of pain and glory, a place for solidarity from an underlying condition in relation to the other. Socialists shouldn’t cede sports to the right-wing death drive of exploitation, but demand more from sports, demonstrate the ways that indeed, sports is the circuses in “bread & circuses,” but that it can be the roses as well. We need to show that the long trek towards a better world includes pleasure, it includes competition, it includes pain, it includes sexy football from Madrid and boring, cerebral football from Turin. Sports and socialism both refract human emotion and send it forward in kaleidoscopic joy providing us the oft inconceivable jouissance necessary under capitalism. Sunderland AFC, it’s pathos, must not die.

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