February 10, 2019


Sunderland 'Til I Die, and the plight of the merely-very-good football player (Andrew Anthony, 10 Feb 2019, The Guardian)

[W]hat was most revealing was the plight of professional sportsmen a rung or, as it would turn out, two down from the elite. Sunderland, who in the documentary had been relegated to the Championship and were on their way to League One, had operated as a kind of transit hub for pros going in different directions. There was young talent on the way up (the England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford had moved to Everton), old talent on the way down (John O'Shea, five times a Premier League winner with Manchester United), players on loan who hadn't quite worked out elsewhere (the Wales midfielder Jonny Williams, borrowed from Crystal Palace), and players whose bright futures seemed suddenly behind them (the former Everton prodigy Jack Rodwell).

Watching the Premier League, you see footballers who, by and large, perform at a very high level week in, week out. It gives a deceptive picture of football, rather like seeing the tip of an iceberg peeking out of the sea and not realising there's a massive pyramid descending beneath. Sunderland had dropped below that waterline, not necessarily because their players lacked talent, but because they couldn't produce a consistent level of form. But why?

This is the mystery that hastens hair loss for coaches and managers. In the case of Williams, the answer seems clear. It was a mixture of bad luck with injuries (and luck is an underrated contributor to success) and a chronic lack of confidence. He tells a psychologist that he's "scared to lose the ball. Scared to miss. Scared of failure". Put like that, it's a wonder he manages to put his kit on. Obviously he knows he's good. He just doesn't know if he's good enough.

One of the finest pieces of journalism written on professional sport was the late David Foster Wallace's 1996 extended essay on Michael Joyce, then ranked the 79th-best tennis player in the world. Most of Foster Wallace's readers wouldn't have heard of Joyce, and yet he was a sublime player, devoted to the game and his improvement, and destined to be forgotten. As Foster Wallace coolly observes, Joyce could hit a winner at any angle. He just couldn't do it "quite as well as Agassi, or as often". That's the difference between the very good and the great.

Watching Williams on his magnificent slalom runs is to witness a highly accomplished sportsman at work. But there's the simultaneous recognition that he, like Michael Joyce, will never make it to the very top. Last month he joined Charlton Athletic in League One.

The question is, if success is all about wanting more, never settling for second-best and all the other cliches that haunt dressing rooms and training grounds, can a player ever find satisfaction in being in the third tier of his or her sport?

Sunderland are desperate to get out of League One (before Saturday's fixtures they were fourth with games in hand), and presumably their players are too. But will they be failures if they don't manage it?

Sunderland 'Til I Die shows all that is right and wrong in English football (Barry Glendenning, 12 Dec 2018, The Guardian)

It's the hope that kills them, Sunderland fans can handle the despair. And it is a prevailing sense of hope that percolates throughout all eight episodes of a behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling the club's relegation to the third tier of English football last season. Throughout a preposterously chaotic campaign, even by the standards of a club long considered utterly dysfunctional, Sunderland's fans remain surprisingly upbeat, despite having grown wearily accustomed to coping with apparently bottomless levels of crushing disappointment.

Commissioned by Netflix, Sunderland 'Til I Die is a love letter to a city on its knees and the conspicuously wayward child its citizens cannot bring themselves to disown. Despite its proclivity for repeatedly letting them down, even as tears and booze flow during a maudlin pub sing-song following relegation to League One, the mood among locals is one of hope things will ultimately get better because, well ... they cannot get much worse.

The series was produced by Fulwell 73, a company owned by Sunderland fans done good and named after a stand at Roker Park, the club's former ground, along with a nod to their famous FA Cup win. Having expressed an interest in buying the club before shelving their plans, they were invited to film a documentary by the since departed American owner Ellis Short in the hope of creating the kind of buzz that might generate interest among other prospective purchasers.

Posted by at February 10, 2019 7:50 AM