This life story of AFC Sunderland was designed to be a fly on the wall style documentary. The ambition of the owners was to use this film to draw in investors to aid their financial struggles and to climb back up the football pyramid. Season one, 2017-18, focuses on the Black Cats return to the EFL Championship after their ten-year stay in the Premier League, came to an end.
The second and final season of this documentary series centres around Sunderland’s fight of trying to escape the EFL League One during the 2018-19 season and their financial problems after the club were involved in a second consecutive relegation. It is within series two I draw focus on. Episode five: The Time for Men. The episode centralises on their EFL trophy run and the Black Cats trip to Wembley to face Portsmouth in the final.
The legitimation of a documentary is often called into doubt as sometimes the events of the film can be dramatised to make it feel bigger than it is and to pull the viewers in.
This certainly is not the case. Sunderland has suffered a lot, especially in recent seasons, with back-to-back relegations and no trophy success since 1973. A 2014 League Cup Final but losing 3-1 to Manchester City was another weight added on to the scales of heartache.
Finally, something to rejoice. After beating, Newcastle United U21, 4-0, in the “derby that is not a derby but somehow still a derby.” Before beating Bristol Rovers in the semi to set up a final between Portsmouth. Arguably the two biggest clubs in the EFL League One.
With league form dipping, fans have stated that “cup wins can help league form” but it is easy to fall into the trap of “how good it feels hides the fact they’re still struggling”.
Despite reaching their first final in five years, for clubs lower down the leagues, financial struggle is a common occurrence. Sunderland find themselves in the upper tangent with a budget larger than many in the league. With a player on £50k a week it adds up over the months, especially if that player is not appearing. The club may rely on money from elsewhere.
In this instance, it came in the form of ticket sales for the EFL Trophy final. Around 40,000 tickets where distributed. Fans flocked to the ticket office and thus selling out in under 32 hours. The board chose to allow season ticket holders to purchase them as they knew it would guarantee an income of just under one million pounds.
Fans always wish to know what is going on behind the scenes. Involving footage of the boards’ decision on how to allocate tickets is pivotal, it helps the viewer really understand those daily struggles of running a football club.
Sunderland to London, quite a distance, in this instance Sunderland travelled down to King’s Cross Station. Tonnes of fans waiting there, and you can see the camaraderie between the players and the fans. It is almost like a family. Posing for pictures, signing shirts and scarves. The footage depicts as if the fans would travel to the ends of the earth to support them.
It comes across that not just the club but the whole city went to face Portsmouth. Something like that cannot be controlled. Even fans who could not get tickets for the game were waking up at 3 AM to travel down for a party in London. Now that is support.
Director, Charlie Methven, had even stated that “regardless of the result at Wembley, the cup run has brought the city together”. This just goes to show that the cohesion and well-being over a city triumphs over a game of football. Although some may beg to differ.
The game itself was a typical showing of dominant turned dominated. Seeing jubilant fans getting nervous, angry and frustrated that the game was not put to bed. Emotions that are all too familiar with the fans.
Portsmouth played well later on and ultimately came back into the game. Their dominance carried to the end and subsequently won on penalties. It was a day where no team deserved to lose at the end of play, but someone had to.
A record attendance of 85,021 for the competition, saw only one game with a higher gate that weekend, being Barcelona vs Espanyol. The EFL Trophy is the third domestic competition in English football who else would take over 85,000 fans to that game? Not many at all.
Being in attendance for this final, but with Portsmouth, I can see that this episode perfectly catches the life of a football fan. Experiencing every emotion under the sun that day. As did everyone else and the filmmakers captured this Goliath vs Goliath match excellently. I believe those feelings cannot be faked, dramatised or recreated and therefore this is a very authentic story. Speak to any fan and they would agree.
Sport is so unpredictable I think it would be hard to manufacture the passion and camaraderie that shared amongst the most loyal supporters in whatever tier of football you may find. But I believe it is shown more the further down the football pyramid you go.
This episode goes to show us that football is so much more than just a game.