I don’t know how the hit Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso is going to wrap up its tangled mess of a third and final season once the end finally arrives later this month. I do, however, know one thing: It almost certainly won’t come close to replicating the scrappy underdog story at the heart of the Netflix documentary series Sunderland ‘Til I Die, an overlooked gem that I suspect not enough people know about or have watched — and which is like a real-life Ted Lasso, about an underrated football club that pretty much follows the same arc as AFC Richmond.
To wit: Sunderland has more heart than glory, it gets relegated to the lower rungs of English football, and the team fights to claw its way back into the Premier League. And whereas there’s a lot about Ted Lasso that’s absurd and eye-rollingly banal, there’s not a single bit of Lasso-ian cheesiness or “I believe in believe” pablum to be found in this heart-on-its-sleeve Netflix documentary series — two seasons of which are available to watch right now.
I love this documentary series. I love it because it’s real and because it’s ordinary people fighting against the odds. Because Sunderland is an indie band scratching out a living in a world dominated by major labels. It’s about a group of football players and fans who understand it’s the hope that kills you, but who still choose to believe anyway. Because the city is better off holding on to something together, like its beloved football club, than existing apart — every man for himself.
A Guardian reviewer has described this Netflix documentary series as a love letter to a city on its knees, still refusing to let go of a kind of wayward child that no one can bring themself to abandon. You don’t even have to be a football fan to appreciate the tenuous hold that the idea of a better tomorrow has on everyone in this city — especially when the disappointments are so manifold. “Not many people have had it easy in Sunderland,” viewers are told at one point. “It is a hard place.”
Netflix has confirmed a third season is coming to finish off the story on a high note, but there’s no official release date just yet.
“Sunderland Football Club is Sunderland,” one fan tells the documentary crew in a pub, after a loss. “And if it doesn’t get good, we haven’t got much going for us to start with. It’s just another nail in the coffin.”
“…like the shipyards and the pits,” someone else chimes in.
That’s why Sunderland ‘Till I Die begins, in all places, at a church — in St. Mary’s, where Father Marc Lyden-Smith leads the congregants in prayer. “Let us pray for Sunderland Football Club, and for our city…
“Lord our God, help us to understand what football means to our community. Show us how football can help unite. Guide us to take the best out of every game. Help us through our anger and our fury when our team is not performing as best it can. Help the people of Sunderland in their frustration, for they are good people who work hard. Guide us in our love for our city and our club, for it is a love born out of passion.
“Dear Lord, help Sunderland and all our players … grant them self-belief and a spirit of confidence. Because the success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city. Amen.”