Sunderland ‘Til I Die. Well, not really – but I know what you mean.

Posted on January 3, 2019

blues fans

Like I say – not true. Apart from a few professional connections with Sunderland, I have no ties with the place at all. It would be surreal if I were to mention it on my deathbed, but who knows what strange and incriminating guff might splurge out at such a time.

I’ve been doing some binge watching of Leo Pearlman and Ben Turner’s wonderful documentary about the car crash of the city’s football club in 2017-18. I was pleased to note in the reviews that, as I suspected, it wasn’t necessary to be a football supporter to understand its poignancy, insight and prevailing humanity. The fact that I also happen to be a supporter of an unglamorous, beleaguered and unsuccessful team undoubtedly enhanced my enjoyment …..along with some unapologetic schadenfreude  at the fact that, for the moment, it was some other poor beggars who were suffering and not us. And, yes, there is an ‘us’ here.

A good deal of the footage concentrates on the faces of supporters during games. By god, they’re gargoylishly, comically and frighteningly ugly when infuriated. There are pulsing veins, there’s frothy spittle and more ‘for fuck’s sakes’ than are good for any of them. I recognise every last unreconstructed, unrefined, unselfconscious moment of all of their actions – and that’s because I enact them pretty well every fortnight. For the duration of every game, we are ‘us’ and then there’s the rest of the world – the entire world, mind you – ranged against us.

In quieter moments as they leave the stadium or in the pub, these same supporters morph into your dad, mum, uncle and aunty. Miserable in defeat but resigned to it; grimly cheerful in their acknowledgement that worse things happen in life. Sort of.

If the previous few sentences have no resonance for you, that’s fine. However, even if you love ‘the footy’ and watch ‘your team’ on the telly whenever you can, you’ll never quite get what I’m talking about.

It’s a shocking old cliché, but for many of us, you don’t choose your team – it chooses you. You are bound by region, family, routines and dewy-eyed folklore. You enjoy very occasional success which mostly goes unnoticed and you learn to endure perpetual disappointment and, if you’re lucky, abject mediocrity.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die captures all of this brilliantly as well as taking us into the workings of the football club as a business that employs secretaries, cleaners, cooks, doormen and, of course, the largely affable and likeable young men who play football. The filming takes place when the club as an organisation finds itself in dire financial circumstances which have had an effect on its ability to recruit good players. As a consequence, results have been poor and this has a deleterious impact on the working conditions and atmosphere for all involved. How has this happened to a club that enjoys significant support from its local community and with a modicum of success in recent years?

It’s not difficult to answer. Two years ago my club (yes, my club) was bought by owners who happily labelled themselves venture capitalists. The clue’s in the name: you don’t need to be a specialist in linguistics – both terms are equally weighty. Like Sunderland – and plenty of other similar clubs – such owners looked with envy at the enormous riches to be made from football. They ‘ventured’ a little (in their own terms) and, in almost all cases, failed in an environment that is cut-throat, unpredictable, riven with disloyalty and where genuine, enduring success can only be enjoyed by a very few. When it became clear that such success was not going to happen, the venture lost its sheen and investment dried up.

Left behind were huge wage bills and other contractual obligations that tied up any income and revenue for years to come. As a consequence, any hope of success on the field has to be put on hold for the foreseeable future. The great wealth at the very top of the game – none of which, by clear and self-interested design, ever filters below the very highest echelons – stays there and grows exponentially. Lower down, the venturer has a punt, fails and moves on. Supporters, daft sods, stay stolidly on.

And so it happens. Somehow, stupidly we (yup, we) allow our collective sense and judgement to be befuddled by those who, somehow, have convinced us that they know what they’re doing. Because they have money, are well connected in a world of thieves and prospectors and whose ruthlessness is emboldened by the lack of any vestige of shame about their actions. Who will walk away from their now unloved plaything, with pockets still well lined. For football clubs, substitute the banks. For fans who have no choice, substitute workers.

I’ve never much cared for the ‘’til I die’ chant. Fancifully, I’d rather go for Yeats’s exhortation to ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’ but I can’t for the life of me think of any popular song that would carry it along. And, frankly, I’m not sure that there’s even a syllable of poetry in the souls of the venture capitalists who defile our football clubs and mislead the communities that support them.






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