The Heartbreak of an English Football Team

Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story

Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” was already enjoying a revival, of sorts, as a number in Presley’s post-1968 comeback shows, by the time it poured from the speakers at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1973. The occasion was that year’s F.A. Cup final, featuring the Sunderland Association Football Club, an underdog team that, some might say, had no business being there, and certainly no business winning. The team was facing off against Leeds United, one of the most dominant teams in the game, and the winner of the previous season’s tournament. So it was unsurprising that Sunderland fans became overwhelmed with pride when, as their team lined up and prepared to take the pitch, Elvis’s voice rang out over the stadium speakers. They sang along, in full voice, until the swelling, infectious chorus echoed through the arena. By the end of the game, their pride turned to ecstasy. Sunderland won 1–0. After the victory, Elvis’s song, rebranded by Sunderland supporters as “Wise Men Say,” based on the song’s opening line, became a team anthem of sorts. It not only commemorated Sunderland’s luckiest moment but seemed to suggest that the bad old times were in the past. Good things lay ahead, a time of triumph and championships. Alas, that was not to be. The 1973 F.A. Cup was the club’s last major trophy for the next fifty years.

There’s one scene that haunts me most from the Netflix series “Sunderland ’Til I Die,” which concluded its third and final season last month. It is 2021, and Sunderland, after many dramatic swings in its fortunes, finds itself again playing in the third-tier league (now known as League One), engaging in a high-stakes playoff match to determine whether it’ll get promoted back to second-tier league. The scene, from the finale of Season 2, comes at the end of a playoff match against Charlton Athletic. In the first half of the game, Sunderland had got off to a 1–0 lead, but it was the kind of lead that you could tell wouldn’t last long, even if you didn’t already know the kind of luck Sunderland had been having. The viewer watches as the game’s remaining minutes tick agonizingly by. Sunderland loses a crucial possession, and Charlton levels the score, 1–1, and then it happens all at once: a ball bounces around loosely in the box, then is put away by a Charlton striker, with next to zero time left on the clock. There’s no way for Sunderland to mount an attempt at an equalizer.

This, on its own, would be ruinous enough. But there is a sequence within the scene that serves, to me, as a thesis both for fandom and for its inevitable heartbreak: a montage showing Sunderland players collapsed on the pitch while confetti falls around them. A father in the stands pulls his weeping son close and says, with painful clarity, “Been here before, haven’t we?” A teary-eyed woman lingers as the stadium empties, seemingly vacillating between rage, grief, and disbelief, a Sunderland A.F.C. flag still draped around her shoulders. She looks over at her partner and asks, “Why is it never us celebrating? Why is it never us?”

The man shrugs silently. There’s no good way to think about such a question, until, one day, the trophy is raised for you and your team.

“Sunderland ’Til I Die” has little in common with the traditional contemporary sports docuseries that have lately flooded streaming platforms. It isn’t as preoccupied with day-by-day behind-the-scenes action as, say, Amazon’s “All or Nothing,” where each season follows a team (from the N.F.L. to English football) through a single season, with miked-up shots during games and a disembodied voice as narrator. It isn’t like another Netflix series, “Last Chance U,” which follows junior college basketball and football programs that, as the title suggests, offer one last shot for young players at risk of flaming out. In those shows, the coaches are often the main points of attraction, and the game is filtered through their many eccentricities (to say the least). “Sunderland,” by contrast, is first and foremost a study of place, which makes it something slightly beyond a study of a sport. Yes, of course, the show spends plenty of time on the players, and the games themselves (and, in the second season, perhaps a touch too much time on the activities of the front office). But it shines most as a portrait of a people in a town, people who have hitched their identity to a team that is, as of today, a hundred and forty-five years old, as embedded in the geography of the city of Sunderland as its old churches and shipyards and the river that divides the city in two.

A home town is, first, a place that is chosen for you. At some point, you may decide to choose the place back, accepting all of its joys and disappointments and simply hoping that in the end you can break even. “Sunderland” rests on an understanding of this calculation, and goes further in arguing that Sunderland Football Club hasn’t lived up to its role in the balance. The series begins in the 2017-18 season, when Sunderland has been relegated after a decade in the tier-one Premier League, but the club’s entire history is pocked with spectacular failures. In the late fifties, the team became embroiled in a financial scandal when it was caught making payments to players in excess of the agreed maximum wage. The following year, amid fines and suspensions, they were first relegated, to the second division. The team’s lowest of lows came in 1987, just two years after it appeared in its first League Cup final, when it was bumped to the third division. It climbed back to the Premiership in 1990, after an opponent that it lost to in the playoff final was, coincidentally, found guilty of a financial scandal and disqualified, but they only stayed up for a season before being relegated again after a devastating loss on the last day of the 1990-91 season. As the series shows, there is material impact from this volatility, beyond the crushing of fans’ hopes. When a team gets relegated, its budget suffers. Jobs are lost. Teams can’t pursue the kind of quality of players they might be able to attract in the Premier League. The teams that go down have to fight to get back up, and they have to do it with fewer resources, which puts a strain on the team’s management, its staff, its players, and its broader community.

It might seem like the very definition of insanity to place one’s hopes into anything or anyone with a proven track record of letting you down. But the psychology of the sports fan, particularly when it is a fan who feels a deeper kinship with a place, follows a different logic. One season ends, and there is a mourning period, but each new season brings a clean slate upon which dreams can be projected. And so, in the Netflix series, we watch a fan, in his newly downsized apartment, sift through his decades-old Sunderland memorabilia. We listen as he explains, in a quiet voice, how he used to have even more memorabilia but sold some just to have a little extra money to go to more games. We follow around the cabdriver who never misses a home match, and the man who gets two large teas from McDonald’s before every game, one for him and one for his longtime friend and fellow-fan.

Your heart might break for these poor souls, or it might break with them, but what happened for me, throughout the show’s three seasons, was that I found myself reconsidering my own forms of devotion. The question in my mind shifted from How could people love a sports team this much? to What is it that I sacrifice for and return to, again and again, even given all that I know? I am perhaps too relentless of a romantic, but this is a part of the human condition that I gravitate toward, relate to, and almost envy when it isn’t in my immediate grasp: the desire to open oneself up to potential hurt for the sake of whatever pleasure might precede it.

The third and final season of “Sunderland” is just three episodes long, picking up in the middle of the 2021-22 campaign, when the team is near the top of the third-division standings, fighting for promotion into the second division. There are somewhat hastily drawn portraits catching us up on familiar players and introducing new ones. The defender Lynden Gooch is reaching the end of a lengthy contract that has had him with the squad since he was a teen-ager. The newest addition, a forward named Ross Stewart, was plucked from near obscurity from a Scottish team to become Sunderland’s leading scorer and fan favorite. (When he’s in a good groove on the field, fans sing, “Ross Stewart is the best on earth,” to the tune of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”) Luke O’Nien, who came to Sunderland in 2018, in the midst of a downturn, and played through a brutal stretch of seasons, is hurt and working his way back from injury. The episodes focus on the final run of the season, when Sunderland, needing to be in the top two in the league to secure immediate promotion, slips and rises and slips again.

Sunderland ends up in fifth place, which qualifies it for the League playoffs. And there the team is again, at Wembley, just as it was as champion in 1973. Sunderland, playing against the Wycombe Wanderers, took another early 1–0 lead. (It is said that 2–0 is the most dangerous lead in the sport, but I’d wager that an early 1–0 lead is most harrowing for spectators and participants alike.) With eighty minutes remaining in the match, the team races against the clock and against its entire vexed history. The wonder of the sports documentary lies in how every move can be slowed down, allowing the intensity to balloon around each touch of the ball in a way that it didn’t, for me, when I watched the same Sunderland game in real time, in May of 2022. When Stewart slides a second goal into the left corner of the net with eleven minutes remaining, bringing the score to 2–0, and Sunderland has all but secured a victory and a promotion, the show offers another montage: all of the past times they couldn’t quite do it, contrasted against the time they could.

In the late fall of last year, I was at Field, in my home town of Columbus, Ohio, because the Columbus Crew was in the Major League Soccer final, its fifth over all. (The team won in 2020, in a game played for a nearly empty stadium.) The Crew had a new coach, and one of its star players had left the team midway through to play in Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t even the highest-ranked team in the state, yet here it was, in another M.L.S. Cup final, after a stunning, high-anxiety playoff run. It was playing the Los Angeles Football Club, and it scored twice early in the game, but in the second half it gave up a goal, bringing the score to 2–1 with about twenty-five minutes left on the clock. At that point, I could no longer bear to watch. I’d turn away from the field, or I’d pace, or I’d go up to the top of the stands and watch from farther away, as if the distance might enhance my ability to endure what I was taking in. It is comical to think about now, in hindsight, but no more comical or absurd than any other number of things I’ve done for love, or for a feeling adjacent to love.

The Crew won, and after the celebration on the pitch died down people in the stands, per the local custom, put their arms around one another. Through some combination of reverence and laziness, American soccer has borrowed many of its chants from the British. The speakers played “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and the fans sang along, replacing the “you” at the end of the chorus with “Crew.” Elvis’s song, I might note, is not only about love in a plain sense but about surrender, about having no choice but to go to a place and faithfully remain there. The part that gets me isn’t the “Crew” substitution but the first part, the lines that both Sunderland and Crew fans share: “Wise men say / Only fools rush in.” Only fools would give themselves over to something so entirely out of their control. Then again, I’ve been a fool for far less. ♦


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *