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April 27, 2022 6 min read

They are called the Mackems because ‘we mack ‘em and you tack ‘em’ was a famous phrase when Sunderland was a shipbuilding city. Today, the football team can be found in the third tier of English football and on Netflix too.

Production company Fulwell 73 have made documentaries about One Direction, Bros, Motown, Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and the Manchester United Class of ’92. Since Sunderland fans co-founded the company, it is named after a stand at former stadium Roker Park and the year the team won the FA Cup.

Sunderland in the Doldrums

The first season of Sunderland ’Til I Die covered the 2017/18 season when the Black Cats competed in the Championship. Across eight episodes, viewers appreciate the struggles of a football club adjusting to their recent relegation from the Premier League. The club had released a swathe of senior pros to get them off the wage bill. They included international players Joleon Lescott, Seb Larsson, Steven Pienaar, Victor Anichebe and Jermain Defoe. They also sold future England international goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to Everton in exchange for two players on loan (Brendan Galloway and Tyias Browning) and Aidan McGeady permanently. McGeady is still at the club, back in the first team after he was frozen out in 2019/20 by one of the many managers who have tried to take Sunderland out of League One in the last four seasons.

Despite the presence of former Manchester United players John O’Shea and Darron Gibson, Sunderland struggled to win a game. They lost 23 of their 46 Championship fixtures, winning only three at home, and conceded 80 goals using three goalkeepers: Lee Camp, Robbin Ruiter and Jason Steele. They were lucky to have Lewis Grabban on loan for the first half of the season but his good form led to Bournemouth recalling him…and sending him out again to Aston Villa, who reached the play-off final while Sunderland torpedoed out of the Championship, 24th out of the 24 teams.

Writing in the Guardian, the acerbic critic Barry Glendenning called that season ‘preposterously chaotic’ even for a club fanbase used to ‘bottomless levels of crushing disappointment’. It made for good TV and the documentary was renewed for a second season, which covered their League One struggles in 2018/19. As Britain was under lockdown, football fans rubbernecked as the new owner Stewart Donald and manager Jack Ross tried to get Sunderland back to the Championship.

The first half of the season showed promise as they only lost two league games before Christmas. Yet in 2019 they couldn’t turn draws into wins. Witness the set of league results from the first few months of the year: 1-0, 1-1, 1-1, 1-1, 1-0, 1-1, 1-1.

Having finished fifth, they overcame Portsmouth in the play-off semi-final having been beaten by them on penalties in the EFL Trophy final, but they fell short of promotion at the final hurdle when they lost 2-1 at Wembley to a last-minute goal scored by Charlton.

Sunderland Glory Days

The defeated team that day was captained by Lee Cattermole, who joined from Wigan and played over 250 times for Sunderland. Back in 2009, his new team-mates included future England captain Jordan Henderson, strikers Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones, Dutch winger Bolo Zenden, Scottish goalkeeper Craig Gordon and three former Manchester United players: Phil Bardsley, Kieran Richardson and Fraizer Campbell.

Under the chairmanship of former striker Niall Quinn and the stable management of Steve Bruce, the club finished 13th, a three-place improvement on the previous season. They improved more three places in 2010/11 in spite of a 5-1 loss away at rivals Newcastle United and a period when they lost eight out of nine league games. At the time, Wigan and Sunderland were Premier League teams: in 2009/10, Sunderland lost 1-0 away and the teams drew 1-1 at the Stadium of Light. Both teams spent this season fighting to get out of League One, with Sunderland winning both 2021/22 fixtures: 2-1 at home, 3-0 away.

Quinn sold the club to Ellis Short in early 2012 and, a year later, Paolo Di Canio’s mercurial presence kept them in the Premier League. His time as manager included a famous 3-0 win at Newcastle, where goalkeeper Simon Mignolet kept a clean sheet. The Belgian played every game of the 2012/13 season and his performances earned him a transfer to Liverpool. His replacement was Arsenal reserve Vito Mannone, who was reliable until he conceded eight in a game against Southampton. He eventually regained his starting place but lost it again, this time to local lad Pickford.

Sunderland Straitened

These days Sunderland hardly spend any money on transfer fees. In 2016 alone, however, they were able to sign Didier N’Dong for over £13m and Papy Djilobodji for £8m. Four players – McNair, Love, Gibson and Oviedo – came in from Manchester United and Everton for a total of £13m. They were bought with the proceeds of the sale of Patrick van Aanholt to Crystal Palace. Compared to them, the rash purchase of Will Grigg in 2019 for £3m, documented in the Netflix series, seems a lot smaller in value. It goes down as one of the biggest wastes of money in English football.

Grigg, who has said he regrets moving up to Sunderland, was loaned out to MK Dons and spent 2021/22 at promotion rivals Rotherham United. It was the Will Grigg derby last night at the Stadium of Light, in a game which would see the Millers promoted if they won. Sunderland equalised two minutes from time to pick up a crucial point. The game has been rescheduled from its original date because Rotherham were contesting the EFL Trophy final. Sunderland were the holders of that trophy after beating Tranmere Rovers in 2021 thanks to a goal from Lynden Gooch.

After the season disrupted by the pandemic, Sunderland reached the League One play-offs again in 2020/21 under Lee Johnson’s management, losing to Lincoln City in the semi-finals. The club had been sold on again that February, while on the pitch Charlie Wyke managed 26 league goals that earned him a move to Wigan Athletic. Wyke played over 50 games that season, as did Max Power, who also went to Wigan, and Josh Scowen, who re-joined his first club Wycombe Wanderers, who are also in the mix for the play-offs.

Sunderland in the Play-offs?

As we learned in Monday’s Big Games piece on the site, the League One season draws to its close on Saturday. Last week the Mackems cruised to an easy victory at home to Cambridge United, who played 80 minutes with ten men. The draw against Rotherham takes their unbeaten run to 12 and they travel to Morecambe, who are almost safe but (permutations alert) could go down if both Fleetwood and Gillingham win their games.

Goalkeeper Ron-Thorben Hoffman is on loan from Bayern Munich, although Academy graduate Anthony Patterson has been the regular first choice keeper in recent months. Fans have another one of their own, Dan Neil, playing a key role in their promotion push. There are also two Manchester City links: defender Callum Doyle has been borrowed from their Elite Development Squad, while former City player Patrick Roberts joined on a short-term deal in January. Roberts has mainly been used off the bench, kept there by former Spurs and Norwich player Alex Pritchard, whose creativity will be an asset in the play-offs and, if they win promotion, the Championship.

This season, Sunderland’s goals have come from Ross Stewart, who joined from Ross County and has had a good first season south of the border. The two he scored against Cambridge took him to 24 in the league, ahead of familiar names such as Will Keane of Wigan Athletic and Alfie May of Cheltenham Town. Next season, Sunderland will hope that Stewart can score goals against Championship teams, but they have to confirm their play-off place first.

They sit on 81 points with both Plymouth Argyle and Wycombe Wanderers poised to take advantage if, against the form book, Morecambe take points off Sunderland and Wycombe beat Burton Albion. Intriguingly, MK Dons are the ones standing in the way of Plymouth; the Dons are already bound for the play-offs and will finish at least third. They have an outside chance of automatic promotion if (more permutations alert) Gillingham take points off the Millers. If not, Gillingham go down.

Ladies and gentlemen, please charge your glasses for Sunderland AFC, who next year celebrate 50 years since their FA Cup win and whose fans are praying for a return to success! Two flavours of vodka are available on the club’s dedicated section of this site.