What Ipswich Town can take from Netflix documentary 'Sunderland 'Til I Die'
PUBLISHED: 16:59 28 December 2018 | UPDATED: 17:29 28 December 2018
'Sunderland 'Til I Die' charted the 2017/18 season - a campaign baring a resemblance to the situation Ipswich Town currently find themselves in.
A familiar tale
‘Blinded by the Light’, ‘Rocking and Rolling’, ‘Sticking Plasters’, ‘No Guarantees’. The titles of some of ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’s’ eight episodes tell much of the story.
But the narrative of Sunderland’s 2017/18 season bares a striking resemblance to what the Blues are going through right now.
- New beginnings - Sunderland’s relegation/life after Mick McCarthy at Ipswich - under new managers in Simon Grayson and Paul Hurst. Both men speak of changing cultures and making their own mark on their new clubs.
- Summers of change, with both clubs bringing in more than 10 players and ushering in a new hope.
- Ultimately, though, results aren’t there and both Sunderland and Ipswich find themselves in the bottom three. Both Grayson and Hurst are sacked in October, ensuring their reigns were both the shortest in the respective club’s history. Both men speak of changes needed at the clubs and that change needing time, prior to their departures.
- New managers, Chris Coleman and Paul Lambert, take over with their sides bottom of the Championship and inject fresh hope, improved displays and bring people together. Interviews with Grayson show similarities to Hurst, speaking of a job he couldn’t refuse and an opportunity he wanted to grasp with both hands. Much of what Coleman said is true of Lambert, with the Welshman speaking of ‘turning the club around’ and saying ‘we know at the end of it there can be something really special, worth suffering for’.
- Ultimately Coleman’s efforts can’t keep the Black Cats up and he leaves the club despite expressing a desire to stay.
- It remains to be seen whether Lambert can save the Blues.
Beware false dawns
Every relegated side will look back at their campaign and find those ‘wudda, cudda, shudda’ moments.
Ipswich’s first win of this season, at Swansea at the start of October, was hotly anticipated and, despite the hope of using it as a launchpad it was never built upon. The wait for a first home win went on until the middle of December, with results in the back-to-back games against Millwall and Rotherham at the start of 2019 the barometer for whether that was the real start of Ipswich’s escape.
Sunderland had plenty of false dawns of their own under both Grayson and Coleman.
Grayson’s Sunderland were 3-0 up at Brentford at half-time but ended up drawing 3-3, evoking thoughts of Ipswich’s draws with Preston and Reading and the loss to Bristol City.
A first win under Coleman in November was not backed up, neither was a shock 4-1 win at Derby, with the Black Cats never managing back-to-back victories during the league campaign. There were runs of six and 10 games without a win as well.
Ipswich must do what Sunderland didn’t and take full advantage of every ray of light if they are to have any chance of beating the drop.
Though there are many similarities in the way things have played out for both clubs, it must be said Sunderland and Ipswich encountered very different circumstances during the respective summers of 2017 and 2018.
The Black Cats had tumbled out of the Premier League after a decade in the top flight following years of spending on high profile players.
The likes of John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole spoke of instant returns to the Premier League but the documentary shows that confidence, belief and hope drain away both among the staff, playing squad and supporters.
Many high earners left following relegation but others remained; a situation which brought its own problems.
Chief executive Martin Bain spoke of a conversation with one, unnamed, returning player in which the individual revealed he had no desire to play for Sunderland ahead of the start of pre-season training. He was there ‘because he had a contract’.
Midfielder Darron Gibson grabbed pre-season headlines when he, while intoxicated, told fans that some players didn’t care about the club. His contract was terminated the following March after he admitting a drink driving charge.
Jack Rodwell was exiled from the first team picture while his rumoured £70,000-a-week contract dragged on Sunderland’s necks. Attempts to terminate his contract were rejected by the player.
Lewis Grabban, who at the halfway stage of the season led the Sunderland scoring charts with 12 goals, terminated his loan and later said in an interview that he didn’t want to play for the club.
Winger Aiden McGeady questioned Coleman’s tactics, man management and overall approach in an interview.
But, while there are grumbles within every football club, you genuinely believe the Ipswich are a squad united, with none of the distractions faced by the Black Cats.
Mick McCarthy built a squad full of ‘good characters’ with many of those remaining.
Hurst put similar stock on those traits. While the recruitment of so many players lacking Championship experience can be questioned, those brought in have a desire to succeed and don’t rock the boat.
It’s results that count, of course, and it’s quality that will ultimately secure them (or not), but the Blues’ team spirit is one of their major weapons in their battle to beat the drop.
Most topical right now, with the transfer window opening in just a few days, is Sunderland’s struggles in the transfer market.
It was tough for the Black Cats in the summer, perhaps summed up by the fact Bain met with his scouting group to discuss targets to find there had been no communication regarding budgets; meaning the wrong type of player had been worked on for weeks. It bizarrely led to the name ‘Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ featuring on a list of possible signings.
Bodies were needed to bulk out a thin squad, as was the case at Ipswich post McCarthy, with three deals done on deadline day.
Another, Joseph Mendes from Reading, fell through due to medical issues while a move for Ross McCormack didn’t happen due to negotiation issues. That left Grayson seething.
The summer movement highlighted just how choppy the waters can be in the transfer market, but it’s Sunderland’s January window which should ring most true to those associated with Ipswich.
Just like the Blues, Sunderland entered the window bottom of the league, with the football world knowing just how desperately new bodies were needed.
It was looking good when Bain and Grayson thought they had bagged Chris Martin from Derby but, when the striker asked for time to think it over after initially being keen on the move, Reading swooped and twisted Martin’s arm with the promise of plying his trade higher up the league.
The expression on Bain and Coleman’s faces told you all you needed to know about their feelings on the matter.
“Being where we are in the league, trying to bring in players is just horrendous,” Bain said.
That’s the battle Ipswich face now; can Lambert convince players to join a relegation battle?
As Ipswich are now, Sunderland worked tirelessly prior to and throughout the window to bring players in but had to wait until deadline day to bring in Ovie Ejaria from Liverpool and Ashley Fletcher from West Ham. The latter was brought in as Sunderland’s main striker and only managed two goals.
You have to think Ipswich’s fate, whichever way it goes, will be decided prior to January 31. Can they afford for their transfer business to drag on that long?
Sunderland owner Ellis Short, who had previously invested hundreds of millions of his own money into the club, made it clear he no longer wished to invest any money and the club was put up for sale.
This, coupled with Rodwell refusing to terminate his contract, meant players such as Didier Ndong had to be moved on in January before new recruits could be brought in.
While Ipswich’s budget is in the bottom third of the Championship, Lambert has said owner Marcus Evans has been open to his transfer requests, with the Blues boss saying: “Marcus has been great. We’ve had a good chat and we know exactly what we want to do in the window.”
There is no suggestion players need to be moved on to facilitate arrivals this January, with Lambert insisting he will not let players out the door until replacements are found.
A familiar face
Jonny Williams is one of the players who arrived at Sunderland, on loan from Crystal Palace, at the end of the summer transfer window.
He was delighted when Chris Coleman, his former Wales manager, was appointed Sunderland boss but his season was blighted by injuries, just as it was during his times at Ipswich.
Episode Six sees him struggling as injuries bite, all while living alone in the North East. He sees a sports psychologist as he bids to get over his worries and believe in his ability and discusses how he’s ‘scared to lose the ball and scared of failure’. He says Coleman and Mick McCarthy are two men who have ensured he’s not scared to make mistakes.
Of all the players to feature, he’s the most likeable. And that’s not just because you watch knowing his Ipswich connections.
You want him to succeed.
Though it’s little more than a glint of light in an increasingly dark season, watching him dominate the game and find the net in a 3-3 draw with Middlesbrough, on his return from injury, is an excellent moment.
The heart of the club
As well as focusing on action on the pitch, at the training ground and in the boardroom, Sunderland ‘Til I Die shows the real heart of any football club. The people.
It’s about the fans who follow their team home and away or listen on the radio at home, have club legends tattooed all over their body and touch the foot of legendary manager Bob Stokoe for luck prior to every game. The people for whom the football is more important for anything in their lives.
It’s about the club chefs who bring a smile to people’s faces, even in the tough times and the staff who hurt more than most when things go wrong.
It’s the same at Ipswich.
The support since Lambert’s appointment and call to arms has been remarkable, given what’s gone before and the position the club find themselves in now. Every football fan will watch this documentary and identify with what the Sunderland fans are feeling.
From the ticket office, the club shop and security staff to the commercial side of the club, Ipswich Town is staffed by people who care and are deeply impacted by results on the pitch.
It’s refreshing to see how those remaining at Sunderland embrace the fresh start offered by new owner Stuart Donald, after he bought the club ahead of their League One promotion bid.
Relegation to the third tier is a disaster for Sunderland, as it would be for Ipswich if the worst were to happen, but the final episode, entitled ‘A Fresh Start’, reminds you that as long as the heart of the club is beating strongly then the future can be bright whatever happens.
Many similarities but hopefully there is a very different ending for Ipswich Town.