THE old adage states that business and pleasure should never be mixed.
But it wasn’t something lifelong Sunderland supporter Leo Pearlman needed to worry about when the production company, Fulwell 73, he runs with his cousins, Gabe and Ben Turner, and Ben Winston, made a series following Sunderland’s dire 2017-2018 season.
The eight-part Sunderland Till I Die, which will be available on Netflix from next Friday, documents the football club’s torrid campaign in the Championship.
Newly-relegated from the Premier League, Sunderland were expected to mount a challenge to return their top-flight status.
But the club found itself in chaos — both on and off the pitch — and dropped into League One, the third tier of English football, for the first time in more than 30 years.
“Obviously from a filmmaker’s point of view what happened was golden because you want the drama, but on a personal basis, it was devastating,” Leo told Sportsworld.
“There were times when I had to dissociate myself from my feelings as a fan.
“There were also definite high points when you thought, ‘wow, maybe they can turn it around’.
“We’d had four years of saving ourselves from certain doom in the Premier League and done so in the most dramatic of ways, but, unfortunately, it didn’t happen this time.”
So passionate are Leo and the Turner brothers that they named their production company after the famous stand at Sunderland’s old Roker Park ground and the legendary 1973 FA Cup final win over Leeds United.
A team, led by producer David Souter, spent the season at Sunderland, embedded in the club, and followed the dismissal of manager Simon Grayson just four months into the season, the fortunes of Chris Coleman, his successor; the team’s dreadful form on the field; and the fans.
“We have a good relationship with Netflix and we talked to them about sports access documentaries,” Leo said.
“The big one that everyone is looking to crack — and still is — is football.
“It has been done many times in the States with American football, basketball and baseball to huge huge success.
“The Premier League is, of course, the golden goose as far as everyone is concerned, but we somehow managed to convince Netflix about Sunderland, which has a far more engaging story.
“It is an incredible club in a city which has nothing but football.
“The idea originally was Sunderland being reborn from the ashes and storming back to the top division.”
Ellis Short, Sunderland’s-then owner, initially agreed to behind-the-scenes filming in the summer of 2017 on the basis it would attract potential investors.
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Sunderland had already been the focus of previous fly-on-the-wall documentaries, with 1998’s Premier Passions and, a year later, a follow up called Premier Pressures.
“There is the impression about most football fans that their lives are determined by their club’s result on a Saturday between 3pm and 5pm,” Leo explained.
“But, by Sunday evening they are already thinking about work the next day.
“In Sunderland, the effect lasts until the following Saturday.
“It is what is so amazing about the city, where football is everything.”
There is a point during one of the episodes when then-chief executive Martin Bain asks for the cameras to be switched off in a rather terse manner.
“The reality was that Sunderland were in a terrible position and everyone was feeling the strain,” London-based Leo added.
“A lot of rude words were said to our crew, which was fine because of the highly-pressured situation everyone at the club was in.”
Unlike in Premier Passions, however, where arguably the most memorable scenes featured manager Peter Reid’s expletive-laden speeches in the dressing room, the cameras were not allowed into the players’ inner sanctum this time.
“We felt we could have forced the issue, but the truth is, we would have ended up with sanitised, boring content,” Leo said.
“We instead focused on content which gave us the best narrative.”
Amazon Prime’s recent All or Nothing series, which focused on Manchester City’s record-breaking, title-winning season of 2017-2018, was well-received, but Leo feels the Sunderland series is something completely different.
“The City documentary was a very well put together PR exercise,” he explained.
“You could extract numerous clips from it that you could watch all day long, like Pep (Guardiola) in the dressing room, which was really amazing.
“As an entire series, though, it was quite hard to sit through because there were long stretches where you were wondering what was happening.
“Most football fans are not fans of clubs like Manchester City — they are fans of clubs like Sunderland and, every so often, those supporters receive a shard of light which keeps them going.”
That shard of light came through for their supporters towards the end of the season when it was announced that Short had sold the club to Stewart Donald.
“Ellis Short was someone who had been trying to sell the club for a number of years and had lost interest,” Leo said.
“To be fair to him, he put in huge amounts of money, but he washed his hands of it a year-and-a-half before he decided to sell, which did its own damage.”
Leo believes that this sort of documentary can show sportsmen in a true light.
He said: “Footballers in this county receive a pretty bad press. Look at Raheem Sterling.
“He is a good guy and does a huge amount for charity, yet the abuse he gets from the media is appalling.
“It is easy to paint him with a brush, but far harder to get under the skin and find out what makes him tick.
“If we had more of this genuine access content, we wouldn’t have to rely on traditional media to give us their perspective.”
Sunderland, under new manager Jack Ross, are riding high in League One.
And Fulwell 73 is following them this season, too.
“It was important for us to continue the story,” Leo added. “It is the other side of the narrative arc.
“For example, a young player, George Honeyman, is focused in the first series and he is now captain, so there are some good stories that we are able to follow though.”
Leo is introducing the next generation to Sunderland, too, as he is taking his three-year-old son to his first game, on December 15, against Bristol Rovers.
He added: “We worked out as a family that, out of 12 of us, only one had seen Sunderland not lose in their first game, so I am hoping to redress the balance and double that number!”
Sunderland Till I Die is not their first football-related film. The Class of ’92, about Manchester United’s youth team of the same year, was released in 2013.
And the production company has also made numerous documentaries and films, including most of One Direction’s music videos.
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