Toby Higgins examines the dynamics of the newly promoted Premiership club.
As the dark nights begin their steady recess towards brightness, the football season begins build momentum towards its conclusion. Once the League Cup has been handed out in late February, the season moves nervously into its final leg. Managers, players and fans are just a few games away from seeing if all those plans, hopes and dreams of pre-season, will come to fruition in May.
For eight teams in particular though, the series of games from now until the end of the season could result in a monumental change in their club standing come next August. No, weâ€™re not talking about Manchester United, Chelsea, Middlesbrough, Tottenham, Manchester City, Blackburn, Watford or Plymouth Argyle, the eight teams who will take part in the F.A. Cup Quarter Final games next weekend. Weâ€™re talking about a matter that is, for the clubs weâ€™re discussing, much more important.
As it sits at the time of going to press, the top eight teams of the Championship are separated by just five points. With teams facing either 11 or 12 games until the season reaches its 46 game climax, anyone of them could yet finish as Champions, let alone win promotion. If the season ended today, Wolves would miss the playoffs by two places, but itâ€™s not beyond the realms of possibility that in four games time, they could be sitting on top of the pile. It promises to be a thrilling few weeks of Championship Football and even fans of Stoke City (9th, 53 points) and Colchester United (10th, 52 points) will be hoping for a late surge to push them into contention too.
Of the eight bidding for promotion, only Cardiff and Preston have never appeared in the Premiership; all the others have. Assuming neither Stoke, nor Colchester put together a strong run of results, three of these eight will be visiting the likes of Anfield, the Emirates, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford next season.
But what chances do any of them having of survival in the top flight?
The stats donâ€™t look great. In the fourteen years of the Premiership, only once have all three Premiership clubs survived relegation back to division one, in the 2001-2002 season, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton all stayed up they year after promotion. On 18 occasions, a team has been relegated the year after they were promoted, and in one season, 97-98, all three promoted teams went straight back down.
Each of the teams, while focusing solely on promotion, must have a sneaky eye on what life in the Premiership would be like, but this writer fears that each of the clubs promoted would come straight back down, largely because they are all so similar in quality.
In previous years, a side that has walked away with the league has tended to stay in the Premiership the next season with a certain degree of ease. Examples of this, particularly since 2000, are plentiful. In 2000-2001, Fulham won Division 1 as it was then (or the â€˜oldâ€™ division two for more experienced readers) by ten points, a feat equalled by Man City the following year. In 2002-2003, Portsmouth won Division 1 by six points, though they finished eighteen points clear of third place, and, just last year, Reading won the Championship by sixteen points. Not one of these four have been relegated since their promotion, and while yes, this is only Readingâ€™s first year in the Premiership, their total of 43 points will comfortably be enough to keep them up.
There are, as always, exceptions; though they are few in number. The most striking â€˜rule-breakerâ€™ occurred in 1997-1998, when Bolton were relegated, having won Division 1 the previous season by a huge eighteen points.
The stats suggest that the clubs seeking promotion this season should be wary. While there is time for a club to stretch a lead at the top the fact that they are all performing at a near identical level implies either none have enough quality to survive in the Premiership, or all of them do, and the latter is rather unlikely. Heavy summer investment could change that, but they need look as far the bottom of their league, where the famous Leeds United lie, to see the catastrophic results of spending beyond the capacity of the club in order to bring success.
The latest phrase to be coined regarding the promotion/relegation battle is â€œsecond season syndromeâ€. As its name suggests, teams in recent seasons have struggled to maintain the good form of their first season, and have ultimately been relegated the following year.
So far, itâ€™s happened four times since the Premier Leagueâ€™s creation. Middlesbrough, Bradford, Ipswich and West Brom have all suffered â€˜second season syndromeâ€™, and should either Wigan Athletic or West Ham be relegated at the end of the season, they too will have become victims of this mythical â€˜syndromeâ€™. â€˜Expertsâ€™ are already looking ahead to next season, and are predicting that Reading will also suffer â€˜second season â€˜syndromeâ€™ â€“ as ridiculous as it may seem.
As for which sides will be relegated this season, Watford and West Ham look doomed, with Charlton needing a miracle, possibly in the shape of Darren Bent, if they are to catch Wigan, Sheffield United and Manchester City. Who replaces them is frankly anybodyâ€™s, though Sunderlandâ€™s surge under Roy Keane could well be rewarded with an automatic promotion place, and expect Preston to make the playoffs, but miss out on promotion, as they have done for four of the last seven seasons. Other than that, itâ€™s probably too early to tell, even with the seasonâ€™s finale being almost upon us.
One thingâ€™s for sure. Whoever goes up, could well endure a long, hard and luckless season, and find themselves straight back into the league dubbed the hardest in Europe to get out of; at right end.