Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Staying Alive

When the 2006/2007 Premiership season started on August 19th, all eyes naturally focused on the two extremes of the top flight. On the one hand, the perennial heavyweights vying for the title with international superstars and open cheque books on standby. On the other hand, there were the three new teams promoted from the Championship - Reading, Watford and Sheffield United. Would they stay up? What chance would they have of achieving any success? Questions that are asked year in and year out, but what’s the reality for those daring to set foot in the top flight?

Ask anyone to predict the Premiership final table at the start of the season and the chances are they’ll pick at least two of the three new teams to go straight back down again. The thing is, over the last 25 years (on average) only one of the three teams ends up being relegated. Perhaps, then, the job of getting promotion and staying up isn’t such a tough task after all. Some teams even go on to greater success after making the step up, but for every tale of miraculous survival there’s always one that speaks of failure and despair.

Foxes Tale

At the end of the 1979/80 season, Leicester City sat proudly on top of Division 2 looking down on those that challenged them for a place alongside the big boys. Things were different back then. Division 2 boasted such sleeping giants as Chelsea, Queen’s Park Rangers, Newcastle United and Charlton Athletic, but none of them were ready to wake from their slumber and secure promotion to Division 1.

Leicester City were and they entered the top flight full of hope and optimism but unbeknownst to them or their fans, it was to be the first of three instances between then and now where promotion was followed by relegation the following season. In 1981, they finished 21st out of 22 and down they went once again.

Leicester City are one of a particular brand of clubs who, for many years, have made a habit of yo-yoing up and down, but at least they’ve got the satisfaction of knowing they’ve never dropped lower than the second tier of English league football. If you ask any fan of Swansea City or Wolverhampton Wanderers about the importance of going up and staying up, they’re likely to tell you how bad it can really get.

Boom and bust

When, in 1978, former Liverpool legend John Toshack took over as manager of Swansea City at the tender age of 28, they soon embarked on a run that saw them gain promotion from Division 4 to Division 1 in four seasons. In 1982 they arrived in the top flight and looked like they meant business. Their first game of the season saw former Everton player Bob Latchford score a hat-trick to help defeat Leeds United 5-1 and further victories over Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool soon followed.

At the end of the 1981/82 season, Swansea City had finished sixth in Division 1. An incredible achievement, but the story didn’t end there. Poor form and financial difficulties saw Swansea relegated in 1983 and the same happened again in 1984. John Toshack was sacked, the club teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and by 1987 they were back in Division 4. Their meteoric rise had been matched for swiftness by that of their unrelenting self-destruction.

Wolves can also tell of pride coming before a big fall. Along with QPR and Leicester (again), they secured promotion to the First Division in 1983, but when they stood on the trap door, the drop they were about to experience was even faster than Swansea’s. Where Toshack’s men fell three divisions in four seasons, Wolverhampton Wanderers needed one less.

Fulfilled potential

For most teams promoted to the top tier of football in this country, it’s fair to say that many aim simply to avoid relegation (and a fair proportion do), but some can claim to have gone one better.

Clubs like Ipswich, Watford, QPR, Norwich and Newcastle United have all followed up a promotion season with a top-five finish the following year but for the ultimate consolidation of a place in the big league, you need look no further than Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers.

Having successfully climbed out of Division Two at the end of the 1989/90 season, Leeds found themselves crowned Division 1 Champions just two years later. This was matched by Blackburn Rovers who finished top of the Premier League in their third season out of the old First Division, but even this isn’t necessarily a sign of better times to come. Both Leeds and Blackburn have since been relegated again and in the case of Leeds, a return to the Premiership is yet to arrive.

The new boys

So what about the 2006 vintage - Reading, Watford and Sheffield United? For inspiration, they should turn to Wigan and West Ham who gained promotion the previous season. Wigan were most people’s choice for relegation but they finished a respectable 10th. As for West Ham, they finished one place above them and were runners-up to Liverpool in the FA Cup Final. A place in the UEFA Cup now awaits.

Steve Coppell’s Reading have the potential to stay up in the Premiership but this is their first season ever in the top flight, so how they will fare is open to debate. Sheffield United have been here before - they came up with Leeds in 1990 but four years later they dropped out of the Premier League in its second season. They look set to struggle this season and are many people’s favourites to finish bottom.

Graham Taylor’s Watford had a textbook promotion back in 1982. On arrival in Division 1 they finished second only to Liverpool but relegation came to haunt them in 1988 and they dropped a further division again in 1996. With Graham Taylor back in charge of Watford for a second time, they miraculously returned to the Premiership in 2000 but it was to be for just one season. Like Sheffield United, they will have their work cut out simply avoiding relegation.

Three of a kind?

Is it possible that all three teams will get relegated this season? Maybe, but in the last 25 years it’s only ever happened once - in 1998. Then, the three teams that came up in 1997 - Barnsley, Bolton and Crystal Palace - all went straight back where they came from before we'd even had the chance to get to know them.

If things occur as they usually do, however, one of this year’s debutantes will thrive, one will only just stay up and the other will face relegation. Yet even though the drop may be avoided in the first instance, new clubs always end up looking nervously over their shoulder for years to come. It seems if they’re to learn anything from the likes of Leicester City, it’s that relegation is never all that far away…

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