Why The Premier League Is Perhaps Not Quite As Hard To Crack As You Might Think
Updated: May 21
It's been a turbulent, and really quite unpleasant, last couple of weeks for elite football.
Since the European Super League was born, then killed less than three days later, we've seen fans protesting in great numbers, matches in which the players were obviously negatively affected, and press conferences in which blameless managers were skewered after their absentee owners hung them out to dry.
The bad feeling reached boiling point on Sunday afternoon, when the Manchester United v Liverpool game at Old Trafford - two of the clubs involved in the shady breakaway plot – was postponed after hundreds of fans stormed the pitch during a protest against the Glazer family’s ownership of United.
To my shame, I tweeted shortly after the ESL announcement that I didn’t believe this sort of fan action would have an impact, because, to quote myself, “by doing [the ESL], the owners have proven they couldn’t care less what fans think.”
I was wrong, and I couldn’t be more delighted that I was. The owners clearly were not expecting the vociferous response from their own supporters, and it forced them to back off.
Football in England has, throughout history, been based around the idea of a meritocracy. Even in today’s money-driven climate, the basic principle remains that a good season wins you promotion, while a bad one sees you relegated.
Even the very top teams have found themselves susceptible to this; nine clubs to have been champions of England since the founding of the Football League in 1888 no longer play in the top division (yes, you’re welcome to have a go at naming them if you’d like. Answers at the bottom).
With its closed-off format, the ESL spat in the face of this core footballing value, and that is much of the reason for the fan responses that we saw. Former Arsenal striker Ian Wright summed up the feeling well: “We want to play Barcelona, but we want to EARN the right to play Barcelona!” he wrote.
The ESL would have allowed an elite to remain out of touch. Never relegated, never jeopardised for bad form, never punished for mistakes. Rinse and repeat. It’s a “grotesque concept,” to borrow Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow’s words.
But it got me thinking. Is there a chance that something similar already exists, right under our noses?
As I write this, we are guaranteed that two of the three teams relegated from the Premier League in 2020 – Norwich and Watford – will be returning next season. We are also all but guaranteed that two of the three sides promoted from the Championship in 2020 – West Brom and Fulham – will be returning to the second tier next season too.
What’s more, Bournemouth, the third relegated side in 2020, are cemented in the Championship’s playoff positions. It is not at all unlikely that we could see five of the six sides to swap between the Championship and the Premier League in 2020, in either direction, make an immediate return to their previous division.
Only Leeds United, currently 11th in the Premier League after winning the Championship last season, have proven themselves immune to an immediate return to their previous division.
Such ‘yo-yoing’ appears to support the idea that it’s now more difficult than ever to survive in the top flight than ever before, especially once you take into account the influx of money into the top level of the English game that the Premier League has overseen.
I really wanted to find out if the gap between first and second tier has become wider over time, so I crunched the numbers and analysed the league position of every promoted team in the Premier League’s history.
No, I don’t have a lot of time on my hands. Whatever might make you think that?
The first real thing I noticed is that the numbers throughout the Premier League’s history don’t really support the idea that teams who go up often come straight back down. Since the league was founded in 1992, there have been three instances of every promoted team staying up, compared to just one of every promoted team being relegated.
Therefore, what I think we have to look at here is how difficult it is to compete in the Premier League after being promoted. Staying up is of course the immediate target of any promoted side, and as the numbers show, many manage it successfully.
Thus, the question I wanted to answer is this: since the formation of the Premier League, has it become more likely that a promoted side will spend their season locked in a relegation battle?
In huge contrast to my expected findings, the actual answer is no, so clearly we must take a look just why this is the case.
To begin considering these results, we need to return to 1992 and the foundation of the Premier League. I should briefly point out at this juncture; I’m a firm believer in the adage that football did not begin in 1992, but given that the Premier League was the most recent breakaway from traditional footballing structures, just as the ESL threatened to be, and it has overseen the influx of money I previously referred to, I am using it as my case study.
So, 1992. Whitney Houston will always love you, Bill Clinton becomes US President, and Anthony Hopkins wins Best Actor after he has an old friend for dinner. It’s also the year that saw the Premier League commence, and it begun in earnest after Brian Deane netted the league’s first ever goal for Sheffield United. Freshly promoted from the 1991-92 Second Division were Ipswich Town, Middlesbrough, and Blackburn Rovers.
Rovers went on to finish fourth and second in the ensuing two seasons, respectively, before winning the division in 1994-95 under Kenny Dalglish. That made them the first of only two teams who have been crowned champions in their first three seasons after being promoted. Of course, we all remember the 5000/1 outsiders who became the second.
The Tractor Boys clung on for two seasons, finishing 16th and 19th (this is pre-1995, when the league was still at 22 teams) before succumbing to the drop in the same year the league contracted to 20 teams. Middlesbrough were unable to manage even one season, and were sent packing with a 21st-placed finish in 1993.
Newcastle United took their spot in the top division, and the Magpies were soon doing a Blackburn themselves, with a third-placed finish in their first season. They also managed second in their third season, the run-in of which featured a very famous Kevin Keegan rant.
You’d certainly be forgiven for looking at that information, with the playoff winners of Rovers crowned champions and the Magpies bagging two top-three finishes, both within three years of going up, and believing that it definitely has become harder for promoted sides now.
But surprisingly, that’s not the case.
I looked at every single promoted team across the 28 full seasons of the Premier League’s existence (not including the current one, as we don’t yet have confirmation of where every team will finish), and examined their finishing positions in their first three seasons in the top flight.
While Leicester’s title win in 2016 was the first instance of a promoted team finishing in the top three since Nottingham Forest placed third in 1995, the average finishing position for a promoted team in their first season is no lower now than it has been in the past.
With the absence of any outliers such as a top-three finish that may pull up the performances of the other two promoted teams, it is a fair assumption that, in fact, more promoted teams may actually be competitive on their entry to the top flight.
You can see a full graph of the average finishing position for the three (or two, in the single case of 1995-96) promoted sides in their first season throughout the Premier League’s history. As you’ll see, there’s no clear correlation or shift over time. In fact, good and bad performances from promoted teams seem to come in waves.
So, from that, what can we actually conclude? Well, first and foremost, however surprising it may appear, is that the Premier League is no harder for promoted teams now than it has been in the past. Yes, for the past couple of years, promoted teams in their first season have, on average, finished a little lower than the overall average in the league’s entire history, but there have been plenty of other seasons, including close to the league’s founding in 1992, where that was also the case.
What’s more, it’s over twenty years since all three promoted teams were relegated. The last time all three stayed up happened more recently. There’s no great shift away from promoted clubs. As long as you do things the right way, you can do just as well. The light that shines the brightest in support of that is of course Leicester City, but four of the current top ten have, at some point in their history, been promoted to the Premier League.
Surprising, huh? But good news. Welcome news.
Football should always be a meritocracy. It’s all the better for it.
As ever, I'm always open to comments, suggestions, queries, and feedback, so please do get in touch using the form at the bottom of the homepage or through my social channels. You can like my Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/longstorysport, and you can also follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LongStorySport. Connecting with me through social media brings the benefit of being among the first to know when I post something new!
I’ve also launched a YouTube channel recently, where I’ll be posting videos relating to a whole variety of sporting topics. I’ve kicked things off with a weekly series called The County Review, where a guest and I discuss all the goings-on across the county cricket circuit, and more sporting series are in the pipeline! You can view all that at www.youtube.com/channel/UCDqpYy71F7DVsFh9otbzXqw.
Answers to the question above: Blackburn Rovers, Derby County, Huddersfield Town, Ipswich Town, Nottingham Forest, Portsmouth, Preston North End, Sheffield Wednesday (including three as The Wednesday), Sunderland.