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How hard is immediate promotion back to the Premier League?

Ham Mpanga has a look at the various factors that play a role in a club’s attempt at immediate promotion after relegation from the Premier League.

In the English football pyramid, this is how promotion and relegation from the Premier League works; the bottom 3 teams are relegated and the top 2 from the Championship (plus 1 more via the play-offs) take their places. Since the 2012/13 season, 10 different teams have been promoted and each with varying degrees of success. Crystal Palace managed to beat their record points total in their first two Premier League seasons after their most recent promotion (2013/14 and 2014/15). They also achieved a famous 1-0 win over Chelsea when Jose Mourinho was in the first year of his second stint at the club plus not forgetting, their memorable 3-3 draw against Liverpool at Selhurst Park which dealt a severe blow to the Red’s title hopes for that campaign. If you fast forward to the 2014/15 season, newly promoted Leicester City pulled off a miracle end to the season, picking up 22 out of a possible 27 points from their last 9 games, jumping from 20th to 14th in the progress, and we all know what that led to.


But on the flip side, not everyone has done so well. Cardiff City only won 3 games in the second half of the 2013/14 season while Reading only picked up 5 from a possible 33 points in the last 11 games in 2012/13. Enter ‘the yo-yo club’. A yo-yo club is a term predominantly used in English football used to describe a club that is regularly promoted and relegated. Burnley, Hull City and Norwich City come under this umbrella. All 3 of the clubs mentioned have achieved immediate promotion after relegation, proving that coming straight back up is doable whereas clubs such as Cardiff City, Queens Park Rangers and Reading all finished below 6th place in their first season post-relegation. So if it is proven possible, why don’t all clubs come straight back up? Surely the teams going down are the best equipped to come back up?

Squad Problems

Going from playing at incredible stadiums such as Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford and the Emirates, testing yourself against phenomenal attackers such as Sergio Agüero, Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard or trying to outsmart established defenders such as Vincent Kompany, John Terry and Laurent Koscielny to then travelling up and down the country to play every three days, it’s understandable why not all players will want to try so hard in England’s second tier. It’s arduous for a manager with dismayed and depleted players to try and drum up the emotion and resilience that took them to the Premier League in the first place. Relegation doesn’t mean you play a few more games the next season; it means a whole new year to fend off the unlucky few you left behind and prove that you actually do belong in the Premier League.

When a new player is signed for a newly-promoted team, a lot is expected from them. Be they a 20 goal a season striker that keeps them up, the crucial cog in midfield that is the chief chance-creator or the astonishing goalkeeper that wins you more points than loses them, a lot is expected. When these new signings don’t live up to expectations, questions should (rightfully) be asked. A prime example of this is Gary Medel.

Gary Medel was a £11 million signing who joined newly promoted Cardiff City from Sevilla ahead of the 2013-14 season. As a club record signing at the time, Cardiff were right to expect him to use his box-to-box, high energy way of playing football to good effect in order to bolster Cardiff’s hopes of staying up. He didn’t and subsequently, Cardiff City finished bottom of the league that year. Taking a closer look at his statistics for that season, Medel completed just under 46 passes a game, created on average 7 chances a game and had a measly 17% shot accuracy. Gary Medel was then sold to Inter Milan at the start of the next season for £10 million, £1 million less than what they bought him for. Comparing his statistics from his mediocre season at Cardiff to his second season at Inter, his pass completion per game rose to 52, he created almost double the amount of chances per game and had a 33% shot accuracy.

Some may say he had time to settle at Inter and had a better group of players around him but for a midfielder to almost double his statistics is stunning and concerning. He is/was essentially the same player. Currently playing in an Inter side which is admittedly struggling, the best version of himself was needed week in and week out at Cardiff. Had Medel put in a shift every week, surely he could’ve helped Cardiff obtain the 7 points that would’ve kept them up?

during the Serie A match between AC Milan and FC Internazionale at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on November 20, 2016 in Milan, Italy.

Gary Medel in action during the Milan derby. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

And now to a more understandable squad problem; fatigue. Be it physically or mentally, all footballers get tired eventually in some way. For instance, let’s look at Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy. He was (and still is) the Norwich goalkeeper when they were relegated in 2013/14, promoted in 2014/15 and relegated again in 2015/16. In the 2013/14 season, Ruddy played all 38 league games, conceding 62 and keeping 12 clean sheets (coming joint 7th with David De Gea and Julian Speroni). The next year, in the Championship, Ruddy again played all league games (46) plus the three play-off games, bringing his total league appearances to 49. He conceded 50 goals whilst also keeping 15 clean sheets. Norwich was subsequently promoted. In the 2015/16 Norwich conceded only 44 goals but Ruddy statistics changed dramatically, that season he only played 27 games and kept just 3 clean sheets.

This meant Ruddy had played 114 games in just 3 years with Norwich City. This is equivalent to playing 3 full Premier League seasons which is a lot for any player, regardless of age, form or position. Plus, if you include Ruddy’s 2 cup appearances for the first two seasons mentioned, he played just under 80 games in 2 years. Ruddy also lost his England place after Norwich City’s relegation in 2013/14 which surely impacted Ruddy mentally in some capacity.

In the words of Sir Alex Ferguson “Attack wins you games, defences win you titles.” This can be applied to relegation and promotion as a fatigued striker usually avoids the spotlight but a fatigued goalkeeper will live with a magnifying glass on top of him. Plus only 1 out of the last 3 top scorers in the Championship achieved promotion in the year they had won the award.  Drops in form are quick to be criticised but we seldom analyse the reasons behind them.

Key Players Leaving

A key player leaving is tough for any team. These players have a certain magic that can win you points you probably wouldn’t deserve. When most teams are relegated to the Championship, they sell or loan out some of their highest paid players, most of whom are their best players. At the beginning of the current season, Newcastle sold Georginio Wijnaldum to Liverpool and Moussa Sissoko to Tottenham Hotspur whilst also loaning out Tim Krul to Ajax. This can be done for a number of reasons; they won’t be making the same money as they were in the Premier League (TV rights and ticket sales) and also because some players may feel they’re too good to play in the 2nd division while some teams sell their best players to use their higher wages to improve the club or buy other players for smaller amounts. From a financial standpoint, this can be seen to be a sensible decision as money mismanagement can see a club crumble (Portsmouth come to mind) but from a football point of view it can seem a bit counterproductive. Star players can have a large effect on a team’s performance. Take Charlie Austin and QPR. Austin was relegated with QPR at the end of the 2014/15 season and remained at the club throughout the transfer window (although injury problems surrounded and scuppered a potential move to West Ham United that summer).

Kazakhstan's Aleksei Schetkin (L) vies for the ball with Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul (R) during the Euro 2016 Group A qualifying football match between Kazakhstan and the Netherlands in Astana on October 10, 2015. AFP PHOTO / STANISLAV FILIPPOV (Photo credit should read STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Tim Krul is one of the players who headed for the exit door at St. James Park (Photo credit: STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Austin then signed for Premier League side Southampton on January 16th 2016. QPR had 20 games left after Austin’s departure but only won 7 of these, gaining 29 out of 60 possible points that were available. The West London club finished 12th, 14 points off 6th place which would’ve earned them a play-off spot. 14 points is essentially 5 wins or 4 wins and 2 draws (if luck goes your way). In Austin’s last full Championship campaign with QPR, he won them 16 points from January 18th 2013 (compared closest with the day he left QPR). If he’s won that many points from that position before, who’s to say he wouldn’t do it again? Granted, the teams all had different qualities back then but Austin is a trusted goal scorer who could’ve fired QPR towards a play-off place. This shows how key players like Austin are and how critical their contribution is, if players like these are sold, they must be replaced adequately or their absences will be felt tremendously.

When a player is sold, another player is signed in that same position more often than not. This is evident with Norwich City signing Alex Pritchard to replace Nathan Redmond and Aston Villa signing Mile Jedinak from Crystal Palace to replace Idrissa Gana Gueye. With all due respect, these players have worked hard to become professional footballers but they aren’t the type of signings that other players will try to match in ability and performances. Regardless of whether they can prove to be smart signings, they aren’t as good as the players they replaced and not replacing quality with quality hampers a squad. Of course, when Wijnaldum left Newcastle a player of similar quality wouldn’t replace him as both players would have the same reasons for not wanting to play for Newcastle or in the Championship but it is essential that relegated teams find the correct replacements for key players in order to give themselves the best chance for immediate promotion. Managers must try their best to get signings right, which leads me onto my next point.

Clubs Hiring and Firing Managers Constantly

Once a club is relegated from the Premier League, their next move regarding their manager is crucial to the club’s future. Some clubs use the ‘chop and change’ strategy, appointing the first manager mentioned in order to save time and to change the team’s fortunes instantly. Other clubs are more level-headed, keeping the same manager and giving the coaches another chance at promotion. Since the beginning of the 2012/13 season, Wigan Athletic, Reading and QPR have had 5 different permanent managers, with QPR the only one of the trio mentioned to achieve promotion to the Premier League the season after relegation (although QPR were relegated again in the year they were promoted). This disrupts the squad by halting any progress, it deprives the club of any organisation, and it denies the fans consistent results. A club can’t move forward if everyone isn’t moving together.

The patient approach has shown it can work. Sean Dyche was kept as Burnley manager after their relegation in 2014-15 and he got the club promoted immediately. 110 miles east along the M62, a similar situation with Steve Bruce and Hull City turned out as he too guided the Tigers back to the Premier League in the same season as Dyche nonetheless.

If this method is shown to work, why don’t more relegated clubs do this? Not all clubs promoted expect to stay up comfortably, so by allowing the manager to stay and correct his mistakes, the squad can be better prepared and be ready for the rigors of the next season. Surely we can now see that more clubs should allow the manager more time?

If a manager isn’t replaced quickly or a season is close to an end, a caretaker manager is usually hired. This is usually an assistant coach or youth coach from within the club promoted to first team duties as a stop gap solution. This rarely ends right with the only successes from these situations being Julian Nagelsman at Hoffenheim and Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea but most of the time appointing a caretaker manager essentially delays the process of appointing someone who could make an actual difference to the club’s future. This is shown with Aston Villa having two different caretaker managers last season in Kevin MacDonald and Eric Black.

Understandably not all managers are available mid-season but clubs should do their best to avoid getting into a situation when they’re scrambling for a manager to guide a sinking ship.

Many teams approach relegation to the Championship differently but there’s no foolproof method. Fulham, Reading & Cardiff City haven’t finished in the Second tier’s top 6 since their most recent relegation whilst Derby have been scratching at the Premier League door for an eternity, reaching 2 out of the last 3 play-off finals. You need a lot to go right to win immediate promotion back to the Premier League and if it doesn’t, you’re in for a long period of hard graft to get out.

Ham Mpanga

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