The perils of being promoted

SPAL enjoy the moment. Photo: PA

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN have made a perfect start to the Premier League season, but as any cliché-spouting football manager will tell you, the competition is a marathon not a sprint. First-time success in the top flight in England – or any other major league – is hard to achieve and the likelihood is the Terriers will be thankful to have survived come the end of the campaign. There are not many occasions like Nottingham Forest’s 1978 Football League championship triumph or even RB Leipzig’s Bundesliga success of 2017.

For most clubs, retaining their top division place is the priority and the prospect of relegation is a painful thought. Across Europe’s “big five”, the status of the second tier varies significantly. Football Benchmark’s latest paper, Aspiration and Reality[1], looks at the structure and mechanics of these leagues and, unsurprisingly, the two most successful competitions come from England and Germany.

Indeed, these two are the only ones that attract double figure average attendances – Germany’s average was almost 22,000 in 2016-17 and England’s 20,000-plus. However, it should be noted that these statistics were boosted by the presence of Newcastle United (51,000 av.) and VFB Stuggart (51,000), both of whom were promoted back to the top tier.

The gap between the top and second levels is considerable across most of Europe and is expected to continue widening, which underlines the importance of so-called “parachute payments” for relegated clubs.

Although promoted clubs benefit from the lucrative media rights that the top division offers, it is a big ask to successfully transition to their elevated status in life. Increasingly, new challengers are finding themselves in exalted company – for example, Italy has had a stream of unfancied clubs arriving in Serie A – Crotone, Sassuolo, Carpi, Frosinone and now SPAL and Benevento. While this provides some romantic stories for the media, competing against some of the luminaries of Italian football is daunting for small clubs that have worked their way through the system. The question is how long they can sustain that level, although Sassuolo, who were tipped to make a swift return to Serie B, enjoyed European football in 2016-17. Generally, Italian promoted clubs have to work hard to stand still – and in 2016-17, the average position of the three who came up in 2016 (Cagliari, Crotone and Pescara) was 16th, with Pescara relegated back to Serie B.

In Germany, the story was different in 2016-17, with Freiburg and Leipzig finished seventh and second respectively. This season, the Bundesliga will benefit from the crowd potential of its newly promoted clubs, Stuttgart and Hannover, but it is unlikely that the two teams will produce title-chasing teams in 2017-18.

In Spain, Girona – more famous for its airport than its football – could fare better than people think. The club, playing in La Liga for the first time, has been bought by the City Football Group, owned by Sheikh Mansour, the owner of Manchester City. Spain’s top division is less of a hurdle for promoted clubs, as the performance of last season’s three clubs demonstrated. Only one, Osasuna, suffered relegation and over the past five years, only three have gone down straight away.

In France, Troyes have returned for the third time in five years to Ligue 1, but the team from the Champagne region will be hoping that the 2017-18 season does not go the same way as their two previous Ligue 1 campaigns when Troyes suffered relegation. In 2016-17, only one of the three promoted clubs went down at the first time of asking, but in recent years, five of nine clubs have lasted just one season.

The demands of the English Premier are already putting pressure on Newcastle as their manager, Rafa Benitez, has gone public in admitting his squad is not good enough. It is now 90 years since Newcastle United won the top prize, marking them as one of the great under-achievers in modern football, with a record that suggests that even with the many advantages they have, critical mass is not enough. Hence, smaller clubs like Burnley, Bournemouth and Watford have had more success in recent years than one of English football’s truly large and systemically important institutions.

The three clubs that went up to the Premier in 2016 produced an average finish of more than 17th, making it the hardest league to endure. In fact, two of the three, Middlesbrough and Hull, were relegated at the first time of asking. The odds are that at least one of Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield will suffer the same fate as almost half of all promoted clubs in the past five years have lasted just one season. The best performance has been West Ham United’s 10th place in 2012-13.

Which makes it all the more vital that the promoted clubs don’t become overawed in the early weeks of the season. Down the decades, some clubs have come out of the traps with all guns blazing. In 1971-72, Sheffield United topped the ladder in the early weeks of the campaign but had to settle for mid-table respectability. Watford, in 1982-83 managed to finish runners-up, while Crystal Palace’s “team of the 80s” had a great start to 1979-80 but ran out of steam and were placed 13th in the final reckoning. It is, indeed, a marathon, but Huddersfield (if you take 40 points as survival) only have to get another 34 points.

[1] KPMG Football Benchmark: “Aspiration and reality: Europe’s second-tier leagues”, August 2017.

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