The Premier League new boys – how long does the honeymoon last?

THE New season is well underway and the teams that won promotion to the Premier League at the end of 2021-22 have experienced mixed results. Taking the history of the competition as a benchmark, there is a good chance one or two promoted clubs will suffer relegation in their first campaign back in the top flight. In the last four seasons, seven of the 12 clubs have gone down immediately, in 2022 it was Norwich City and Watford. The other new boys, Brentford, finished 13th and won many friends for their approach and attitude.

Staying the course is hard for the new boys, but if they can survive in year one, they will have benefitted from the financial rewards of Premier League membership and be in a better position in year two. In 2019-20, for example, Fulham, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion were all promoted. All three clubs generated turnover of between £ 53 to £ 58 million. Their wage bills were unsustainable, with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion paying out 125% of income and Leeds a very concerning 144%. This scenario is not unusual by any means, but having pushed the boat out to reach the Premier, wages went even higher in 2020-21 for the three clubs, but given the significant rise in income, less of a burden. However, for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, the jump from Championship to Premier proved too much once more.  Fulham’s revenues totalled £ 116 million, but this was still way below the level of even mid-table clubs like Everton (£ 193m), Aston Villa (£171m) and Newcastle (£ 140m). Given that Leeds are a bigger club in terms of support than their two promotion partners, it was no surprise their income was as high as £ 171 million. Fulham, who have been going through a yo-yo existence for the past five years, returned to the Premier in 2022-23, hoping they finally acclimatise in the right way.

The average lifespan of a promoted club is 3.8 seasons – 14 clubs in the Premier constitution have been promoted to the league at some point.

Nottingham Forest’s return to the Premier League will be welcomed by many but they may find life a lot more challenging since 1999 when they were last in the division. When Forest were relegated, their turnover amounted to £ 17 million, just one million lower than they generated in 2020-21. This certainly emphasises the difference between life in the Premier and a place in the Championship. Conversely, while wages in 1999 were £ 11.8 million, Forest were paying more than double their revenues to their squad in 2020-21. Forest do have good support and they appear to have a very promising coach in Steve Cooper, but will they invest the money they will receive in 2022-23 wisely? They have spent heavily in the summer, more than £ 100 million, and their outlay is higher than Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United (source: Transfermarkt). Their new signings include Jesse Lingard, a free from Manchester United, Union Berlin’s Taiwo Awoniyi for £ 18.5 million and Neco Williams from Liverpool for £ 18 million. Awoniyi scored for Forest against West Ham to record their first victory of the season.

Forest’s eagerness to bolster their squad does highlight that clubs are well aware they have to strengthen rather than rely on the players that won promotion. But it has to be executed sensibly. In 2018, Fulham acquired almost a new squad and it was clear they hadn’t done their homework particularly well. They plummeted like a stone in the Premier in 2018-19, much of their squad assembled using the so-called moneyball strategy. However, they are back again with a decent group of players that may just hold their own after three promotions and two relegations in five seasons. Fulham cannot be accused of not giving their fans a roller-coaster ride in recent seasons and for six years, they have moved from division to division. They have generous ownership which has enabled them to pay top wages when they were in the Championship, but there may be more expectation this year after continued investment on and off the pitch.

Fulham have been fairly aggressive in the transfer market over the past five seasons. Between 2018-19 and 2022-23, their net spend has been the 10th highest in English football at £ 188 million. On a gross basis, they have spent £ 242 million. Much of their hopes rest on striker Aleksandar Mitrović, who has disappointed in his previous Premier campaigns. In his last two Championship seasons, Mitro has netted 69 goals in 84 matches, but in 2020-21, Fulham’s previous Premier outing, he scored just three times in 27 goals. If nothing else, he has a point to prove and at 27, he should be at his peak. He’s started the season well. Fulham sold a couple of players, notably Fabio Carvalho to Liverpool, but they’ve also acquired João Palhinha from Sporting Lisbon (£ 20m) and West Ham’s Issa Diop (£ 17.8m).

AFC Bournemouth’s past labelled them as a small entity, but they are also a progressive club and before relegation in 2020, they had spent five years in the Premier League. The sceptics didn’t really expect them to return in a hurry, but they are back. Prior to promotion in 2015, Bournemouth’s turnover was a mere £ 12.9 million, but by 2017, this had jumped to £ 136.5 million. During their first Premier stint, Bournemouth’s wages also climbed dramatically from £ 29.6 million in 2015 to £ 111 million in 2019. Relegation meant the club had to regroup and as income fell to £ 72 million, wages also halved. In 2020-21, after four years of losses, Bournemouth made a profit of close to £ 17 million. While winning promotion was credible, Bournemouth face a challenge to compete at a higher level and there are question marks about their ability to survive. Their owner, Maxim Demin is a Russian-born businessman and a UK citizen, hence he was not sanctioned by the British government like others. Bournemouth spent around £ 27 million ahead of 2022-23 on two players, £ 15 million on Feyenoord’s Marcos Senesi and £ 11.9 million on Marcus Tavernier of Middlesbrough.

Since the Premier League was inaugurated in 1992, the average lifespan of a promotion club is 3.8 seasons. Fourteen of the current 20 clubs have won promotion at some point (just six are ever-presents – Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham) and the current longest run is Manchester City, who have spent 21 seasons in the Premier since returning. West Ham and Southampton are in their 11th season, while Crystal Palace are on 10.

Whatever happens to the new boys, some clubs, such as Fulham, Bournemouth and in past seasons, Watford and Norwich, have shown they are resilient after relegation and bounced back. Obviously helped by parachute payments to some extent, it also shows that with determination and focus, relegation can be dealt with.

Stevenage and Oldham live up to their billing

IN THE scheme of things, the battle to stay in the Football League is relatively unimportant compared to other events around the world, but an air of definite tension hung over Stevenage’s Lamex Stadium on the day the 90th and 91st-placed teams met in what could only be labelled an elimination bout.

It had reached a crucial stage of 2021-22 for both teams, who seemed hell bent on falling through the trapdoor. Oldham may beaten Leyton Orient a few days earlier and Stevenage might have be hoping for a late boost from the appointment of their third manager of the campaign, but both seemed in freefall. That Oldham – who also changed their coach in January, John Sheridan replacing Keith Curle – were still in with a shout was partly due to the poor form and slump of Stevenage, but the relegation battle had crystallised into any one of three to accompany Scunthorpe United. Barrow, who only returned to the league after a long absence in 2020, have evolved into candidates for a National League return.

Relegation for Stevenage would be a bitter pill to swallow after 12 years in the EFL. They’ve had some great moments in that period, winning promotion to League One in their first season and enjoying cup ties against Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Leicester City, Hull City, Southampton and Swansea City, among others. They ended their non-league life with two FA Trophy victories in 2007 and 2009 and were runners-up in 2010. It’s a town that’s always been tailor-made for league football, but since relegation back to League Two, support looks to have plateaued and in 2021-22, gates had been 5% lower than before the pandemic.

Phil Wallace has owned the club since the late 1990s and provided the impetus to take Stevenage into the league, the most recent improvement to the excellent Lamex Stadium being the North Stand, which offers a superb view for spectators. From time to time there are rumours Wallace wants to sell Stevenage and there were suggestions of a tie-up between the club and a group of cryptocurrency investors in 2021.

Wallace, allegedly the 35th richest person in Hertfordshire, would surely not want to end his reign at Stevenage with relegation, but the club’s on-pitch performances have declined in recent years and the manager’s role has become one of the least secure in football – they have had 10 full-time appointments in 12 years, hardly a recipe for stability.

Oldham Athletic were in the first Premier League in 1992-93 and spent two seasons at that level before falling into the second (1994) and third (1997) tiers. In 2018, they were relegated to League Two and have finished in 19th and 18th in the last seasons respectively. Just ahead of visiting Stevenage, Oldham published their accounts and they didn’t make for good reading. Football finance guru Kieran Maguire of the Price of Football, suggested the latest figures showed the club is “technically insolvent” as it has more liabilities than assets. 

However, Maguire added there is no sign of the club going into administration, but the accounts demonstrated a hand-to-mouth existence. Oldham, like many clubs, owe a lot of money, so relegation from the EFL would surely be a blow to their financial position.

Oldham fans turned out in force at Stevenage and their vocal support was very impressive. Conversely, there was an air of despondency among the home fans, who had not seen their team win since a league game the end of January. Their last away victory was recorded on August 14 at Bristol Rovers. Oldham had just ended a run of six consecutive league defeats when they beat Leyton Orient on March 29. Their home form has really been their undoing and their recent run included three successive defeats at Boundary Park. 

The general feeling was the losers of the game at the Lamex may well be heading into non-league football. Time was certainly running out for both, but Stevenage appeared to have the easier run-in, with games against Rochdale, Colchester, Scunthorpe and Carlisle. Stevenage’s biggest problem was scoring goals, just 34 in the 38 games before the Oldham clash and just six in the last 10.

With so much at stake, it was no surprise tension got the better of things for long periods. Stevenage had two early efforts, but their finishing explained why they had found scoring such a chore. Luke Norris and Arthur Read should certainly have done better when presented with close range opportunities. 

Oldham took the lead after 16 minutes with a nicely taken goal. Jordan Clarke’s cross to the far post was met by a looping header from Jamie Hopcutt, who had been recalled to the team by Sheridan. The Oldham keeper, Danny Rogers, danced with joy as the ball sailed over Christy Pym, his opposite number.

Stevenage nervously pressed, but their lack of firepower was exposed repeatedly, notably in the frenetic finale which almost brought the equaliser. Oldham’s defence held out, frustrating the home team and their unhappy supporters. It was a great rearguard action, although it didn’t make for compelling entertainment. It didn’t really matter to the majority of the fans, the result was the most important aspect of the afternoon, and Oldham got precisely what they came for. While the Latics travelling support enjoyed the moment as if they had won major silverware, the noise from the long Stevenage terrace was akin to mumbled jeering.

It is possible both of these teams will avoid relegation, but at present, Stevenage are in the drop zone. The situation will change game-by-game, but Oldham’s win, however ugly, has given them a three-point lead over Stevenage. They also have a better goal difference, which is worth another point. And then there’s Barrow, who are level with Oldham and have an eight-goal advantage. Stevenage manager Steve Evans, who felt his side were outstanding (!), is calling for the backing of the entire new town. They travel to Colchester United on April 9, who are also far from safe. As Evans said, Stevenage have seven cup finals ahead of them. He’s not wrong.

Remaining fixtures

Barrow 
(7): Home – Forest Green, Northampton, Sutton United.
Away – Crawley, Exeter, Salford, Swindon.

Oldham (6): Home – Crawley, Northampton, Salford.
Away – Forest Green, Port Vale, Tranmere.

Stevenage (7): Home – Rochdale, Salford, Tranmere.
Away – Carlisle, Colchester, Mansfield, Scunthorpe.