The English Premier League is, according to pundits and commentators alike, one of the toughest leagues in the world.  This is particularly the case for teams who are promoted into it from the Championship.  Last season was only the second time in 20 years that all three teams (QPR, Norwich and Swansea) that were promoted survived relegation in their first season.  The question is how do teams fare in their second season and does so called ‘Second Season Syndrome’ exist.  Figure It Out set out to investigate.

What is Second Season Syndrome?

Second-Season Syndrome is a now common phrase that is used to describe a downturn in fortunes for a football club two seasons after its promotion to the Premier League of English football, particularly after finishing high up the league in the first season.   There are several examples:

–          Middlesbrough, promoted in 1995, looked capable of a top 5 finish in their first season before finishing 12th.  They then finished 19th and were relegated in the following year.

–          Ipswich, promoted in 2000, did finish in 5th place in season 2000-01 and qualified for a place in European competition.  However, they were promptly relegated in 18th place the next year.

–          Reading, promoted in 2006, finished in 8th place in 2006-07 before being relegated in 18th place.


How do promoted teams fare?

We took data from the last 17 seasons[i].  During that time 50 teams have been promoted to the Premier League.  We established how long each team managed to remain in the top division following promotion and considered this in comparison to whether the team came up automatically from the Football League (as Champions or Runner-Up) or were Play-Off winners.

Figure 1: Seasons in the Premier League following Promotion


The size of the task facing promoted clubs immediately becomes clear:

–          Nearly half (44%) of all teams have been relegated in their first season;

–          3/5 of Play-off winners have been relegated in their first year compared to just over a third of automatically promoted sides.  Maybe this should not be a surprise as according to the league tables, these clubs have performed worse in their promotion season and have then had less time to prepare for the Premier League. 

–          If a team can survive the first season then there is a decent chance of being in the Premier League for over 5 years


Does it become harder in the second season?  What happens next?

We have seen that Play-Off winners tend to finish lower in the first season.  However, an interesting comparison of average league position exists for just those teams that avoid relegation.


Figure 2: Average Position of Teams Surviving their First Season


The method of promotion has little correlation to final position for those clubs.  Our results also show that it does become harder to achieve the same standard of performance in the second season, with teams on average finishing 2.5 places lower – the so-called ‘Second-Season Syndrome’. 

We can see that the majority of these sides have been impacted by this effect over the last 17 years by plotting final league positions in the first 2 years:


Figure 3: Comparison of final position in first 2 seasons


There are a number of reasons that could be offered for this observed deterioration.  Amongst these would be loss of the ‘surprise factor’ as new teams become more predictable to existing Premier League sides; loss of players to ‘bigger’ clubs as they show that they can play at this level and perhaps, lesser motivation as clubs become established.


Does momentum gained in first season help in second season?

Most teams collect points fairly evenly throughout the year.  Some will collect most of their points in the first part of the season while some will need to play much better in the second half after a bad start to avoid relegation becoming an inevitability.  The table below shows how momentum carried through from the first season can impact the second:


Figure 4: Impact of When Points are Gained in Season 1 on Final Position


In short, how points are collected in the first season appears to have little impact on future seasons, with one possible exception.  Loss of momentum may play a part for those clubs that begin life exceptionally well in the Premier League, only to appear to tail off after Christmas as they then generally go on to struggle the following year.


Conclusions – what does this mean for the 3 teams who survived last season?

The Premier League is the hardest league in the world to survive in.  Our research shows that there is a dip in performance in the second season – a so-called ‘Second Season Syndrome’.  Even so, ¾ of promoted clubs who avoided relegation in their first season have done the same in the difficult second year.

As for QPR, Norwich and Swansea?  It could still be a long winter ahead especially for fans of QPR who finished 17th last year…

[i] The period during which the Premier League has contained 20 teams.