The Championship is a war of attrition. A marathon, not a sprint. The dream for any fan at the beginning of August is to see their team finally escape its relentlessness, to wave goodbye to away trips during the depths of winter to Blackburn, Reading and Preston, to be back in the Premier League.
However, no sooner has promotion been obtained, once the dust has settled and the champagne has finally stopped flowing, the reality of making it to the promised land truly sets in- that a real challenge awaits. How difficult the step up from the Championship to the Premier League is evident in how many teams go straight back down.
Teams can get over-excited, spend £100 million or more on bringing in new talent, and fall at the first hurdle as Fulham did in 2018/19. On the other hand, keeping your wallet in your pocket and remaining loyal to the players who helped them gain promotion often doesn’t work either, as Norwich are currently finding out this season. It is a difficult balance to get right. However, every now and then a promoted side proves to be a surprise package, managing to not only survive, but thrive in their first campaign back in the top flight.
Last season Wolverhampton Wanderers returned to the Premier League for the first time since 2012, having at one point dropped as far down as League One. Not deterred by such a long time away, and backed by a Portuguese contingent of Manager (Nuno Espírito Santo) first-team players (Rui Patrício, João Moutinho and Diogo Jota) and financial backer (Jorge Mendes) Wolves managed to crack the formula and stick the landing.
Their 3-5-2 formation provided a solid defence platform, and two attacking wing-backs in Matt Doherty and Jonny provided width to catch many teams off guard. Victories against Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea at home and away at Tottenham were secured, proving their Premier League credentials to finish a highly respectable 7th. While they initially struggled in this campaign due to European commitments and a growing injury list, their form has vastly improved so they now sit in 6th. Few would question their status as an established top half team.
This season it is Sheffield United who have been flummoxing the opposition, having drawn with Manchester United, Spurs and Chelsea and beaten Arsenal. They have a fluid formation; the centre-backs Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham have the license to get forward, while David McGoldrick, nominally a striker, often drops deep to pick the ball up and to link play. Nothing quite like the route one football they were predicted to play before the season began.
Manager Chris Wilder clearly is able to spot a diamond in the rough- Lys Mousset was a major disappointment for Bournemouth, with only three goals in 58 appearances. At the time of writing, he already has five goals in just over half a season. As well as the French forward, other players like Oliver Norwood, John Lundstram and Enda Stevens have shown they have the quality to flourish in the top flight, looking right at home on the big stage.
Presently it looks like Wilder’s side will easily finish in the top half, especially when compared to Norwich and Aston Villa, the other two teams who ascended from the Championship over the summer. They won’t be taking anything for granted though, as there are examples where promoted teams have begun the season in great form, before tailing off drastically after the Christmas period.
Hull City achieved promotion for the first time in the 104-year history in 2008 and began the season incredibly strongly. Following an opening day triumph against Fulham, they won six games out of seven between September and October, including famous victories against Arsenal and Tottenham. The club were sitting high and mighty in 3rd place, with Phil Brown winning manager of the month.
All good things must come to an end, as the side from Yorkshire only went on to win two more games in the entire season. The lowest point came on Boxing Day, where having conceded four first-half goals Brown conducted his team talk on the pitch, humiliating his players and becoming a laughing stock in the process. They somehow managed to survive by the skin of the teeth (and the incompetence of Newcastle, Middlesbrough and West Brom) but failed to kick on in their sophomore season, with them relegated back to the Championship.
Blackpool’s time at the top table was even briefer. Ian Holloway took them up through the play-offs and had immediate success with a 4-0 win against Wigan in their first game. They won a further six games before Christmas (including a 2-1 victory at Anfield) and were perched comfortably in the top half. The creativity of Charlie Adam and the goals from DJ Campbell made them a force to be reckoned with.
They couldn’t keep the form up, with wins drying up after the New Year. They lost 13 games out of 21 and were condemned on the final day of the season following a 4-2 defeat to champions Manchester United. The club have been in freefall ever since, plummeting all the way down to League Two in 2016. Thankfully they are now free of the Oyston family, but you’d imagine it will be a long time before they are bothering the top flight again.
The same could be said about Ipswich Town. Having spent a gruelling 14 years in the Championship, they finally succumbed to relegation and dropped into the third tier for the first time since the 1950s. The chase for promotion has stuttered slightly as Paul Lambert’s side have only won twice in the league since early November. However, 20 years ago the side were currently experiencing very different circumstances, sitting just outside the Champions League places…
The Suffolk side were a part of the initial Premier League season and remained in the top tier until 1995. Their most notable result from this period was the infamous loss away at Manchester United, where Craig Forrest was beaten nine times by a combination of Andrew Cole, Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes. Three seasons in the Championship followed, with several near misses in the play-offs.
The hoodoo was finally broken in the 1999/2000 season. Another third-place finish saw them drawn against Bolton Wanderers for the semi-finals. Ipswich found themselves 2-0 down within the first half an hour, but two vital away goals from Marcus Stewart put them firmly back in the game. The second leg was one of the most action-packed games in play-off history- eight goals, three penalties, two red cards and a hat-trick from Town midfielder Jim Magilton saw them run out 5-3 winners. They then triumphed over Barnsley 4-2 (the final domestic game played in the old Wembley) to take their seat at the top table of English football.
All the pre-season predictions were that Ipswich would finish rock bottom, that their squad lacked top-flight experience and the manager George Burley was on a hiding to nothing. Burley chose to keep faith with his players, with the Icelandic Herman Hreiðarsson the only purchase (£4 million) during the summer months.
Very quickly the perception of the Suffolk side began to change, and that their hard work, spirit and playing on the front foot might actually work for them. Their first home game ended in a 1-1 draw against Manchester United (nowadays a home draw against the Red Devils is barely worth mentioning given their fall from grace, but it is worth remembering this United side were treble winners less than two years previously). The right-back Fabian Wilnis opened the scoring after only 6 minutes, finding great space on the edge of the area before firing in beyond Fabien Barthez. Portman Road went wild, marking the moment Ipswich had officially arrived in the Premier League.
The first win of the season came in the following game against Sunderland. Here, it was a 19-year-old Titus Bramble, a product of the academy, who scored the all-important goal. Bursting forward from defence, his mazy run seemed to confuse the opposition, allowing him to go from one box to the other, linking well with Stewart to rifle it into the net. Not for the first, or last, time in his career, pundits debated whether or not defending really was his strong suit.
Other stand-out results from the first few months were a 2-1 away win against Champions League semi-finalist Leeds United, and a 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal. A six-game unbeaten run saw further victories at Goodison Park and the Valley Parade, and at home to Middlesbrough. Following a defeat to Newcastle, Burley’s side responded with three consecutive victories against Charlton, Coventry and fellow promoted side Manchester City, with Stewart scoring twice in an engaging 3-2 win. By this point in mid-November, Ipswich fans were forgetting about relegation and daring to dream about a top-half finish.
A 1-0 win at Anfield at the beginning of December was the biggest scalp to date. Stewart again was instrumental to the victory, having the coolest of heads to round Liverpool goalkeeper Sander Westerveld before tucking it away in front of the Kop. It was Stewart’s eighth goal of the season, which would have been respectable across a whole season for a newly promoted side, let alone before the halfway mark. With that win, Ipswich sat in third behind only Manchester United and Arsenal.
It was expected that teams would figure out how to combat Ipswich’s enthusiastic and front-footed style of play in the second half of the season, and their run of good results would be swiftly ended. This didn’t happen, as the Tractor Boys never dropped below 6th for the remainder of the campaign. The addition of Alun Armstrong from Middlesbrough helped to ease the goal-scoring burden on Stewart, with the striker scoring three goals in his first four games.
The one blip their season suffered was three consecutive losses against Chelsea, Leeds and Arsenal in late January/early February. While other sides would have lost confidence and slowly crumble under the pressure, Burley’s side bounced back, winning four of their following five matches. Dutchman Martijn Reuser contributed with a brace in a 3-1 victory against Bradford and converted a spectacular curling free-kick against West Ham to secure a 1-0 win. Stewart meanwhile helped himself to a hat-trick away at Southampton, to keep himself in the hunt for the Golden Boot.
With only three games to go, Ipswich’s form had put them to within touching distance of a Champions League place. Unfortunately, a 2-1 loss to Charlton ended such hopes, but they still found time to relegate Manchester City by beating them 3-2 in their final home game at the season. Copying the tune to City’s popular anthem, the fans at Portman Road sang ‘Blue Moon, you got promoted too soon, and now you’re going back down, and Europe’s coming to town’. While the two side’s fortunes have differed drastically since that day, it’s a moment most Ipswich fans will always cherish. They finished the season in 5th place (just four points behind Arsenal in 2nd) qualifying for the UEFA Cup for the first time since 1982.
Most newly promoted sides would take a 17th place finish in a heartbeat. They’d kiss you if a mid-table finish was achieved by the end of May. To finish in a European spot, having beaten Champions League teams such as Liverpool and Leeds, and getting credible draws against Manchester United and Arsenal, truly is remarkable.
Ipswich regrettably became a victim of their own success, with the second season in the Premier League an abject failure by comparison. Key personnel such as goalkeeper Richard Wright and Captain Matt Holland were allowed to leave, and Burley was unable to adequately replace them. Stewart went from 19 league goals to just six. They only won one of their opening 17 fixtures, leaving them adrift at the bottom of the table by Christmas. The one bright note was their run in the UEFA cup, which saw a famous victory against Inter-Milan, with Armstrong scoring the only goal. Even that joy was short-lived, as they lost the away leg at the San Siro 4-1.
A small positive run in the following months gave them hope, but survival always seemed unlikely when their final 3 fixtures were away to Arsenal, home to Manchester United and away to Liverpool. They lost the final game 5-0, crashing out of the top flight in spectacular fashion.
With relegation, a long period of frustration in the Championship and a further drop into League One, it’s unsurprising that the 2000/2001season is looked back on as the greatest the club has had in its recent history. In the 20 years since that season, no promoted side has gotten near matching Ipswich’s remarkable season. Though if they carry on with their current form, Sheffield United may yet be able to match the Suffolk side’s marvellous year.