As football evolves with each passing year, the conundrum facing newly promoted teams always remains the same. Survival in the Premier League is always coveted above all else. Whilst many teams do avoid relegation, success in the second season appears to be harder to come by.
The term second season syndrome refers to a team struggling in a second season of competition, after having exhibited a higher standard in the first. Some people think it’s a myth whilst others swear by it. Whatever your way of thinking, it can probably be described as a bit of both. It does exist but isn’t a factor at the same time.
There’s nothing scientific about this affliction that blights some sides. A whole host of reasons could contribute to relegation, the most obvious being the gulf in class between the established teams in the league and the new boys. Recently promoted clubs haven’t got the financial clout of the big hitters and suffer with the recruitment of quality players. If this is the case, why do some teams survive the first season relatively unscathed?
There have been some fairytale stories for teams that have been promoted into the elite of English football. Wolverhampton Wanderers are a great example, competing in Europa League after a successful first jaunt at the top of the footballing pyramid. As it stands, they look as though they’ll follow that success with another top-half finish. Wolves might be the exception to the rule with plenty of investment in a team that are well suited to top-flight football, others aren’t so lucky.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the second season phenomenon was the Ipswich Town side of the inaugural season of the millennium. The Tractor Boys, managed by club legend George Burley, finished an impressive fifth, just three points off a Champions League place. Top scorer Marcus Stewart netted 19 times, only exceeded league-wide by Chelsea hitman Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink. In fact, he scored more goals than notable alumni Thierry Henry, Mark Viduka and Michael Owen.
The following season didn’t go to plan. Town were relegated after shipping a massive 64 goals, including a 6-0 drubbing at home to Liverpool. Ironically, they were beaten 5-0 in the reverse fixture at Anfield on the final day of the season. Burley, who’d won the Premier League Manager of The Year in their first season, must have wondered what had happened.
Ipswich spent nearly £14 million on additions to their squad, knowing they’d be fighting both domestically and in the UEFA Cup. Richard Wright, despite being first-choice goalkeeper, was deemed surplus to requirements and was sold to Arsenal for a reported £6 million fee. Despite it making sense from a financial standpoint, the loss of Wright’s experience to the side was irreplaceable.
Town only won once in the first four months of the domestic season, beating Derby County 3-1 at home. In that period the team conceded 27 goals, whilst only troubling the scorer 15 times, losing 10 matches and drawing six. In the UEFA cup, they actually fared better, brushing aside both Torpedo Moscow and Helinsborg, before getting knocked out by Inter Milan. Despite doing well, the main focus of Burley was to solidify Ipswich Town into Premier League perennials.
Results actually picked up for the Tractor Boys in December. They recorded three wins on the spin, which included an emphatic 5-0 thumping of Sunderland. Things started to look up for Burley and his men. A 3-2 reverse away to Charlton Athletic on New Years Day could’ve dampened spirits, but the team were galvanised into winning their next four games.
Town now sat 12th in the league, comfortably mid-table with all thoughts of relegation back to the First Division ebbing away. On the 9th February 2002, they faced Liverpool at home. The Reds were in the midst of mounting a serious title challenge, whilst Ipswich found themselves in a rich vein of form, with confidence seemingly high. It turned out to be the beginning of the end for Burley and his men.
Liverpool romped home to a 6-0 victory. Michael Owen and Emile Heskey each netted twice, with defenders Abel Xavier and Sami Hyypiä also scoring. The defeat started a cataclysmic shift in fortune for Ipswich Town. As the ref blew the final whistle on the lush pitch of Portman Road, the team started to begin the unstoppable death slide towards the foot of the table.
Of the 12 remaining league games, the Blues only managed one victory and three draws. That equated to gaining six points out of a possible 36. Ironically, they were only relegated on the last day of the season, again losing to Liverpool. This time the score was 5-0.
So where did it all go wrong for Ipswich Town? Could fighting in domestic and European fronts have affected the team? Did they get lucky during their first season in the league? Were they unlucky in their second? The real reasons are probably closer to home. Injuries no doubt played a part. Star striker Marcus Stewart missed parts of the campaign through injury, as did several other key figures. The club didn’t possess a squad with the strength in depth like others in the league and didn’t have the quality to replace key players. Issues which may have been mildly irritating to bigger clubs, were felt with such force in Suffolk that Ipswich Town have never reached the Premier League since. In fact they’ve regressed even further, with relegation to League One at the end of the 2018-19 season-ending a 15-year stay in the second tier of English football.
Another example would be Reading during the 2006-07 season. Their first season in the Premier League ended with relative success, missing out on qualification for the UEFA Cup by one point. Highlights included a 6-0 win at home to West Ham United and striker Kevin Doyle weighing in with a respectable 13 league goals.
The 2007-08 season proved too much for The Royals, who only picked up four points from their first six games. A renaissance of sorts came in December, which saw the team unbeaten in their first five games, collecting a total of nine points. However, they lost the next eight games, conceding 16 goals. Again, a brief resurgence of form gave the Reading fans hope, but ultimately the damage had already been done. Relying on results elsewhere, the Berkshire based team were eventually condemned to relegation when Fulham beat Portsmouth on the final day of the season.
One reason for the success of newly promoted teams is the theory that they’re unknown quantities. The element of surprise is often revered in such theatres as warfare but the same goes with football. A team that makes the step up to the top tier of English football won’t have been looked at under the microscope as much detail as teams already at that level. It’s unlikely that a manager preparing for a game against a team that’s making its debut in the league would know too much about their opposition.
Confidence would also play a part. There’d be no pressure on a team that came up as they’d be expected to lose most games. Human nature suggests that when sportsman are confident, they perform better. Even when aiming to prove critics and pundits wrong, that extra 5% of effort could make all the difference to a team. Being the underdog often gives a team the advantage as the expectations aren’t as high. Players feel unrestrained and are able to go out and perform to a higher standard.
So why does it go wrong sometimes? The exact reverse of the above would be a fitting place to start. When the mentality of proving people wrong dissipates and that extra effort vanishes, the difference in talent between two teams can become more pronounced. The level playing field becomes un-level. Any advantage that the weaker team might have evaporates.
The schedule of games probably has an effect as well. The much-maligned festive period provides matches thick and fast. Whilst an established, bigger team would be able to absorb any injuries and rest players, many smaller clubs can’t. A new team that had survived its first year in the Premier League may struggle with injuries and fatigue a second time round. Without the squad depth needed to replace such casualties, a team could really struggle, especially if they haven’t recruited correctly.
Of course, a lot of it comes down to luck. A quality that can’t be measured yet is probably the most important attribute needed to stay up. A decision in a game that goes your way could mean the difference between staying up or suffering the ignominy of relegation. Managers might bemoan a lack of luck, but don’t have control over it. In fact, many subscribe to the school of thought “it’ll even up at the end of the season”.
The second season syndrome might sound catchy. It might seem as though there’s an algebraic formula which can predict whether a team will be more susceptible to falling foul of it. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing mathematical or scientific about succeeding in the second season. Yet there is. The three worst-performing teams go down regardless of what the situation was the year before. As they say, the table doesn’t lie.