Friday, 22 May 2009

Life after relegation: is there return from the abyss?

This weekend will see two from a possible four join West Bromwich Albion in the second tier of English Football. Sunderland, Hull City, Newcastle and Middlesbrough all face the biggest weekend of their recent histories.

Relegation from the Premier League has never guaranteed an immediate return, indeed the last five years has seen mixed fortunes for those who have found themselves flung out of the revolving doors of England’s elite league. Some have returned, while most have had to wait. Others have been dealt crueller fates. This season has seen Norwich City, Southampton and Charlton fall further from grace and all three will be turning out in League 1 come August. Is there hope following relegation? Let us look at the past five years; the comings and goings, what faces the doomed clubs, and see how this year’s relegation candidates compare to previous casualties.

The evidence suggests relegation hits clubs hard. Out of the 15 demotions over the previous 5 seasons, only four clubs have returned, with Birmingham showing decent bounce-back-ability, gaining promotion twice. The other three, Wolves, West Brom and Sunderland, have hardly cemented their statuses in the top flight. Wolves are only now returning after a 5-year absence, the Baggies find themselves back in the Championship and Sunderland face an anxious final day shootout.

Countless others have failed to return following heartbreak. Crystal Palace, relegated on the final day in 2005, have hardly threatened a return in recent years; the same could be said of Watford and Derby. Despite coming close this year, both Sheffield United and Reading ultimately failed in their attempts.

Then there are the extreme cases. Much has been said regarding Leeds United’s fall from grace, but what of Leicester City? Along with the Yorkshire club, they featured in League 1 this season after struggling to retain their top-flight status following relegation in 2004. Thankfully for Foxes fans, they ended the year as champions and will be looking to build on their promotion. The same cannot be said of Leeds, who will have to spend a third successive season in England’s third tier. Then there is the tragedy of this season’s Championship dropouts. Charlton, Norwich and Southampton will join Leeds for an intriguing League 1 next season, but as history will tell you, there is no guarantee these clubs will dominate the division, see the recent deterioration of Luton Town who have had three successive relegations.

One of the reasons clubs find life so difficult after the Premier League is the financial restrictions they face. Sure, there are the parachute payments, but if the clubs fail to return after this two-year window, managers are forced to work under a shoestring budget and are thus unable to exert the authority they would like in the transfer market. A return to the top flight is subsequently made even harder.

A further problem these sides face is the dilemma surrounding their prodigious young talents. Neil Warnock in particular has blooded his young stars through in recent seasons. However, he has seen one such, John Bostock, snatched from his grasp by Tottenham, who paid Palace a measly sum of £700,000 following a tribunal. One may ask what hope such teams have of survival if they are priced out of moves for players and then see their home produced talents leave almost immediately? It is a seemingly vicious and never-ending cycle.

The one thing all the sides who have returned have in common is a fantastic support. I am not suggesting those who have not returned lack this, but a future warning to the four facing relegation this Sunday: disperse your team at you peril. West Brom, relegated three times over the past 6 seasons, are one such club whose support never wavers and this was demonstrated over the weekend following their defeat to Liverpool. Thankfully, the support the Northeast sides receive is arguably the best in the country, and the two that do go down will need it as they enter the next chapter.

Billed as ‘survival Sunday’, this weekend will have a massive say on the futures of the four gunning for Premier League survival. Stay up and there is the opportunity to regroup over the summer, make the appropriate additions and learn from the hardships of a poor season. Relegation and the future of the football club is far from secure. History has shown that promotion the following year is by no means guaranteed and failure of an immediate return can spell the decline of a once great club. The declines of Leeds United, Southampton, Charlton and Luton Town in particular are a warning to whoever falls short this Sunday. Evidence suggests it may get worse before it gets better – just ask Manchester City fans.

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