A statistical tale of promotion into the Premier League…

by Brett Curtis

…And how this may apply to the chances of survival for Reading, Southampton and West Ham…

Every summer, one of the biggest pre-season talking points of the upcoming Premier League season is the three promoted sides’ chances of survival. This year, the debate will surround Brian McDermott’s Reading; Southampton, after mimicking Norwich’s impressive back-to-back promotions; and the return of Sam Allardyce and West Ham United after their impressive handling of the dreaded play-offs. All three will strive to avoid relegation and, should they succeed, the subsequent alleged “Second Season Syndrome” to establish themselves as long-term Premier League clubs.

Consensus shaping stats

Generally speaking, there is often one side widely predicted to beat the drop, with the other two clubs receiving more doubt than backing outside of their own fan bases. Last year, for example, the general consensus seemed to be that billionaire-backed QPR had enough to survive, especially amid a change in ownership and experienced signings towards the end of August; but Norwich and Swansea, on lower wage budgets with largely inexperienced managers and playing staff, would more than likely be relegated. Of course, almost the complete reversal occurred: Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers easily navigated their sides to safety with weeks to spare, and as such have been rewarded to moves with Aston Villa and Liverpool respectively; whilst QPR, at one point, were in the relegation zone on the final day after a mid-season change in management.

But the unpredictable world of football should not detract from the pre-season assumption. This year, it appears similar, with a quick scan through the betting odds suggesting that Reading and Southampton are early favourites to be relegated despite finishing 1st and 2nd; whilst West Ham have similar odds to the likes of Wigan and last season’s survivalists, Norwich, Swansea and QPR. From this, we can perhaps deduct that this is usually a 2:1 yearly occurrence, i.e. two promoted sides are widely predicted for the drop, with one slightly stronger side tipped to survive. Moreover, this year is perhaps an exception to many with respect to the arrangement of that “2:1”: generally, you would expect the champions or even runners-up to be the ‘1’ tipped to survive, rather than the play-off winners, but West Ham have a larger wage budget than several Premier League sides already, and as such are rather unique in that sense – rather like in 2006, when Alan Pardew guided them to 9th place and an FA Cup Final appearance.

The data used within this article will cover the previous ten seasons (2002/03 to 2011/12), focusing on the 30 promoted sides (23 separate clubs) within this period, and illustrating how they fared in terms of position and points in their Championship promotion and first Premiership seasons, as well as monitoring their progress should they have survived that crucial first year. Overall, it may give us an indication into the chances for this year’s ‘batch’ of surviving.

The all-important first year – what are the general chances of survival?

Out of the thirty promoted sides within this period, 13 went straight back down, while 17 survived the drop. This puts the survival rate at above 50%; indeed, relegation is closer to a ‘1:2’ ratio, i.e. only one promoted side gets relegated in their first season, rather than the ‘2:1’ that many generally predict. In the ten studied seasons, five witnessed two newly promoted clubs survive, as opposed to four where only one survived, suggesting that it is rather touch and go whether one or two survive.

Using each promoted team’s position and total points within their first seasons, the average position of a promoted club in their first season is 15; while, after amassing 1156 points over ten years, the mean amount of points is 38.5. Had Derby (11 points in 2007-08) and Sunderland (15 in 2005-06) performed slightly better, this average points total would likely have broken the 40-point barrier seen as the target of survival, an encouraging sign for promoted sides.

Championship Champions, Runners-Up or Play Off Winners – does it really matter when it comes to the “best league in the world”?

Basic logic would surely dictate that the Championship champions should survive more often than the runners-up and play-off winners, as in the previous season they proved themselves a stronger side. Out of the ten champions in this period, only three were relegated, meaning seven survived. Two of these finished in the top half, with Reading a goal away from European football after securing 8th place and 55 points – the best showing of a first-year side in this period. In the last six seasons, the only Championship winners to be relegated in their first season were West Brom in 2008/09, showing that logic is backed by the stats in this case – and perhaps that Reading can feel confident of survival despite QPR’s narrow escape last season.

The runners-up, however, did not fare particularly worse than the winners, with only one more (four) of the ten being relegated in their first seasons. Like the Champions, two runners-up finished in the top half in their first season (Wigan and Birmingham), whilst none of the runners-up finished rock-bottom 20th, as opposed to two of the ten champions (Sunderland and West Brom). These stats would suggest that there is generally little between the Championship winners and runners-up chances of survival – something that is reflected in the betting odds, but perhaps not as Reading or Southampton would wish, as both are strongly tipped for relegation.

When it comes to the Play-Off winners, though, they do tend to struggle. This is perhaps not surprising when you consider that, in 2009-10’s Championship for example, Blackpool came 5 places lower than Newcastle, winning 31 less points. Out of the ten play-off winners, six were relegated. In the last six years, only Hull and Swansea have survived; and the former were comprehensively relegated the next season, with the latter likely to be tested amid a change of management. Indeed, the most common position of these play-off winners in their first season is 20th  (three times), which is perhaps the clearest stat of them all. However, as previously mentioned, West Ham have history of being promoted as Play-Off winners, and comfortably surviving the subsequent season; can they repeat this, or will they become another ‘logical’ victim?

Championship points tally

More evidence for a team’s strength and subsequent chance of survival would be to look at their points tally in their promotion season. Last season, all three sides hit the late eighties in one of the tightest automatic promotion races in recent years.

Only two of the thirty Championship sides within this period amassed over 100 points: Reading themselves in 2005-06, and Newcastle in 2009-10. Both survived, finishing  8th and 12th respectively, suggesting that these sides were more than equipped to survive in the Premier League, and their Championship points tally aptly reflected this.

Eight earned 90-99 points, and four of these survived their first campaign in the Premiership, with four relegated, making a 50% survival rate. Twelve earned 80-89 points like this year’s batch, with seven surviving and five relegated – bringing this closer to 60% than 50%, largely thanks to last season’s survivalists. Of the eight sides that managed to be promoted with under 80 points, four survived – again meaning a 50% survival rate. With these survival rates being similar, it could be suggested that, if you don’t hit 100 points, the points tally doesn’t alter your chances of survival too much. This will encourage Reading, Southampton and West Ham – as none hit ninety.

Survival and beyond – does a second season equal long-term stability, or Second Season Syndrome?

After Ipswich (although not in this study), Reading and Birmingham – all of whom finished in the top half in their debut seasons, before being relegated in the next – talk will no doubt be heading Swansea’s and Norwich’s way of “second season syndrome” after comfortable (though not top-half) seasons; while this season’s promoted sides may bizarrely be wary of a start that is “too good”, as both Hull and Blackpool have ‘suffered’ in recent seasons.

The stats demonstrate that Swansea, Norwich (and QPR, as they did survive after all) should not worry about “second season syndrome”: of the 17 clubs to survive their first seasons, only 4 (West Brom, Reading, Hull, Birmingham) were relegated in their next campaign. Essentially, this means that if a club can survive their first season, there is over a 75% chance they will repeat that feat in the second campaign. Three were relegated in their fourth season or later, while a whopping ten of the clubs that will compete in next season’s Premier League are ones who have survived their first season and continued to survive (or in Swansea, Norwich and QPR’s cases, looking to survive again) without relegation. All this would suggest that surviving a first season in the Premier League can have massive gains. Never has this been clearer than last season: Newcastle almost secured Champions League football, and West Brom achieved their first ever Premier League top-half finish – both in their second seasons back in the top flight. Clearly, then, progress that follows survival is more common than the dreaded reverse of‘Second Season Syndrome’.

Eight earned 90-99 points, and four of these survived their first campaign in the Premiership, with four relegated, making a 50% survival rate. Twelve earned 80-89 points like this year’s batch, with seven surviving and five relegated – bringing this closer to 60% than 50%, largely thanks to last season’s survivalists. Of the eight sides that managed to be promoted with under 80 points, four survived – again meaning a 50% survival rate. With these survival rates being similar, it could be suggested that, if you don’t hit 100 points, the points tally doesn’t alter your chances of survival too much. This will encourage Reading, Southampton and West Ham – as none hit ninety.

Survival and beyond – does a second season equal long-term stability, or Second Season Syndrome?

After Ipswich (although not in this study), Reading and Birmingham – all of whom finished in the top half in their debut seasons, before being relegated in the next – talk will no doubt be heading Swansea’s and Norwich’s way of “second season syndrome” after comfortable (though not top-half) seasons; while this season’s promoted sides may bizarrely be wary of a start that is “too good”, as both Hull and Blackpool have ‘suffered’ in recent seasons.

The stats demonstrate that Swansea, Norwich (and QPR, as they did survive after all) should not worry about “second season syndrome”: of the 17 clubs to survive their first seasons, only 4 (West Brom, Reading, Hull, Birmingham) were relegated in their next campaign. Essentially, this means that if a club can survive their first season, there is over a 75% chance they will repeat that feat in the second campaign. Three were relegated in their fourth season or later, while a whopping ten of the clubs that will compete in next season’s Premier League are ones who have survived their first season and continued to survive (or in Swansea, Norwich and QPR’s cases, looking to survive again) without relegation. All this would suggest that surviving a first season in the Premier League can have massive gains. Never has this been clearer than last season: Newcastle almost secured Champions League football, and West Brom achieved their first ever Premier League top-half finish – both in their second seasons back in the top flight. Clearly, then, progress that follows survival is more common than the dreaded reverse of‘Second Season Syndrome’.

Author Info

Brett Curtis

Like any sane person in the country, my passion lies in football. I love playing it; I love watching it; and I certainly love writing about it.

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