Promotion and relegation: Same as it ever was..

We think of Doing a Leeds as a recent phenomenon; the fact that it’s even called Doing a Leeds, even on Wikipedia, tells us this. When teams collapse as dramatically as Leeds, Portsmouth, Blackpool and Bolton have in recent years, we are told it’s a modern disease, a result of the increasingly huge amounts of money washing around since the Premier League began.

Would it surprise you to learn it was more common to Do a Leeds 40 years ago than it is now?


This is the full list of clubs to have been relegated from the top flight who then suffered a second relegation into the third tier within five years. In the last years before the formation of the Premier League in 1992-93, it happened to 16 clubs; in the first 20 years of the Premier League era, 14 teams collapsed; and the same fate has since also befallen Wigan.

In that table, the deeper the red hue, the worse the side’s position in the league pyramid. From this, it’s clear that not only is Doing a Leeds not new, but when clubs do do a Leeds, they don’t fall as fast or as far anymore. Portsmouth are the stand-out exception, but even their finishing 81st in the pyramid four years after dropping out of the Premier League is gazumped by Bristol City somehow managing to come 82nd just three years after falling out of the First Division in 1979-80.

League tables are the perfect example of zero-sum game: if one group does well, it is to the equal and opposite detriment of another. This is the thinking behind criticism of the amount of money that swills around the Premier League, and in particular the parachute payments that sides receive for up to four years (formerly two) after relegation. Money buys success in football, so if one cohort in a league has access to much greater resources than another, it logically follows that those without the means will suffer.

The logic is sound, and we’ve been hearing about it for at least ten years now. But interestingly, although the newly-relegated sides are generally doing better, there’s nothing to suggest the sides coming up from what is now League One are doing any worse – as seen in this graph.

The percentage of up-and-coming sides who find themselves back in the third tier within five years of promotion has remained remarkably flat since 1972-73, constantly hovering around the 40% mark. (Assuming that Wigan go back down to League One next year, as the current league tables suggest, the percentage since 2012-13 is 41.67%). The newly-relegated sides, meanwhile, have recently returned to their previous level after the number of sides suffering a double slump fell around the beginning of the Premier League era.

It’s a similar story when we look at whether relegated sides have been able to return to the top flight within five years of their relegation (see this graph): there were spikes for this scenario for the clubs who dropped into the second tier between 1972-73 and 1976-77 and again at the very beginning of the Premier League era, but other than that it’s stayed exclusively between 33.33% and 46.67%.

We will have to wait a few more years to see whether this holds true for the clubs relegated in the 2012-13 season and beyond, but again assuming Newcastle go straight back up, we’re currently sitting at 41.67%, with a caveat that we won’t have complete data for the current five-year span of relegated clubs until 2022.

For newly-promoted sides, things are incredibly flat, again overlooking that period in the mid-80s when a frankly staggering 40% of sides managed to reach the top level.

As best as I can make out, parachute payments were introduced for the 2008-09 season, so we’d expect to see the initial effect of those payments kick in during the last five-year chunk of data I’ve looked at here. We’ve already seen that there’s been no increase in the number of newly-promoted clubs heading up to the Premier League, despite an upturn in newly-relegated sides bouncing back. So surely this means there’s a gulf opening up between the haves and have-nots? How can the sides coming up from League One expect to compete against the former big boys?

Actually, they’re doing better than ever – as per this graph.

There has been a clear upswing in the five-year performance of newly-relegated sides compared with the late-70s to mid-80s. However, the sides that were promoted from League One between 2007-08 and 2011-12 have averaged higher league positions in the subsequent five years than any other five-year period in the 40 seasons from 1972-73 to 2011-12. This seems surprising, but it shouldn’t be when you consider how the likes of Norwich, Swansea, Southampton, and Bournemouth have prospered recently.


This table shows the performance of all the sides who have managed to go from the third tier to the top flight in that time period. 14 teams managed it in the 20 years before the Premier League era; 12 shot up the leagues in the first 20 years of the same; and Bournemouth have balanced out Wigan since then too.

Notice that although there’s some darker green in the bygone era – particularly Watford, who combined Elton John’s riches with Graham Taylor’s mastery of the pressing game to achieve an incredible second-place finish in the 1982-83 season – there is also a lot more yo-yoing in that time, with a good number of those who managed to reach the top flight sliding back down after just one or two seasons. By contrast, in the Premier League era, teams seem to stick around a bit longer, with Manchester City, Swansea, Southampton and Bournemouth still gracing the Premier League with their presence and at least three of them seem very likely to remain into next season.

You probably noticed the curious crossover of the orange and blue lines in the mid-80s on all the graphs (if you’re still with me), representing a five-year span when the teams coming up from the Third Division outperformed the sides who dropped out of the First Division. As we’ve seen, this was the result of two trends: a hell of a lot of teams Doing a Leeds 20 years before it was cool; and a number of sides, like Watford and Wimbledon, who smashed the glass ceiling on their way to collecting league runner-up places and FA Cup winners medals.

Look again at the charts and you’ll see that things in the 1970s were statistically very much as they are now. What happened in the mid-80s was an aberration, not the norm. But it happened just long enough ago and over a broad enough period of time (remember that we’re looking at five-year trends, so this runs from 1982 to 1992) that nearly everyone currently working in football – in all capacities, including the media – will have either grown up, played or managed during this period.

Nostalgia is already a powerful enough force to make everything think they lived through a golden age, but in terms of league table mobility, everyone between the ages of 30 and 70 really did. What they forget is that sides were capable of Doing a Leeds back then too. Brian Clough took Derby County to the European Cup semi-finals in 1973, but by 1984 they were playing in the Third Division.

Although the seemingly growing influence of money on a team’s fortunes leaves a sour taste, relegation is relegation and stagnation is stagnation – it’s no easier to take just because your team happen to be generally rubbish rather than because of financial mismanagement or economic inequality.

The parachute payments have increased so massively from this year due to the ever-increasing TV deal, so we need to keep our eyes open, but the recent heroics of Leicester City, Southampton, Bournemouth and, currently, Huddersfield suggest that money still isn’t totally everything even in one of sport’s richest leagues.

It’s economically possible to have good social mobility without anyone losing out; sport isn’t the same, because league tables are zero sum. What do we want? A competitive league in which anyone can prosper but in which teams can also more freely plummet through the divisions? Or to ensure England’s biggest don’t ever suffer the ignominy of Doing a Leeds at the expense of the smaller clubs? We can’t have both.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter here