Is second season syndrome a misleading prognosis?

As another Premier League season gets underway footballing cliches would have it that the newly-promoted sides and those promoted sides that survived last season (Hull and Crystal Palace) will be among the favourites for relegation. For the former, the gulf in quality – and levels of investment available – will be the key obstacles; while the latter will have to fend off that terrible affliction, ‘second season syndrome’.

But do these cliches stand up to scrutiny?

Hit Row Z has analysed data for all Premier League seasons between 1996/97 and 2012/13. The focus on the analysis has been to determine how teams performed in their initial Premier League season following promotion and, for those apparently lucky enough to survive, how they fared in their second season.

The key observations from this analysis are as follows:

Relegations – if we look at relegations in the first instance across all 17 seasons in our sample, we can note the following:

  • More promoted teams than not have survived their first season back in the Premier League -of the 51 teams promoted to the Premier League over this period 22 were relegated in the first season (43%), 29 not (57%)
  • Surviving the second season may be easier – of the 29 teams that survived their first season in the Premier League, three quarters of them also survived their second season

Based on this it is reasonable to conclude that while the challenge for newly-promoted clubs is sizeable, it is not insurmountable. Perhaps most interestingly, the data actually suggests that – in both absolute and relative terms – fewer teams actually get relegated in their second season

Average points – undertaking a comparison of the average points haul of promoted teams in their first and second seasons indicates the following:

  • On average, newly promoted teams (almost!) meet the ‘magic 40’ mark – the 51 teams promoted teams included in our sample averaged a total of 39.8 points in their first season – as previously demonstrated on HRZ, the average points of the team finishing in 18th position in the league is actually somewhere between 34 and 36 points (read more on what it takes to survive here.
  • Promoted teams actually tend to improve in the second season – the 29 teams who survived their first season to fight another day averaged a total of 43.6 points in their second season – almost four more than the average points haul of promoted teams in their first season.

One of the implications of the above is that the average newly-promoted team does yield enough points to survive in the Premier League. However, it is worth noting that the range of points gained by promoted teams does vary considerably, from Derby’s pitiful haul of just 11 points in 2007/08 to Ipswich Town’s hugely impressive tally of 66 points (!!) in 2000/01

With regard to ‘second season syndrome’, the information presented here again suggests that the average promoted team actually performs better in their second season than they do in their first

Average points (two consecutive Premier League seasons) – that said, we should not get too carried away. Further analysis of the performance of the 29 teams who played at least two consecutive Premier League seasons following promotion also suggests the following:

  • Season one – the teams in our revised sample averaged 46.3 points in their first season. This is materially greater than the average achieved for all promoted teams in their first season what 39.8
  • Season two – 17 (60%) of the 29 teams gained fewer points in their second season than they did in their first. On average, as stated previously, these teams averaged 43.6 points in their second season – less than three points difference.

So what can we draw from this analysis?

Firstly, given that over 40% of promoted teams have gone down in their first season in the Premier League (that is, more than one in three), it is likely that one or more of the relegation slots will be occupied by either Leicester City, QPR or Burnley.

Secondly, it would appear that ‘second season syndrome’ may just be a case of man flu – something which we are led to believe should be more significant at first glance but in reality tends to be exaggerated and does not stand up to too much scrutiny. Even where clubs do perform less well in their second season, on average it is the equivalent of winning one fewer game, and is unlikely to lead to relegation. In fact, history shows that most promoted clubs tend to consolidate their position in the Premier League in their second season – think of Newcastle United, Sunderland or West Ham, for example.

Fans of Hull and Crystal Palace may actually have less to fear this season than the media or popular conception might have them believe.

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