The General Decline of the Underdog

In my first blog I argued that Leicester’s astonishing 40 point improvement last season (over the previous season) was an achievement unrivalled not just in the premier league era, but since the second world war. However, the achievements of three other teams went unmentioned: Spurs in 1950/51, Ipswich in 1961/62 and Nottingham Forest in 1977/78.

On the face of it, these three teams went one better than Leicester – winning the top division in their first season following promotion from the second tier of English football. I didn’t include them in my analysis as I only looked at points accumulated over two consecutive seasons in the top division; newly promoted teams were therefore not accounted for.

In recent years we’ve become used to a familiar story: newly promoted clubs face an uphill struggle for survival and often make an immediate return to the division below[1]. If a club were to win the EPL in their very first season this would surely represent an even greater shock than Leicester’s triumph. So why were Ipswich and Forest able to achieve this in the 60s and 70s? 

It turns out newly promoted teams didn’t always fare so badly, as I shall now demonstrate.

A Widening Gap

Figure 1 shows the total number of points accumulated by newly promoted clubs in their first season in the top division (and only their first season). For instance, the circled points show the points totals of Spurs, Ipswich and Nottingham when each won the league. The black dashed lines show the average number of points that were needed to finish in the top half of the table in each decade.
Figure 1: Total points accumulated by newly promoted teams in their first season in the top division. Dashed lines show the average number of points that were needed to finish in the top half of the table in each decade.    

I find this plot very revealing.  There is a clear downward trend in the points totals (especially in the last thirty years). More importantly, the performance of newly promoted teams clearly degrades relative to the league median . In the first three decades, over 40% of the new teams were finishing in the top half of the table; in the last decade this has dropped to 6%. Similarly, in the first three decades 7% were relegated in their first season; in the last 10 years this has rocketed to 40%.

Up to the mid-1980s, newly promoted sides were about as good as the average top division team; they could expect to finish near the middle of pack, collecting an average of around 50 points. Many were breaking the 60-point mark.  

When they won the league, Spurs collected 35 points more than the new-promotion average, while Ipswich collected 30 more and Nottingham 39. This is comparable with Leicester’s 40-point improvement, but again with the caveat that the former teams played 4 more games per season.

The purpose of this analysis is not to denigrate the achievements of Spurs, Ipswich and Nottingham Forest; it’s simply to demonstrate that the gap in quality between the top two divisions – or perhaps, between the top division and the rest – is much wider. What was once a corridor, has become a chasm. So much so that teams relegated from the EPL receive “parachute payments” to cushion their fall from grace.

Of course, this is all down to money. The breakaway of the EPL from the football league liberated its members to negotiate lucrative TV deals far in excess of those available to the clubs in the divisions below. It’s no surprise that newly-promoted teams need time to adjust to the rarefied atmosphere.

In the pre-EPL era, newly-promoted sides sometimes had the resources to scale the heights; today, they are struggling just to survive.

[1] Which is currently (and somewhat confusingly) called ‘the Championship’.


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