Picture the scene: it’s early December, 1992; it’s the fourth round of the Coca Cola League Cup, and Sheffield Wednesday are playing QPR in an all Premier League tie. Wednesday win the day 4-0, on their way to reaching the cup final, where they would be beaten by Arsenal.
Now fast forward four years: it’s getting towards the business end of the 1995-96 Premier League season and QPR, threatened by relegation, travel to Hillsborough to meet high flying Sheffield Wednesday. Rangers come away with a 3-1 win, but would go on to be relegated at the end of the season anyway, beginning a 15 year exile from the top flight.
Eight years later, it’s the final day of the 2003-04 season in League One; Sheffield Wednesday host QPR, who need just a point to gain promotion back to the Championship. Ian Holloway’s Rangers triumph 3-1 and return to the Championship. Wednesday would also be promoted, albeit via the play offs.
As you can see, fans of Queen’s Park Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday have had to endure many ups and downs over the past two decades, including cup finals, as well as multiple relegations and promotions.
On Saturday, the new Championship season kicks off, and the two clubs meet again – one newly relegated, the other still trying to re-establish itself as a major force in English football after 13 years outside of the top flight.
The Championship: a division of fallen giants
Sheffield Wednesday and QPR are not the only ones. In the opening round of fixtures, seven of the 12 Championship matches are being contested by teams who have at one stage in the last two decades been Premier League regulars, cup finalists or European competitors, but who upon being most recently relegated, have failed to bounce straight back immediately to the big time.
Consider Middlesbrough – the Teesside club won the League Cup in 2004, reached the last 16 of the UEFA Cup the following season, and finished 7th in the Premier League that year. In 2006 they conquered the mighty Juventus on the way to the UEFA Cup final, which they ultimately lost to Sevilla, 4-0.
But just three years after competing in a major European final in Eindhoven, the club was relegated. Five years on, and three managers later, they remain outside of the top flight.
Their opponents on Saturday, Leicester City, triumphed twice in the League Cup in the late 1990s and achieved four successive top ten finishes, but were relegated to the Championship soon after. A one season return to the Premier League has been followed an eight year exile, which saw the club slip into League One in 2008. Returning at the first attempt, they have spent the subsequent five years trying to mount a challenge for promotion, but have consistently come up short.
Bolton, Birmingham, Nottingham Forest and most famously Leeds United, are also among clubs who have endured falls from relative glory in recent years, with each failing to bounce straight back to the Premier League.
But why does this happen – why haven’t these established Premier League clubs made short work of the Championship?
Increased competition and higher stakes
First, contrary to the popular belief that relegated teams must be favourite for promotion, history tells us that most relegated teams do not immediately return to the top flight, nor have they tended to during the whole of the Premier League era.
Of the 64 teams that have been relegated from the Premier League in the last 21 seasons, only 15 have managed to come straight back up the following season. That suggests your team has about a 23% chance of bouncing back immediately – less than one in four.
This perhaps reflects the fact that relegated teams often face significant upheaval on and off the pitch as they react to relegation, sometimes changing their manager, losing their best players, or both.
Second, this task is becoming increasingly difficult as the Championship has become a more competitive division. During the first ten years a total of nine teams bounced straight back up, however during the last 11 seasons that number has dropped to six, with West Ham being the only team to come straight back up in the last three seasons.
Peterborough’s tally of 54 points last season was the highest a club has achieved while still being relegated from the Championship. Just 14 points separated a team that went down and one which made the play offs, illustrating clearly how close teams at the top and at the bottom are, and therefore how tough the league is to escape from.
This increased competition raises the prospect that a relegated side could spend years in the Championship, slowly eroding any advantage they may have had – in terms of squad depth or other resources – upon being relegated. Given how significant the financial rewards for promotion now are, this in turn can lead to more frequent managerial changes as clubs seek to restore their fortunes, as well as the potential for financial decline, ownership changes and fan dissatisfaction or apathy.
More often than not these factors can lead to longer transition periods, greater turbulence, and stalled progress. In the worst case scenarios, it leads to a more sustained decline, and a further relegation.
Looking ahead to the new season
QPR and Sheffield Wednesday head in to this weekend’s Championship kick-off determined to climb out of Championship this season.
Rangers, alongside Wigan and Reading, have invested in their playing staff, and have reshaped their squads to compete in the second tier following relegation. But they have done so knowing that their rivals are closely matched, and that history is not on their side.
Middlesbrough and Leicester City, Reading and Ipswich, Derby and Blackburn, and Burnley and Bolton, each line up against one another equally keen to make this their last season outside of the top flight, and restore past glories.
It will be another hugely enthralling and unpredictable season in the Championship this year. But one thing we can safely predict is that the competition will be close, and the margins between success and failure very small indeed.
Also, read Ben’s new Premier League Survival Guide here.