Sheffield Wednesday, QPR, Manchester City, Wimbledon (aka MK Dons), Leeds, Oldham, Nottingham Forest, Swindon, Leicester, Barnsley, Bradford. Soon to be joined by another two and probably three in Charlton, Southampton and Norwich. All these clubs have tasted the sweet nectar of life in the Premier League only to later sup at the workaday bitterness of League One. In Bradford’s case, even League Two.
If Norwich go down, as seems likely, that’s 14 teams who have played against the best and slipped to the third tier of English football in the last 17 years. In a game full of startling statistics, that seems pretty mind-boggling. It might hearten fans of Saints and Addicks that a decent portion of those teams have at least made it back to the Championship. Indeed, this time last year Leicester were belly-up and now they are like a horny young salmon, leaping back upstream to play with the bigger boys and girls once more.
In a sense, this shows the outstanding strength in depth of the English leagues. Unlikely teams including Bradford, Swindon, Hull, Stoke, Wigan and Reading all made huge strides in the last decade and a half to reach the top of the mountain. Yet it does not take much to find yourself back at base camp in double-quick time.
It can be put down to poor money management. It can be blamed on carelessness and poor decision-making. But the shocking thing this year is that two clubs who have often been held up as excellent examples of how a medium-sized club should be managed are either already down or simply waiting for the trap door to open.
When Sheffield Wednesday, Man City, QPR, Leicester and Leeds fell into League One, the structure at the clubs was poor and all of them had dealt inadequately with the money the EPL gave them. But Charlton and Norwich do not seem to fall into this category. Charlton have cleverly developed a fanbase from all over Kent and steadily improved a stadium that was derelict 20 years ago. Norwich had more than their fair share of problems in the boardroom in the 90s, but they have a city dedicated to the team, a real sense of community and Delia Smith providing heart and soul as well.
For those two clubs, the short term might be unpalatable, but the feeling is that the long term might be rosy. They are sensible clubs. If they cut costs, appoint the right managers and keep expectations sensible, they could return a stronger unit, like Leicester appear to be doing.
Southampton, though, could be a different story. Not so long ago they had a new stadium, Gordon Strachan had taken them to the Cup Final and they were the latest in a long line of clubs hoping to break into the top six of the EPL. Now the money is gone. The stadium is not being filled. The stars of their youth system have almost all been sold in an effort to balance the books. Rumours of a takeover notwithstanding, it seems likely that Andrew Surman and Adam Lallana will now have to be sold as well.
Around this time of year a lot of pundits make long faces and say it’s a shame for this team or that team to go down. They are saying it about Newcastle now, but is it a shame when clubs the size of Southampton are relegated to League One? Would we prefer to see the smaller clubs, like Doncaster or Blackpool, get relegated, to keep the status quo?
I don’t think so. I think it’s a healthy situation that big clubs occasionally taste life in the bottom half of the Football League. It’s good for football that so-called small teams like Peterborough can play at Championship level.
With dreams of winning the Premier League unrealistic for fans of all clubs except perhaps five – six at a push – the dream has perhaps been downshifted to glory in the Championship and a chance to merely get in the ring with the big boys.
The difference this season compared to others is that three clubs who have all played at the top level within the last four years are (probably) heading down. Not only should that be a lesson to clubs currently happy in the Premier League, it should be a warning. There are at least half-a-dozen Premier League clubs who could be facing the same crisis as Southampton in three or four years time.
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