The close season has flown by for everyone but it will have felt particularly short for Alex McLeish and Mick McCarthy. Their clubs, Birmingham and Wolves, finished ninth and 15th respectively last season, an admirable overachievement. Their reward? A date with the Grim Reaper of the Premier League: second season syndrome.
The concept of the sophomore slump, players struggling in their second full season, has always existed, but in recent times we have also become familiar with the collective problem of second-season syndrome. The most dramatic examples in the Premier League involve Ipswich and Reading.
Ipswich finished fifth in 2000-01 and were relegated the following year; Reading were eighth in 2006-07 and also went down a year later. But what is more striking is the extent to which second season syndrome has debilitated teams. A statistical analysis shows that it has increased so much as to become almost unavoidable.
Of the 50 teams promoted to the Premier League since its inception in 1992 (excluding last year's promoted sides, because they have not yet had a second season), just five have increased both their points total and their position second time round: Blackburn (1992-94), Derby (1996-98), Blackburn again (2001-03), Birmingham (2002-04) and, most recently, Stoke (2008-10), an achievement for which Tony Pulis surely didn't get the credit he deserved.
In an equivalent period before the Premier League, from 1975 to 1992, 14 out of 51 promoted sides improved both their position and their points total: a difference of 10% in the Premier League era to 27%. Part of the reason is that, just as second season syndrome has increased, so has first season syndrome: 48% of sides have been relegated in their first Premier League season, as opposed to 18% in the same period in the old Division One.
|No. of teams promoted||51||50|
|No. with more points in second season||17 (33%)||9 (18%)|
|No. with higher place in second season||16 (31%)||5 (10%)|
|No. with more points and higher place||14 (27%)||5 (10%)|
|No. relegated in first season||9 (18%)||24 (48%)|
The figures exclude Birmingham, Wolves and Burnley, who were promoted in 2009 and have not yet had a second season. Sunderland and Birmingham, who were promoted in 1980, achieved higher points totals in their second season, but only because of the switch to three points for a win. In real terms both sides' totals were lower and have been recorded as such for this purpose.
The fact that more teams are relegated straight away obviously means that fewer get a second season in the top flight; yet even among those that do, second season syndrome has increased significantly. Of sides who were not relegated first time round in the Premier League era, only 19% (five out of 26) have improved both their position and points total, as against 33% (14 out of 42) from 1975 to 1992.
|No of teams who had second season||42||26|
|No with more points||17 (40%)||9 (35%)|
|No with higher place||16 (38%)||5 (19%)|
|No with more points and higher place||14 (33%)||5 (19%)|
It's not just that fewer sides have improved in their second season; those improvements, when they have occurred, have also been smaller. In the Premier League era, the biggest jump in terms of points and position was Blackburn's relatively modest leap from 10th (with 46 points) to sixth in 2001-02 (with 60 points) a year later.
In the pre-Premier League era, the leaps were often much greater. The most notable example is Aston Villa, who moved from 16th to fourth in 1976-77 and 17th to second in 1989-90. The following season, Manchester City went from 14th to fourth and Crystal Palace from 15th to third.
Fifteenth is where Wolves finished last season, but surely not even their most optimistic fan will have an eye on third place. In the current climate, with second season syndrome rife, finishing 14th would do them just nicely.