So as Brighton approach another season in the Premier league a topic that will no doubt be discussed at length is the concept of “Second Season Syndrome”. For those who are unaware of this concept “Second season syndrome” is simply put: where a team fails to match the achievements of the first season after promotion in the season that follows, usually leading to relegation. The reasons for this occurring have been hypothesised as ranging from increased pressure resulting from heightened expectations to decreased motivation and complacency after achieving or exceeding a club’s expectations in its first season.
To be clear a “syndrome” can be defined as: a group of symptoms that are consistently occurring together. Suggesting Second Season Syndrome would equate to a regularly occurring trend for teams in their second season. Therefore, in this blog I will analyse the historic data to see if this syndrome exists, specifically within the Premier League.
According to anecdote the examples of this theory appear to be numerous but for me there are two that stick out. First Ipswich town who finished 5th in their first season in the top flight in the 2000/01 season and qualified for Europe, only to finish 13 places lower and be relegated the following season. Furthermore, Reading finished 8th in their first ever top flight season back in 2006/07 but dropped ten places to finish 18th the following season to be relegated back to the Championship.
However, there are of course examples of teams who have by contrast drastically improved on their first season performance in their second season. Leicester City famously won the league in their second season after promotion, whilst last season Burnley finished 7th and qualified for European competition. Both improving significantly on their first season league position.
But are either or both of these examples of anomalies or a rather sign of a greater trend?
Findings and analysis
I have looked at the performance of teams in their second season in the top flight following promotion to see if we can prove or disprove this theory, basing a team’s overall performance on their end of season league position. I looked at this using two fairly definitive measurements of second season syndrome. The proportion of team that were relegated in their second season, and the movement in position of a team from its first to its second season.
To do this I looked at the Premier League from 95/96 to date. The reason I did this was because for this period the top level contained 20 teams and 3 were promoted and 3 were relegated. I appreciate football began before this period but it would be an unfair year-on-year comparison as a result.
Furthermore, much has changed since the start of the premier league, particularly with the factor of ever increasing Sky tv revenue, which makes comparing the current day performances to performances before the advent of the Premier League difficult.
My analysis shows:
- Since 95/96 – 13% of teams relegated were in their 2nd season (compared to 42% in first season).
- In the last 10 years – 13% of teams relegated were in their 2nd season (compared to 33% in first season)
- Since 95/96 – teams on average finish 1 place lower than they did in their first season (0.86) with a median movement of a one place drop.
- In the last 10 years – teams on average finish 1 place higher than they did in their first season (1.22)
- Standard deviation is a statistical measure which shows the spread of data within a dataset, the higher the deviation the higher the number. The standard deviation of the change in second season performance compared to the first season is just above 5 (5.4).
Whilst the examples of teams performing significantly worse in their second season are apparent, there is no clear evidence of a trend. Furthermore, there are as many examples of successful second seasons as there are unsuccessful.
The generally accepted hypothesis appears to be that a team’s second season is harder than the first, however the data here shows you are almost four times as likely to be relegated in your first season as your second.
Whilst a small decrease in average position of teams in the Premier league from first to second was found over the course of the period studied, there was no clear trend.
In fact, the standard deviations of the change in second season performance compared to the first of 5.4 shows there are large swings in 2nd season performance from one team to another. For instance during the period studied, whist Ipswich dropped 13 places year on year, Leicester went up 13 places year on year. As you can see from the final graph there are as many outliers on both sides of the deviations, which ensures this doesn’t skew the average significantly enough to affect the findings.
Ultimately Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle fans will be glad to see my analysis shows no definitive trend either way. The data shows a team’s 2nd season performance is ultimately more dependent on each club circumstances and the fact it’s their 2nd season doesn’t necessarily equate to a drop-in performance.
Ipswich for example had to contend with the additional strain on resources of extra games in the form of European competition in the season they were relegated. Leicester and Burnley however, went from a first season of relatively narrow survival to a second season of great success. Second seasons appear to only be a hinderance in certain circumstances.
These are of course outliers, the more common movement year on year was a fall of one place, with 50% of the year on year movement between a three-place fall and a one place rise in end of season league position. Whilst a small fall in average final league position suggests a second season may be on average marginally harder, a small movement such as this in a game of small margins such as football, hardly equates to a “syndrome” of such widespread notoriety.
In fact, in the last ten seasons the trend of second season performance has moved from a small decrease in year on year league position to a small increase, something that seems logical to me. As a team’s become more experienced and established in the top flight you’d expect their league position to rise. Furthermore, with the level of analysis that takes place at Premier league clubs now it’s not unexpected that the surprise factor of newly promoted teams may have been lost or at least diminished.
So, whilst some will refer to second season syndrome it appears to me to be a fictional concept designed in an attempt to try to create the narrative of a trend that doesn’t really exist. Many clubs in fact perform similarly or better to how they did in their first season and as already mentioned, where this isn’t the case there are often extenuating circumstances.
The clear trend is if you survive your first season you are between three and four times as likely to survive relegation in your second, many Premier League teams key goal. A trend that should fill Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton fans with confidence. Furthermore, the general trend is that every season you survive you’re then more likely to survive the following season.
My club Brighton appear to me to be a stable club that picked up points consistently over the course of the previous season and one that is more than capable of meeting and even improving on last season’s performance. Ultimately though the Premier league is a toughly fought division and time will tell where we end up come May and whether my hunch is correct.