Second season syndrome

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Second season syndrome is the now-common phrase that is used to describe a downturn in fortunes for a football club in the second season after its promotion – particularly if the first season after promotion had brought a strong finish.[1] The syndrome could be seen in the cases of Swansea City (1981–1983) and Millwall (1988–1990).

Second season syndrome has also been used to describe other sports where a successful first season has taken place, followed by a poor second season straight after[2] as well as with individual sportspersons.[3] In the US, this event (more commonly applied to athletes than teams) is known as a sophomore slump. Second season syndrome is best explained by regression to the mean.


Also when a player scores many goals in his first season but doesn't score as often in his second season e.g. Papiss Cissé of Newcastle United, who scored 13 goals in 14 appearances in his debut season but followed it up with only 8 strikes in 36 appearances in the following season. And in the 1980s, Frank McAvennie scored 26 goals from 41 First Division appearances for West Ham United, but scored just seven times in 36 league games the season after.


  • Swansea City had reached the First Division for the first time in 1981, achieving the fastest rise from the Fourth Division to the First, with three promotions in four seasons. They began the 1981-82 season with a 5-1 win over Leeds United, and led the First Division at several stages during the season before finishing sixth. A year later, however, they were relegated to the Second Division. A second successive relegation followed, and Swansea's descent from the summit would prove to be as rapid as their climb, with a third relegation in four seasons seeing them return to the Fourth Division in 1986, shortly after the club had almost gone out of business.


  • Millwall were promoted to the First Division for the first time in their history when they clinched the Second Division title in 1988. They emerged as title contenders in the 1988-89 season, rarely being outside the top five places in the First Division for most of the season, before failing to win any of their final 10 league games and finishing 10th – the lowest position the club had occupied all season. They began the 1989-90 season well, going top of the league in mid September. However, they won just two more league games all season and were relegated in bottom place with several games of the season still remaining.


  • Brighton, who had spent four seasons in the First Division from 1979 and been losing FA Cup finalists in 1983, made a surprise challenge for a return to the First Division during the 1990-91 season, ahead of several more favoured clubs including Newcastle United. They finished sixth in the league and qualified for the playoffs, but were beaten by Notts County in the final and missed out on a return to the top flight. During the summer of 1991, however, their top scorer Mike Small was sold to West Ham United, and Brighton struggled in his absence, being relegated a mere 12 months after they had almost been promoted.


In 1992-93, another case of "second season syndrome" notably affected a club in the second tier of English football.

  • Cambridge United, elected to the Football League only in 1970, had reached the Second Division after just eight years in the league, and survived there for six seasons, before back-to-back relegations saw them drop back down to the Fourth Division in 1985. Another run of success had seen the club begin the 1990s with back-to-back promotions, returning them to the Second Division for the 1991-92 season and quickly emerging as contenders for a unique third successive promotion, topping the Second Division more than six weeks until Boxing Day. Cambridge's excellent form suggested that the forthcoming new FA Premier League would include a very unlikely founding member. They finally achieved their best ever final position of fifth place in the Second Division and took their place in the playoffs. After drawing their semi-final first leg with Leicester City, Cambridge were then beaten 5-0 in the return leg at Filbert Street and their dream of a place in the new Premier League was over. Top scorer Dion Dublin was then sold to Manchester United, manager John Beck was sacked in October 1992, and Cambridge finished the 1992-93 season relegated from the new Division One, and another relegation two years later sent them down to the league's basement division. A brief respite in 1999 saw Cambridge promoted back to Division Two, before another setback in 2002 saw them drop back into Division Three. In 2005, with the club in danger of going out of business with huge debts, Cambridge were relegated from the Football League – just over a decade after coming close to being founder members of the Premier League, leaving everyone at the club wondering how differently things could have panned out had promotion been achieved in 1992, even if Cambridge hadn't been able to establish themselves as a top flight club. After relegation from the Football League, a new owner secured the club's future and a return to the Football League was finally achieved in 2014.


  • Middlesbrough were promoted to the Premier League as Division One champions in 1995, and started the following season in fine form, occupying fourth place in late October and looking like serious contenders for a European place. Despite a dismal run of mid-season form which saw them lose 10 out of 11 games, they still finished 12th in the final table – comfortably clear of the relegation zone. That summer, manager Bryan Robson paid some of the highest transfer fees of that era for high-profile foreign stars, including Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson. The new signings performed well and despite reaching the final of both domestic cups, Middlesbrough were relegated the following season in 19th place.[4] This was helped in no part by the Premier League docking three points off the club for failing to fulfill a fixture, which otherwise would have seen Middlesbrough avoid relegation by two points, and sent Coventry City down instead. As it was, Coventry managed a now-familiar late escape from relegation and would survive for four more seasons in the Premier League.[5]


  • In 1999, Bradford City returned to the top flight after an absence of 77 years, after coming second to Sunderland. The Bantams stayed up the following season, with a then Premier League record low of 36 points. A 1–0 victory on the final day of the season over Liverpool with a David Wetherall goal ensured City and not Wimbledon stayed up. However just days after the season finished, manager Paul Jewell sensationally left the club and was succeeded by his assistant Chris Hutchings. Hutchings struggled and was sacked after just one win from his first 12 league games. He was replaced by Jim Jefferies but City remained in the bottom three for the rest of the season. Relegation was confirmed several games before the end of the season with a 2–1 defeat at Everton, with both Benito Carbone and Robbie Blake missing penalties. Bradford's costly attempts to reach and survive in the Premier League took a toll on their finances, and combined with the collapse of ITV Digital, almost saw the club go out of business in the summer of 2002. Another relegation followed in 2004, and for six seasons from 2007, the club was in the league's fourth tier.[4]


  • Ipswich Town gained promotion to the Premier League in 2000 as Division One playoff winners, and in their first season back at the highest level, they finished fifth to gain UEFA Cup qualification and their manager George Burley was voted Manager of the Year. But they won just one of their opening 17 Premier League fixtures the following season, leaving them bottom of the table in early December. A run of seven wins from eight games looked to have saved them as they stood 12th at the end of January, but another setback pushed them back into the drop zone and defeat to Liverpool on the final day of the season confirmed their relegation. A slow start to the 2002-03 season cost manager George Burley his job after eight years in charge, and 16 years later Ipswich have still yet to return to the Premier League.[4]


  • Manchester City reached the Premier League as Division One champions in 2002, and finished ninth the following year – their highest finish since 1993. But the following season they finished 16th, having only secured top-flight survival in the penultimate game. Several more seasons of mediocrity followed before a takeover deal in 2008 saw City become one of the richest clubs in the world, and has seen them win several major trophies – including three Premier League titles.


  • West Ham United were promoted to the Premier League as Football League Championship playoff winners in 2005. The following year they finished ninth in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final, where only a late equaliser and a penalty shoot-out triumph by Liverpool prevented them from winning their first major trophy since 1980. But a dismal start to the following season saw Alan Pardew sacked in December, and as late as March they were 10 points adrift of safety. But a dramatic upturn in fortunes, engineered by a core group of players including Argentine striker Carlos Tevez, saw them beat the drop and finish 15th.[6]
  • Wigan Athletic reached the top division of English football for the first time ever in 2005, and were many people's favourites for an immediate return to the Championship. But they were in the top six for much of the first half of the season, occupying second place in late October, and finished 10th in the final table. They also reached their first ever major domestic cup final, reaching the League Cup final but losing 4–0 to Manchester United. The following season brought a major struggle, and Wigan only managed to stay up on goal difference with a surprise away win over Sheffield United, who were relegated instead.[7]


  • Reading were promoted as champions from the Championship in 2006 with a record amount of points (106) and enjoyed a very successful first season in the Premier League, where the team finished 8th, narrowly missing out on qualification for the UEFA Cup by one position. Reading's second season however was different in that the team struggled to get out of the lower half of the Premier League table. After a 2–1 defeat to newly promoted Sunderland, manager Steve Coppell admitted that Reading were suffering from second season syndrome. This was confirmed following their relegation on the final day of the season, despite beating Derby County 4-0 away from home, with Fulham staying up instead on goal difference. [8]


  • Hull City were promoted in the play-offs in 2008 to reach the top flight of English football for the first time in their history. They enjoyed an excellent start to the season, with shock wins away at Arsenal among other games, and were third in the league in late October with 20 points after 9 games, which would account for well over half their final total. Their form declined thereafter with one win from their next seven, but as late as early December, having played 16 games they stood fifth in the table with 26 points. However, after that Hull took just one win from their remaining 22 games, and a final total of just 35 points, which was enough for them to survive by a single point. This poor form continued into the following season, with manager Phil Brown sacked, and Hull ended the season relegated. Hull repeated the feat in 2013-14, and 2014-15, having also reached the 2014 FA Cup Final after staying clear of relegation trouble, only to be relegated on the final day of the next season.


  • Birmingham City F.C. were promoted in 2009 after grabbing a second-place finish in The Championship. In the 2009–10 season Birmingham managed a ninth placed finish (one of the highest finishes in their history) with 50 points and a 15-game unbeaten run along the way. However the following season saw Birmingham relegated to the Championship after losing 2–1 to Tottenham Hotspur on the last day, despite winning the League Cup in February, the club's first major trophy since 1963.


  • QPR were promoted as Championship champions in 2011, after an absence of 15 years. Their entire season was one of struggle, and finished in 17th place after losing to Manchester City on the final day and allowing City to take the Premier League title. As this was only the second time all promoted teams had avoided relegation, QPR had hope to stay in the Premier League longer, but the following season they were relegated in bottom place after drawing with rivals Reading, with the other two surviving promoted sides from the previous season, Norwich and Swansea, both staying up again. [9][10]


  1. ^ Cheetham, Matt (2007-09-17). "Second Season Syndrome..." (pdf). Barefacts. University of Surrey. p. 31. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  2. ^ Rae, Richard (2007-10-22). "Hamilton too smart for second-season syndrome". Guardian Unlimited. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  3. ^ Meadows, Paul (2007-10-03). "'Second Season Syndrome' hits Tottenham striker". FansFC. Archived from the original on 2007-11-13. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  4. ^ a b c Higgins, Toby (2007-03-02). "Only Thing Harder Than Going Up Is Staying Up". Offsidemedia. Archived from the original on 2007-12-03. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  5. ^ Duxbury, Nick (1997-01-15). "Middlesbrough rocked by three-point penalty". The Independent. Newspaper Publishing. Retrieved 2016-03-16. 
  6. ^ Austin, Simon (2007-07-11). "Reading's big task". BBC Sport. BBC. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  7. ^ Hulott, David (2006-11-05). "Wigan recovering from second season syndrome". Square Football. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  8. ^ BBC Staff (2007-09-17). "Second season syndrome alive and well". BBC Sport. BBC. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  9. ^ "Premier League - does second season syndrome exist? - Daily Mail Online". Mail Online. 14 August 2012. Retrieved 25 April 2016. 
  10. ^ "Second-season woe". Sky Sports. Retrieved 25 April 2016.