This is a new series that looks at some of the unsung aspects of football that don’t necessarily get the shout outs and the column inches among the glitz and glamour of the modern game.
Whether it’s lesser-valued trophies, unheralded officials and rules, unfancied formations and tactics, or simply half-time pies, this series will be about recognising all the things, big and small, that make football the beautiful game.
This week, I’d like to talk about promoted teams. Teams in their first season in the top tier, coming off the back of a long slog of a Championship promotion campaign.
There’s something particularly romantic about the idea of a newly promoted team working their way into the Premier League fold, taking a few scalps of the big guns along the way, and maybe even having a run at the top half or European spots.
Perhaps it’s the element of the unknown or the new, but having a team arrive in the PL, with a point to prove and a lack of fear; a ream of new faces hungry for the challenge, is one of the most exhilarating aspects of a new season.
That’s exactly what it looks like Wolves will be doing this season. Already with two wins and a draw, and playing some scintillating football to boot (with an incredible 30 shots vs Burnley), they look the most likely of the new crop to take the league by storm.
Last season, Brighton, in their first ever Premier League campaign, managed to immediately establish themselves as a solid looking outfit.
Before that, we had the likes of Bournemouth and Burnley making themselves very much at home on the highest of stages.
But what about the teams who manage to do even better?
Throughout Premier League history, there have been a few real wonder stories of promoted teams overachieving in their first campaign in the big time.
Back in 2006/7, a Reading side that contained such luminaries as Kevin Doyle and Leroy Lita achieved an 8th placed finish, just one point off the Uefa Cup. Having absolutely demolished the Championship the previous year, finishing 1st on 106 points, Reading took the step up to the Premier League fully in their stride that first year. But it wasn’t to last, and the following season, they dropped back down into the Championship.
For a more prolonged success story, we must look further back, all the way to the 99/00 season. Having won the Championship (then called Division 1) the year before, Sunderland moved into the top league high on confidence.
Having a strike partnership as potent as Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn (the former scoring a whopping 30 goals that season) certainly helped the Black Cats achieve an amazing 7th place that season.
Sunderland stayed in the top tier for four seasons, but never quite recaptured that first season magic.
Another promoted team whose star shone bright and fast was the Ipswich Town side of the 00/01 season.
Somehow, George Burley managed to take a team that included Titus Bramble to within three points of qualifying for the Champions League in their first season in the top division.
Ultimately, the Tractor Boys had to settle for a Uefa Cup spot, and the extra workload of playing in Europe ended up costing them their Premier League place the following year.
Both Newcastle and Nottingham Forest managed to achieve 3rd place finishes in their first seasons back in the top tier. Newcastle would go on to become a fixture of 90s Premier League football, even challenging for the title on occasion. Forest on the other hand never really recovered from selling their star asset, Stan Collymore, the year after their 3rd place finish, and since being relegated in 1999, they’ve yet to return to the Premier League.
The story of promoted teams exceeding expectations, then, appears to be one of nearly-men — doing much better than predicted at the start of the campaign, but eventually faltering at the last hurdle, or in the following seasons.
The exception to that rule is Blackburn Rovers.
In the inaugural Premier League season, Blackburn had been promoted to the division with a similar story to Wolves this year — a new owner and an all-conquering promotion campaign the season prior, saw Rovers looking to capitalise on their place in the newly-moneyed top division.
A fourth-placed finish that first season was an outstanding achievement, ultimately missing out on Europe by only 1 point.
The following season, they did even better. As Manchester United’s closest challengers for the title, they eventually finished in 2nd, eight points behind the champions.
And then they did the unthinkable. Until Leicester’s recent miracle season, the 1994–5 Blackburn title win was the biggest shock in Premier League history.
Though this was a team oozing quality, with the likes of Alan Shearer, Tim Sherwood, Graeme Le Saux and Colin Hendry at their peak, it was still an unbelievable turn up for the books to see a team that had only been in the top league for three seasons go on to win it.
It would be the equivalent of Wolves winning the league in a couple of years’ time. Not entirely unthinkable, but not many would put money on it.
Blackburn Rovers may be the defining overachieving promoted team, but this is a trope that permeates Premier League folklore.
Even in these times of the big six getting bigger, there’s still a place for a plucky underdog to make their mark. Just look at Leicester.
Here’s hoping there’s another similar fairytale sometime soon.