The air from Leeds United’s post-promotion bounce seeped out last season as they experienced the dreaded ‘second-season syndrome’.
Marcelo Bielsa was largely wedded to a high-risk, high-reward approach during his spell at Elland Road which, when in full swing, made Leeds one of the division’s most effective and entertaining sides. But when the chips were down they often resembled a cat on a hot tin roof: out of sorts and stuck in the relegation mud.
A sloppy start to last season was, in fact, a harbinger of what was to come, and not just a hangover from the highs of 2020/21, with Bielsa eventually leaving and making way for Jesse Marsch.
However, Leeds are not be the only club to experience a chastening second season following a stellar first campaign back in the top flight.
Momentum can carry a team a long way post-promotion, allowing teams to over-perform relative to their budget, but as Premier League clubs suss out their tactics and the initial buzz tempers, form can often fall off a cliff and the ever-dreaded ‘second-season syndrome’ comes into full effect.
Below are six such examples in the Premier League era of newly-promoted clubs smashing it in their first season, before hitting a wall the proceeding campaign.
Newly-promoted season: 2000/01 (5th)
Second season: 2001/02 (18th, relegation)
George Burley presided over a highly-successful eight-year spell at Portman Road, which involved the Tractor Boys reaching the old Division One play-offs four seasons in a row, before he finally guided the club to promotion in 2000, beating Barnsley 4-2 in the Wembley showpiece.
In that first season back mingling with the big boys, the Suffolk-based club achieved an almost unthinkable fifth-placed finish, including a League Cup semi-final appearance, while pulling off some huge wins over Liverpool at Anfield, smashing Tottenham 3-0 and drawing with the likes of Arsenal and Man Utd.
That form culminated in the club reaching the UEFA Cup for the first time since 1982 and Burley sealing the Premier League Manager of the Year award. However, the wheels would come off the following season as they struggled to cope with the congested fixture list, crashing out of Europe to an Inter Milan side that included Ronaldo, Clarence Seedorf, Adriano, Javier Zanetti and Alvaro Recoba, while finishing 18th and dropping back out of the Premier League.
Newly-promoted season: 2002/03 (9th)
Second season: 2003/04 (16th)
Before the years of petrodollar wealth and Pep Guardiola, Manchester City were quite the yo-yo club in the nineties and early-noughties. Following relegation in 2001 under Joe Royle, Kevin Keegan was drafted in to get City back up at the first time of asking, and he did just that before consolidating their position in the top flight with a ninth-placed finish, securing qualification for the UEFA Cup (through Fair Play) and winning their first Manchester Derby in over 13 years.
That win over Sir Alex Ferguson’s side ensured summer recruit Peter Schmeichel continued his record of having never been on the losing side in a derby game, while other savvy signings in Nicolas Anelka top scored, and Marc-Vivien Foe went down in history as the last-ever player to score at Maine Road. The following campaign heralded the start of the Etihad era and it largely ended with a whimper as Keegan’s men finished just two places above the relegation zone.
City were knocked out of the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds by now-dissolved Polish side Groclin Dyskobolia, exiting on away goals, while they also endured a run of winning only one game in 18 Premier League and cup matches during the season. Keegan was ultimately dispersed with the following season.
Newly-promoted season: 2005/06 (9th)
Second season: 2006/07 (15th)
After guiding West Ham to promotion via the play-offs in 2005, Alan Pardew would be back at the Millennium Stadium the following year as the Hammers reached the FA Cup final, putting the gloss on a fantastic season back in the top flight. Under Pardew’s stewardship West Ham clinched a top-half finish, became the last side to beat Arsenal at Highbury with a sensational 3-2 win and qualified for the UEFA Cup, owing to their FA Cup final appearance in Cardiff.
The summer offered further hope that West Ham were looking to break the glass ceiling and establish themselves as part of the European furniture especially as they stunned the footballing world by announcing the signings of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. However, that script-defying double swoop proved a poisoned chalice as the club crashed out of Europe to Palermo, battled relegation for most of the campaign, and saw Pardew face the chopping block in mid-December.
The Hammers ultimately alighted on Alan Curbishley and he kept the club in the Premier League on the final day of the campaign in what is now known in East End as “The Great Escape”. Relegated Sheffield United sued the London club over the signings of Tevez and Mascherano, and an FA arbitration panel adjudged that West Ham broke Premier League rules over third-party ownership of players.
There remains bad blood between fans of both clubs to this day, and West Ham vs Sheffield United is now colloquially known as ‘The Carlos Tevez derby’, a sour-blooded rivalry with no love lost.
Newly-promoted season: 2006/07 (8th)
Second season: 2007/08 (18th, relegation)
In 2006, Steve Coppell guided Reading to the club’s first-ever top-flight appearance in English football, and he marked the occasion in style, finishing eighth in their debut Premier League season and, on a personal level, clinching his second successive LMA Manager of the Year accolade, with Sir Alex Ferguson leading the eulogies: “I think it’s totally deserved. It’s a marvellous contribution he’s made.
“And what’s encouraging for the Premiership is that it’s mostly British-based players in his side, with some Irish players thrown in. I think that says a lot for the way he has gathered his team together.”
Despite the success of 2006/07, Coppell too would suffer the wrath of ‘second-season syndrome’ and the Royals crashed out of the division. They lost a club-record eight league games in a row between January and February, including that famous 6-4 reversal at the hands of Spurs in which Dimitar Berbatov netted four times, and confirmed their relegation on the final day of the season.
Newly-promoted season: 2009/10 (9th)
Second season: 2010/11 (18th, relegation)
A runners-up position in the second tier earned Alex McLeish’s men a ticket to the Premier League for the 2009/10 campaign, and the Blues wasted little time in establishing themselves as a genuine threat in the top flight, finishing ninth back in the big time. That success, though, proved a mere flash in the pan and reality struck the following season, as far as the Premier League was concerned anyway.
Birmingham crashed out of the top flight, but not without making a noise. McLeish’s men famously beat Arsenal 2-1 in the League Cup final with goals from Nikola Zigic and Obafemi Martins to put Arsene Wenger’s men to the sword and seal the club a first trophy since 1963. Someone made a deal with the devil which cost Birmingham their top-flight status. Second-season syndrome may have struck in the league, but a shiny piece of silverware is currently embellishing the St Andrew’s trophy cabinet.
Newly-promoted season: 2019/20 (9th)
Second season: 2020/21 (20th, relegation)
Under Chris Wilder, Sheffield United garnered a reputation for their innovative approach to games, playing a positively unique overlapping centre-back system that dumfounded many elite tacticians and culminated in the Blades finish ninth during the 2019/20 season.
The club were expected to kick on in 2020/21, but they were shadow of their former selves and just couldn’t get to grip with the season, which resulted in Wilder setting a record for the worst start in English top-flight history, after losing 12 of the club’s opening 13 games. Inevitably they collected that season’s wooden spoon, with Wilder being replaced by Paul Heckingbottom before the campaign was over.