A Brief History of Premier League Relegation


Once members of the Premier League, Oldham Athletic now ply their trade in League One. (Credit: Diego Sideburns – Flickr Creative Commons)

Earlier, I profiled the teams currently battling it out at the bottom of the table trying to avoid Premier League relegation. I hinted at what an awful slog it would be to face the drop and I thought I’d dig a bit deeper and show just how difficult it is to climb back up.

First, a little bit of Premier League relegation history; since the 1995-96 season, the bottom three teams have been relegated to the second division (now referred to as the Championship). That was the first season that the Premier League had 20 clubs, as prior to that, upon its founding for the 1992-93 season, 22 clubs had competed. Following the 1994-95 season, in order to move to 20 clubs, four were relegated to, and just two promoted from the Championship.

So, with that little nugget of information, you can add up that in the history of the Premier League, there have been 22 seasons before the current one, with 67 relegation spots over that time (three per season plus a fourth in 1994-95). That’s a lot of churn and turnover for a league, which is what keeps it so competitive and compelling at both ends of the table. Title fights are great to watch (though this season looks pretty much in the bag for Chelsea), but Premier League relegation has so much more at stake for the health of the club, its fans, and its future.

That’s a lot of churn for a league, which is what makes it so compelling.

It’s interesting to note that it’s not the same teams necessarily coming and going every year. Those 67 relegation spots have been occupied by 37 clubs. Some of these clubs are historical footnotes, such as current League One (third division) clubs Swindon Town and Oldham Athletic that were both relegated from the Premier League in 1993-94.

On the other side are 24 clubs that have been relegated and eventually returned to the Premier League. 20 of those 24 have later gone on to be relegated again, sometimes more than twice. When you’re describing an entire division’s worth of clubs that not only have been to the Premier League, but have been relegated, AND RETURNED, you’re showing that league mobility is possible (though underscoring how many other clubs have similar ambitions).

Examples of these so-called yo-yo clubs include Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Middlesbrough, Norwich City, Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, and West Bromwich Albion (all relegated three times). Crystal Palace have actually been relegated four times, and it’s not looking good for Leicester City, who might also be dropped for the fourth time if their current standings hold.

Crystal Palace are the only club to have been relegated four times from the Premier League, while Leicester City look on track to match that record this season. (Credit: docteur es sport – Flickr Creative Commons)

Out of those 24 previously relegated clubs that have returned to the Premier League, 11 are currently in the top flight. But 8 of those 11 are in the bottom half of the table. Taking a quick look down at the Championship top six (the top two are automatically promoted, while the third through sixth placed teams have a play-off), five of those clubs are previously relegated sides from the Premier League. Trying to stay up is a challenge, and returning even more so.

The numbers don’t lie, knowing that as a club you’re battling with other clubs that have been there and done that before. These are brutal campaigns and it’s hard to imagine many clubs being able to sustain themselves over the longterm without taking the next step up (becoming a Premier League regular, like Southampton) or down (becoming a Championship mid table club like Charlton Athletic).

When it comes to success, only two relegated teams have ever won the Premier League title: Blackburn Rovers (who won it once, before they were relegated twice), and Manchester City (who won it twice, after being relegated twice). It’s easy to bet on City winning another title before being relegated again.

It’s easy to bet on City winning another title before being relegated again.

Strangely, only two clubs have ever been promoted to the Premier League and not been relegated (so far), and by playing very different styles, that is Stoke City and Swansea City.

Finally, looking back at that first Premier League season in 1992-93, since then there are only seven clubs who have never been relegated, including Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur. The seventh? Aston Villa, currently battling to avoid that drop.

So, uh, let’s try not to get relegated, okay?

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