A Blueprint for Premier League Survival
Naturally, there is no firm set of initiatives every club could implement to ensure it consolidates in the top flight after winning promotion from the Championship. Were there such an identifiable formula, it would likely have already been posted for review similarly to Manchester City’s “Bluffer’s Guide” which seems to outline how a gloryhunting fan can jump onto the blue bandwagon properly, after purchasing a new Carlos Tevez home shirt from the online shop of course. So as Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City, and the club emerging victorious from the Championship Playoff Final prepare this summer ahead of a new adventure in the Premier League, each must find its own way given its individual resources.
This does not imply, however, that QPR, Norwich, and the playoff winner have no general guidance on how to stay up. The most recent seasons of Premiership football have demonstrated there are some models of success–success being defined as the ability of a newly promoted side to avoid swift relegation–while some examples might want to be avoided. With a date at Wembley for the FA Cup Final against Manchester City along with a trip to Europe approaching, Tony Pulis and Stoke City are currently the “it” club to examine. When the Potters finally returned to the top flight in 2008 after a twenty-three year absence, they were immediately pegged to go back down. While the other newly promoted side Hull City ascended to lofty heights early in that season only to sink down the table like a stone and avoid immediate relegation by a single point, Stoke maintained an even keel, finishing a somewhat comfortable 12th place finish and putting a “too big to fail” Newcastle in its preordained demotion place instead.
The key for Stoke’s survival in that season–and every season since–has been its form at Fortress Britannia. For the 2008/09 campaign, Pulis’ side took 35 of its 45 overall points at home, recording ten of their twelve total wins at Stoke-on-Trent. With two matches remaining in the current season, the points total looks eerily similar to the one from two years ago. The Potters have thus far earned 34 of their 46 points at the Britannia Stadium, including ten wins.
While this might seem rather elementary, as any successful side will most likely have a favorable home record, it is interesting that Pulis does not just guard the home ground and simply play for the draw away. The fierce defense of the Britannia has been countered by a paltry number of wins and draws on the road, suggesting Stoke City do not just only sit back, satisfied with nicking just a point away from the likes of Manchester United. As opposed to playing a more reserved style or, as was the case for Mick McCarthy and Wolverhampton last term, deciding from the off to give away three points, Pulis has the Potters playing just the same in the opposition’s den as at the Britannia. This philosophy might have been demonstrated in the 3-0 away victory over West Bromwich Albion earlier in this season and possibly laid the groundwork for Stoke’s historic trouncing of Bolton in the FA Cup semi-finals.
What could Norwich or QPR learn from Stoke’s experience? Looking at this season’s Championship play, it appears both the Canaries and Hoops do not concede three points on the road easily, as each sports an identical win/loss/draw record away. Norwich certainly plays as open away from Carrow Road as it does away from the comfy confines, but manager Paul Lambert might need to see about patching some of those defensive leaks during home matches for the coming year. Of the top six Championship sides, Norwich allowed the most goals to the opposition at home, and without having boasted the league’s best offensive attack, the Canaries might well be in the thick of the playoffs rather than being automatically promoted. Queens Park Rangers, on the other hand, looks like it just needs to play Loftus Road just as tough in the top flight as it has done this season in the Championship.
As with all sides new to the top division, though, Stoke City experienced growing pains. Thinking he needed a bit of lace to go with his steel, Pulis used his Premier League-enriched budget to sign striker Tuncay Sanli from a relegated Middlesbrough side for the 2009/10 campaign. While the Turk had been quite good at the Riverside, he stuck out like a sore thumb for Stoke, with Pulis seemingly unable to fit him into the regular XI for league play. Being unable to prove his worth in the Stoke system despite his established goal-scoring prowess in the top flight, Tuncay mostly sat the bench at the Britannia as possibly Stoke’s most expensive subsitute ever. This season, though, Pulis learned from that error in judgement and brought in the hard-charging, bruising mass of a striker that is Kenwyne Jones. His playing style has complimented that of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant quite well. Before his injury, Ricardo Fuller also fit brilliantly into the Stoke system, becoming one of the more feared lads in the league coming off the bench for Pulis. So here, the lesson for QPR and Norwich would be to not be tempted into spending your inherited Premier League windfall on players that might look good on paper but just don’t fit your system.
So Neil Warnock, you might want to rethink your desire to bring in Joe Cole and his massive wage demands while the club cancels its title-winning parade for financial reasons–they might send you the bill.
Speaking of Mr. Warnock, it has been floated about that he might need to take the sack for QPR to survive in the Premier League next season. The idea began circulating after remarks from the man himself, saying “I’m not totally confident they will stick with me. It’s one of those things.” Now, it might seem contrary to terminate the services of a Championship-winning manager, but deciding whether the current gaffer is the one in the right position to keep your club afloat in the Premiership certainly can determine the length of your club’s stay at the top. West Brom is illustrative of this point. Having rebuilt a Baggies side that had been relegated previously, Tony Mowbray’s footballing philosophy guided WBA through to the Championship title in the 2007/08 season with style. The Englishman affirmed that West Brom would continue playing his attractive style of football, even if it meant relegation from the Premiership. Baggies’ ownership stood by Mowbray, and promptly watched its squad one-touch their way back down to the Championship by the end of the 2008/09 campaign.
When the Baggies returned to the top flight this season with Roberto Di Matteo at the helm, there were questions as to whether West Brom’s directors would stick with the young manager if results soured much as they had with Mowbray, possibly perpetuating their yo-yo reputation of patience with managers who instantly manage the club to relegation. Chairman Jeremy Peace answered this query in early February when he terminated Di Matteo after the Baggies’ 3-0 loss to Manchester City sunk West Brom deeper into the relegation zone. In came experience at the top with Roy Hodgson, and West Brom have now taken enough points in these final months to secure first division football for a consecutive season.
Should Blackburn Rovers find themselves relegated at the end of this season, it could perhaps be down to their new owners having read the blueprint in reverse by sacking the experienced manager in favor of the new guy.
Additionally, QPR could look to another likely relegation candidate from this season as a primer for whether or not to stick with the manager whom earned your club promotion in the form of Blackpool FC. Similar to Mowbray’s West Bromwich Albion from a few years back, Blackpool embody the philosophy of its manager Ian Holloway. The play might not be attractive, but it has been swashbuckling, sometimes chaotic, and often like a Holloway post-match interview, bigger than reality. Another side that was an immediate bookie’s choice for going straight back down, Blackpool defied the odds for much of the season until woeful defending caught up to them and dumped the Tangerines into a relegation spot with two matches to play. Would Blackpool have been more secure heading into the final days of this campaign had they opted to part company with Holloway and his slightly schizophrenic ways and sought out a Premier League veteran to keep them up?
That Sam Allardyce chap has been on the market for a while now.
Whether Hoops drop Warnock before next season or not, these examples might be more in keeping to what awaits those directing Norwich City. Paul Lambert has proven a club’s worst loss ever might be its best, and his stewardship has seen the Canaries make promotion from League One to the Premier League in a spectacularly quick period of time. It must be said, however, Lambert is a young manager whose career only stretches back to 2005 when his first job with Scottish side Livingston ended in their relegation from the Scottish Premier League. Should Norwich endure a rough patch of form that sees the Canaries flying low in the league table, do they follow the Blackpool template and stick with the young gun or follow the West Brom blueprint circa Di Matteo and make a controversial move to preserve their status?
In summation, there is no firm and fast method of preservation in the Premier League for newly-promoted clubs, but there are some general points QPR, Norwich, and the playoff winner can abide by to prolong their stays in the league. Whatever bits of advice these clubs use in their 2011/12 campaigns, though, there is one platinum nugget of truth that stands out for them and other sides which might find playing top flight football a bit above their heads at a time.
Don’t do a Leeds. Or a Pompey, for that matter.
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