Second-season woe

Given their recent struggles, could Swansea, Norwich and QPR be suffering from second-season syndrome? Adam Bate examines what they can learn from clubs troubled by the problem in the past.

Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy sees yet another ball go flying past him

Michael Vorm cuts a frustrated figure at the Liberty Stadium

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When Danny Graham converted Wayne Routledge's cross to put Swansea 3-0 up at home to West Ham on August 25th the future looked particularly bright for the hosts at the Liberty Stadium. Five Premier League games later and the Swans are still waiting for their next triumph. Norwich haven't picked up a league win all season. Nor have big-spending Queens Park Rangers. That's a total of 17 matches since Swansea's victory over the Hammers. And for the trio of clubs that earned promotion to the top-flight in 2011 there's not been a win among them. It all leads to dreaded talk of second-season syndrome.

But what exactly is second-season syndrome? The term is often used to explain the challenge facing clubs that have stayed in the Premier League at the first attempt. And it can sometimes feel like a cheap line used by managers who are trying to motivate players who now risk entering the comfort zone. In fact, in the twelve completed Premier League seasons so far this century only six of the 36 teams that have been relegated could possibly have been victims of second-season syndrome.

"It was the first year for nearly all of them in the Premier League and they all had a point to prove, and that hunger and desire shone through every game. Then it changes."

Steve Coppell

Quotes of the week

Of those six teams it is tempting to disregard three immediately. Both Bradford and Hull were expected to plunge out of the Premier League within 12 months but somehow survived in the last game of the season despite points tallies of 36 and 35 respectively. And West Brom were even bottom of the league on that final day before hauling themselves to safety with moments to spare. Having staggered over the line there was an air of inevitability to each of their exits the following year.

But with Ipswich in 2001, Reading in 2007 and Birmingham in 2010 things were different. There was a buzz about each of the clubs after impressive top-half finishes. Praise was heaped on them just as it was on Norwich and Swansea this summer. But the plaudits soon stopped and it all went badly wrong. Each dropped at least nine places the following year and were relegated. So what can this year's candidates for second-season syndrome learn from their predecessors.

Don't change too much

The QPR team that finished the game against Manchester City in September included not a single player from the squad that had won promotion back to the top-flight little over 15 months earlier. Former Ipswich boss George Burley didn't overhaul things quite so drastically but the signing of 'Champions League winner Finidi George' certainly had similarities with the arrivals of Park Ji-Sung and Jose Bosingwa at Loftus Road.

"Burley admits he made mistakes," explained Csaba Abrahall in When Saturday Comes. "He feels he brought in too many new faces, disrupting the continuity that had been the cornerstone of the team's success. Burley set himself the task of managing a much larger squad than ever before and he clearly found it difficult. Certain team selections suggested it gave him too many options and he struggled to keep everyone happy."

Avoid injuries

The consistency of Brendan Rodgers' team selection at Swansea last season was like something from another age. Remarkably, seven of the Swans squad made at least 36 Premier League appearances. It's a luxury they are unlikely to enjoy again. Back in 2010, Birmingham's defensive pairing of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann was a key component in their success - but the latter was available for little over half of the club's games in their relegation season. "There are mitigating circumstances," said former Birmingham boss Alex McLeish afterwards. Later adding: "I know you get what you deserve in football but I genuinely felt it was unfair. Injuries had conspired against us."

Stay hungry

Paul Lambert had a clear vision regarding the type of player he wanted at Carrow Road last season. It would have been tempting to add Premier League experience to his squad but instead he focused on acquiring players such as Elliott Bennett, Anthony Pilkington, Steve Morison and Bradley Johnson - men who had thrived in the lower leagues and had something to prove. Holding onto that determination is key.

"You've got to remind the players you can't leave it all until later on, you have got to do it now."

Alex McLeish

Quotes of the week

Asked about his Reading team, Coppell told the Guardian: "Certainly that first season in the Premier League, the team was far in excess of the sum of its parts. We had a young, hungry team that had won promotion. It was the first year for nearly all of them in the Premier League and they all had a point to prove, and that hunger and desire shone through every game. Then it changes."

Don't get complacent

It may appear obvious but the points are just as valuable on the first day of the season as the last. Both Norwich and QPR have lost games from winning positions already this season and perhaps that desperation to hold on to every single point isn't quite there in the autumn when teams are still dreaming of safe mid-table finishes. McLeish remembers: "In the early part of the season, we were leading in games and got pulled back but you've got to remind the players you can't leave it all until later on, you have got to do it now."

Remain confident

Swansea's game relies on a willingness to pass the ball. That's easy when you're everyone's second-favourite team and the 40-point mark is in sight by Christmas. But when things get tense that requires strong characters - players who still want to receive possession under pressure. Ex-Reading boss Coppell told reporters after an April home defeat to Fulham: "I don't think it is so much a lack of confidence as a realisation of what is at stake now, and that we are so close to something that means so much so nobody wants to make a mistake. We are a side that is aiming to play away from trouble rather than scrap and it just doesn't suit us to be nervous and frightened."

Conclusions

The truth is that Ipswich, Reading and Birmingham all over-performed in their first season and this gave a dangerous false impression. Astonishingly, every single one of Birmingham's 13 Premier League wins that season was by just one goal. Reading came from behind to win on four separate occasions. Ipswich went on two separate hot streaks of seven wins from nine games - they even repeated that feat in their relegation season but, alas, only once and it proved insufficient.

Will it be a similar story this time around for Swansea, Norwich and QPR? Time will tell. But for now the challenge facing the three clubs is to learn the lessons of the past and ensure they don't become the latest clubs to experience the woes of second-season syndrome.

Which team are most likely to be relegated from the Premier League this season?

  • Norwich City
  • Queens Park Rangers
  • Swansea City