The prime objective of a newly promoted club in the top flight is survival. Some struggle to stay away from the relegation zone. Others go beyond that and sit comfortably in mid-table, even close to qualifying for Europe. But on occasions, a number of promoted sides have adapted to the top tier very quickly and ended up challenging at the top of the table.
In the last 50 years, only seven teams have finished in the top four straight after promotion. By today’s rules, they would get a Champions League spot. So here’s a look at those sides who performed miracles in their first season back in the top level.
MANCHESTER UNITED (1975/76)
Promoted From Second Division: 1974/75 (Finished 1st)
Position in First Divison: 3rd
These days there is no doubt that Manchester United are one of, if not the biggest club in the world. So it’s often forgotten that in 1974, United hit their lowest point, after being relegated to Division Two for the first time since 1938. The Red Devils struggled after their famous European Cup victory in 1968 and Matt Busby stood down as manager just a year later. Mid-table mediocrity followed until Tommy Docherty took over halfway through the 1972/73 season, just saving United from the drop. However, the following campaign, Docherty could not do the same and his side suffered relegation.
The club’s directors decided to stick with their manager, confident he could get them back up at the first attempt. Their faith was repaid, as Docherty led United to the Second Division title and an instant return to the top flight. Despite being a side in the second tier, their average home attendance that season was a remarkable 47,781, the highest in the entire country.
Docherty had reinvented United into a young team who now played without fear. The team’s average age was only 24, and in fast wingers Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill, they had two of the most eye-catching players in the league. As the 1975/76 season was their first one back in the big time, it was viewed as a free hit for United and without that pressure they almost won the double. Finishing just four points behind league champions Liverpool meant that United ended the campaign in 3rd place and qualified for the UEFA Cup. The only disappointment was their 1-0 defeat to Second Division Southampton in the FA Cup final, although Docherty put that to rest the following year, when they beat Liverpool 2-1 to lift the trophy. Since that relegation 46 years ago, United have not finished any lower than 11th.
NOTTINGHAM FOREST (1977/78)
Promoted From Second Division: 1976/77 (3rd)
Position in First Division: 1st
People say that Leicester City‘s superb Premier League triumph in 2016 was a once in a lifetime achievement. Well, in 1978 there was another underdog story, which could be argued was even better; step forward Nottingham Forest. In Brian Clough’s first full season in charge of Forest he only finished in 8th position in the Second Division. However, he was reunited with his former assistant, Peter Taylor, in the summer of 1976 and his side scraped to promotion by just one point. They had to rely on rivals Bolton Wanderers losing 1-0 to Wolves in their final game, after Forest had beaten Millwall 1-0 due to an own goal. It was tight, but Clough’s team were up, and once they were in the top tier, there was no looking back.
Forest’s first season in the First Division for six years started well, and a few weeks in they signed England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who conceded just 18 goals in his 37 games during the remainder of the campaign. By March they were in the League Cup final against English champions, Liverpool, where a 1-0 victory in a replay gave Forest their first major silverware since 1959. With one trophy in the bag, the Tricky Trees homed in on the First Division title and went unbeaten for the remaining 26 matches of the season, eventually winning the league by 7 points. Clough used just 17 players in all competitions over the 55 matches that season, which only highlighted even more the incredible stamina of his men. Forest’s triumph was the first time a newly-promoted side had won the league championship since Ipswich Town in 1962.
This opened the door to Forest famously winning back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and ’80. During his tenure, Clough also added three more League Cups to the their trophy cabinet before relegation in 1993 ultimately led to his retirement. He brought success that fans at the City Ground are unlikely to see again and will forever be Nottingham Forest’s greatest manager.
Promoted From Second Division: 1981/82 (2nd)
Position in First Division: 2nd
Never underestimate what an incredible job Graham Taylor did during his ten years at Watford. Appointed in 1977 by the young and ambitious chairman, Elton John, Taylor led Watford to three promotions in five years, from the Fourth Division all the way to the top tier of English football – for the first time in the club’s history. It was in the 1981/82 campaign that the Hornets clinched their promotion to the First Division, as runners-up to Luton Town.
Despite signing a £400,000 sponsorship deal with Iveco just before their first season in the top flight, Taylor decided not to add to his numbers, instead keeping faith with the players who had taken them up. Apart from Pat Rice and Gerry Armstrong, Watford’s squad was inexperienced at the elite level, but this seemed to work in their favour as many teams were naïve in thinking they would be pushovers. Taylor’s ‘kick and rush’ tactics were often criticised by opposition managers and pundits alike, but this attacking approach was entertaining to watch and not many Watford matches ended without both teams scoring. They started superbly, and with John Barnes on the wing and First Division top scorer Luther Blissett up top, the Hornets miraculously kept up their high tempo until the end of the season, eventually finishing runners-up, 11 points behind Liverpool. This remains Watford’s highest ever finish and also meant qualification for the UEFA Cup for the first and only time in their history.
With an FA Cup final appearance to add in 1984, these were certainly the glory years at Vicarage Road, with the combination of Graham Taylor and Elton John taking them all the way to the top. Taylor left in 1987 and Watford were relegated the following season, only recently establishing themselves again in the big time. No newly-promoted club has finished as high as second in the top flight since.
LEEDS UNITED (1990/91)
Promoted From Second Division: 1989/90 (1st)
Position In First Division: 4th
After an eight-year hiatus from the top flight, Leeds United won the Second Division title in the 1989/90 season on goal difference from Sheffield United. It was a period of transition down at Elland Road, following Howard Wilkinson’s appointment as manager at the back end of the previous season. In came Vinnie Jones and Mel Sterland to bolster the squad’s physicality, plus Chris Fairclough and Gordon Strachan for their First Division experience. Lee Chapman arrived in the middle of the campaign to get Leeds over the line, and became integral part to their attack for the next few years. But this was just the start and once promotion was won, more new faces arrived.
Before their first season back in the top tier, Wilkinson continued to spend, bringing in league title winning goalkeeper, John Lukic, from Arsenal and Gary McAllister from Leicester. Together with the established youngsters, David Batty and Gary Speed, Leeds were now a force to be reckoned with. The good times were back at Elland Road and the crowds were packed out, they knew something special was on the horizon. Leeds finished in 4th place, 19 points behind runaway champions, Arsenal – who lost only once all season.
However, the 1990/91 campaign was the foundation for the next, when they won the league championship for only the third time in their history. The quartet of Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed had developed into one of the best midfields to ever win the trophy. Those players and Wilkinson left in time, and apart from a short spell of success at the turn of the century, Leeds Utd have turned into a sleeping giant. Since relegation in 2004, they have never been back to the top flight and for a club of that size, it’s about time they did.
SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY (1991/92)
Promoted From Second Division: 1990/91 (3rd)
Position In First Division: 3rd
The early 90’s brought about some of the most eventful years in Sheffield Wednesday‘s history. Relegated to the second tier in 1990, the Wednesday board kept faith with manager Ron Atkinson to make a quick return to the First Division, and they were not disappointed. Not only did the Sheffield side win promotion back to the top flight, but they also won their first major trophy in nearly 60 years – John Sheridan’s goal defeating Manchester United 1-0 in the League Cup final. At the end of the campaign, Big Ron stated that he would remain manager of Wednesday despite the interest of Aston Villa, only to leave for Villa a week later, much to the fury of the fans.
Senior player Trevor Francis took over the reigns before the 1991/92 season as player/manager. The bulk of the side which gained promotion stayed the same, with Francis adding England goalkeeper Chris Woods and the versatile Paul Warhurst to his ranks. Ron Atkinson went back to face the angry supporters at Hillsborough with his new Villa side in a fiery opening day fixture, leaving with a 3-2 victory after being 2-0 down. Despite that start, Wednesday enjoyed a fabulous season back in the big time, finishing in third place (just 7 points behind champions Leeds) and qualified for the UEFA Cup. A position that looks even more remarkable when you consider they lost 6-1 at home to Leeds, 7-1 away to Arsenal and were beaten in both derbies against Sheffield United throughout the season.
The drama didn’t stop for Wednesday fans the following season, when new signing, Chris Waddle, inspired them to two domestic cup finals, unfortunately losing out in both to Arsenal. The South Yorkshire side stayed in the Premier League until they were relegated in the year 2000. Just like Leeds, they haven’t been back since and they both remain two of the biggest clubs outside the top tier.
BLACKBURN ROVERS (1992/93)
Promoted From First Division: 1992/93 (6th – Play-Off Winners)
Position In Premier League: 4th
Blackburn Rovers actually started the 1991/92 season with Don Mackay in charge, as he had been for the previous four years. But new owner, Jack Walker, had £360 million burning a hole in his back pocket following the sale of his steel firm to British Steel, and he had ambitions of his hometown club winning the Premier League within 5 years. In came Kenny Dalglish in the November and the spending began. The new manager’s appointment had an immediate impact and with the arrivals of Mike Newell, Gordon Cowans and Alan Wright, Blackburn went rocketing up to the top of the Second Division table. However, a poor run of six defeats on the bounce saw them out of the play-off places, which they just made on the last day of the season in 6th place. A Newell penalty won the play-off final 1-0 against Leicester City at Wembley to gain promotion. Part one of Jack Walker’s plan was complete.
Blackburn returned to the top flight at just the right time as the Premier League was about to start it’s inaugural season. The chairman again got his chequebook out, signing Alan Shearer for a British record transfer-fee of £3.5 million from Southampton. The England striker started off with a superb 16 league goals in 21 matches, before snapping his cruciate ligament which ended his campaign. Rovers soldiered on without their main goal scorer, whilst continuing to sign quality players, such as Kevin Gallacher, Graeme Le Saux and Henning Berg. With Gallacher filling the gap left by Shearer’s absence, Blackburn finished the season strong, winning 8 of their final 10 matches, finishing in 4th place. It does make you wonder how far they could have gone that year if Shearer had stayed fit.
Following this impressive first campaign, Rovers kept improving, finishing runners-up a year later, before they won their first league title for 81 years in the dramatic 1994/95 season. A dream of an ambitious chairman had been realised. The team that Jack built will never be forgotten in Blackburn.
NEWCASTLE UNITED (1993/94)
Promoted From First Division: 1992/93 (1st)
Position In Premier League: 3rd
The appointment of Kevin Keegan in February 1992, was a massive moment in Newcastle United‘s history. On the brink of being relegated to the third tier of English football and possible bankruptcy, new chairman Sir John Hall took control and made the inexperienced Keegan the new boss. His presence captivated the area and St James’ Park was full to capacity once again, with the Magpies securing their Second Division status on the last day of the season. The following campaign, Keegan spent his chairman’s millions wisely on Barry Venison and Rob Lee amongst others and Newcastle romped to the title, The acquisition of Andy Cole in March was vital, not only to secure them the trophy, but also for their first season in the Premier League to come.
The return of Peter Beardsley to partner Cole for the 1993/94 season created a prolific strike partnership in the top flight that has never been topped since – the pair scored 55 league goals between them, with Cole’s 34 winning him the Golden Boot. Nicknamed ‘The Entertainers’ in the press, Newcastle’s attacking style was very easy on the eye and Keegan’s tactics of trying to score more than his opponents worked against most sides. Their 82 goals in the league that year helped them finish in third place and qualify for Europe for the first time since the early 70s. There was a feel-good factor now on Tyneside.
Two years later Newcastle launched a huge title challenge, narrowly pipped by Manchester United on the last day on the season, despite being 12 points clear in January. Keegan left during the following campaign and although there has been a couple of Champions League qualifications under Kenny Dalglish and Sir Bobby Robson, the Toon Army have not been close to winning the Prem since.
NOTTINGHAM FOREST (1994/95)
Promoted From First Division: 1993/94
Position In Premier League: 3rd
A second entry in this list goes to Nottingham Forest. Following Brian Clough’s retirement in 1993, one of his former European Cup winning players, Frank Clark, took charge at the City Ground. His first action was to sign Stan Collymore from Southend United for £2 million – a massive fee for a second tier side. The spending was rewarded as Collymore’s goals fired Forest to a quick return to the Premier League, finishing as runners-up to Crystal Palace.
That summer Clark forked out £2.5 million for the Dutch World Cup star, Bryan Roy, converting him from a winger to partner Collymore up front. It was a masterstroke, becoming the focal point of Forest’s free flowing brand of football that year. With captain Stuart Pearce leading from the back and a midfield that included talented wingers, Steve Stone and Ian Woan, and the underrated Lars Bohinen, Forest were the surprise package of the 1994/95 season. Their third placed finish was just 12 points behind the champions, Blackburn Rovers, and for the fifth year in a row, a promoted side ended the campaign in the top four.
That was as good as it got for Forest, as a UEFA Cup run to the quarter-finals took priority the next season and in 1997 they were relegated. A quick return for just twelve months followed, but the Tricky Trees have now not been in the to top division for 21 years. In the mid-noughties, a further drop into League One meant that Nottingham Forest became the first European Cup winners to be relegated into the third tier of their respective league. They, like Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, are looking good for a return to the top flight this year, so who knows, we may just get a 90s reunion in next season’s Premier League.
TOP SIX PLACINGS
In the last fifty years there has also been a number of newly-promoted clubs who managed a top six finish. They are as follows:
- Burnley (1973/74) – 5th
- Swansea City (1981/82) – 6th
- Queens Park Rangers (1983/84) – 5th
- Chelsea (1984/85) – 6th
- Norwich City (1986/87) – 5th
- Wimbledon (1986/87) – 6th
- Chelsea (1989/90) – 5th
- Ipswich Town (2000/01) – 5th
Although a top four finish is probably asking too much, it will be interesting to see if Sheffield United can continue their brilliant start so far this season and join this top 6 club.
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