Premier League Cliches: Second Season Syndrome—Is It Real?

Simeon Gholam@@simo28Correspondent IIDecember 20, 2012

Marcus Stewart - A Trailblazer for 'Second Season Syndrome'
Marcus Stewart - A Trailblazer for 'Second Season Syndrome'Craig Prentis/Getty Images


To analyse the concept of "Second Season Syndrome". And attempt to the answer the question, "Is it just a sporting cliché or if it is—in fact—"a thing"?".


"Second Season Syndrome"

Null Hypothesis: A team, who after defying expectations and punching well above their weight in their first season in a new division, suffers from an anti-climactic second season, enduring a severe collapse in form, slumping down the table and possibly ending in relegation.

Variable Hypothesis: "Second Season Syndrome" can also affect the form of an individual player, who after an exceptional start for a new club, performs significantly worse in his second season. 

Alternative Hypothesis: When "Second Season Syndrome" has the opposite effect on a team or player, leading to them or him performing far above the level they produced in their first season, thereby massively exceeding expectations.

The "False Dawn" Hypothesis: When a player performs as badly in his second and third seasons for a new club as he did in his first. Every occasional goal he scores leads to the suggestion of a "new dawn", which then leads inevitably to the climax of a "false dawn". Probably caused by a loss of pace, confidence and the burden of a £50 million price tag, it is also known as "The Fernando Torres Variable" In fact, it only applies to Fernando Torres.


I’m sure everyone would agree that football and science pretty much go hand in hand—honest, they do. I’m also sure that there is nothing footballers and scientists like better than a good cliché or two.

One of the great clichés that floats around modern day football is the concept of "Second Season Syndrome". The best example of "Second Season Syndrome" that I can think of, in the modern era, is that of Ipswich Town.  They finished an impressive fifth in 2000-01, their first season back in top flight (to put it into context they finished five points above Chelsea, and Manchester City got relegated), but then went on to finish 18th the next season, thereby getting relegated.


I will test every one of my hypotheses individually using carefully selected examples in a controlled environment. (Anything I can think of, whilst sitting on my computer).


  • Microsoft Word
  • My brain
  • A cup of Coffee
  • The Internet
  • A Bunsen Burner


Null Hypothesis 


For Ipswich to go from finishing fifth one season to 18th the next is an extraordinary occurrence in modern day football. In the old days (a generally referred to period any season before the inception of the Premier League), a team could win the league one season then get relegated the next, quite easily. I have no evidence to back this up other than my dad claiming Man City won the League then got relegated the next every season for about 30 odd years or so (clearly impossible and certainly not true). But I’m sure, it must have happened a lot.

There was a mitigating factor in Ipswich’s slump in form though, this being the UEFA Cup. Ipswich’s incredible first season back in the top flight led to them unexpectedly qualifying for the UEFA Cup, a competition they were not prepared to compete, despite a solid run to the third round in which they were thwarted by Inter Milan, and their squad struggle to deal with the extra games.

But, as this is a very technical and accurate scientific experiment, we need some data.

Ipswich's squad was stretched by these extra European ties, but then it was only six extra games, all played before the turn of the year. In fact in 2000-01, when they finished fifth, they also went on a League Cup run to the Semi final, an extra six games, whereas in 2001-02, they only played two League Cup games (in the FA Cup they made it to the fourth round both times).

So therefore in 2001-02 when they finished 13 places lower in the league than the season before, they played just two extra games overall. So were the travails of the UEFA Cup really behind Ipswich’s slump in form in their second season? Or were they struck down by the cursed "Second Season Syndrome"? 


Ipswich’s European exploits in 2001-02 had a part to play in their disappointing start to the domestic season (see Newcastle this season and Birmingham last season). But, they were out of Europe by December 6, having accumulated just eight league points to the 25 they had at the same stage the previous season.

Surely though a team that were good enough to finish fifth the season before, had enough time to recover their form in the second half of the season, and if not rediscover the lofty heights of the previous season, at least avoid relegation? But they were unable to do so, and were relegated and have not since returned to the top flight.


"Second Season Syndrome" strikes.

Variable Hypothesis


The theory behind "Second Season Syndrome" suggests that not only can it affect a team in their second season; it can also affect an individual.

Using the Ipswich Town example again, one of the reasons behind their stuttering second league campaign was that their star striker (and I use the word star here extremely loosely) Marcus Stewart managed an impressive 19 league goals in their first season in the league, compared to just six in his second. Ipswich Town’s goal scored statistic fell from 57 in 2000-01 to just 41 in 2001-02. This is one of many examples of a player having an incredible impact on a division in their first season and then struggle greatly in their second, of which there are many currently floating around the Premier League.

Grant Holt, a similar case to Marcus Stewart, performed extremely well in his first season in the Premier League. He managed an impressive 15 goals in 36 league games for Norwich (even more impressive considering he started just 21 of those games). But his form has fallen away this season, with just four in 17 (starting 15 of those). It is not just the goals with Grant Holt, last season his overall play was far better and his link up and hold up play was excellent. This season he has looked far less sharp overall. 

Then there is Papiss Cisse. Cisse only signed for Newcastle in January, and missed the first couple of weeks for his new club because of the African Cup of Nations. When he returned, he had quite a staggering impact on the Premier League, not only in his goal rate (13 in his first 14), but also in the immense quality of the goals that he scored. This season he has managed just two in 15 in the league, one a relatively bog standard poacher’s effort; the other went in off his back as he tried to get out of the way.

Quite the world of difference (to use a scientific term) from some of his efforts from last season.

It is more difficult to coin this as a classic case of "Second Season Syndrome" as he has not yet had a full season of Premier League action, but the drop off in form over the summer is incredibly poignant. There are other factors in Cisse’s decline (for more information read "The Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm"’), but purely on the statistics of goals scored, and the threat that he offers when one watches him play, Cisse is massively struggling for form this season.

Finally, there is Gylfi Sigurdsson. After kick-starting his career with an excellent season in the Championship with Reading, he secured a move to Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. There he had a solid first season scoring nine in 29 from midfield.

But after a disappointing start to 2011-12 he was loaned to Swansea, where he teamed up again with Brendan Rodgers whom he had worked with at Reading. His level of play for Swansea at the back end of last season was exceptional; in 18 appearances he managed seven goals and five assists, and he became one of the most popular players of the 2011-12 season with both Swansea fans and neutral Premier League fans alike. 

This season, however, has been a different story. He turned down a permanent deal with Swansea, then made a move to Liverpool, where Brendan Rodgers had taken over, in order to accept an offer from Spurs. At Swansea he seemed to thrive off being the centre of play. However, the competition for space on the pitch and a place on the team at the Spurs has led to a loss in form, as the Spurs have struggled to find him his best position.

This is a difficult case to judge as it is a player who has moved clubs over the summer.  Maybe it is just that he needs an adjustment period? But then again, he managed to adjust to life in the Premier League immediately after his move to Swansea, and with greatest respect to Spurs they don’t quite yet possess the same big club pressure as Manchester United, Chelsea and now Manchester City do.


 Grant Holt—"Second Season Syndrome" strikes. His goal rate is down and he does not look as sharp as he did last season. Perhaps he has been affected by the disappointment of being completely overlooked for England for the Euros, despite being the second highest English goal scorer in the Premier League last season.

Papiss Cisse—"Second Season Syndrome" strikes. Perhaps he will come alive in the second half of the season again, but his performances between this season and last season have been stark in contrast.  

Gylfi Sigurdsson—"Second Season Syndrome" doesn’t strike. Sigurdsson does not look the player he was last season, but I think it would be harsh to put that down to "Second Season Syndrome" just yet as he has moved clubs in the summer and it often takes a period for players to gel and find their best position at a new side. Some players often struggle with the step up (see everyone who has moved to Liverpool in the last two years, bar Luis Suarez).

Alternative Hypothesis


We are now heading into real theoretical territory. When approaching something scientifically you have to look at both sides of the argument, and if "Second Season Syndrome" can be construed negatively, perhaps it can also be construed positively.

Is it possible that if a player has an average or disappointing first season for a new club, that they can use that experience in order to have a much improved second season? Examples of these are rare in modern football, where there exists a short term mentality in which players and managers alike aren’t really given a chance to improve on a disappointing start in the same way that they were in the (somewhat fabled) old days of football.

In Charlie Austin’s first full season with Burnley, he managed a very respectable 16 goals in 41 games. This is a good return by any striker, especially considering he had to play second fiddle to Jay Rodriguez for much of the campaign, who managed to 15 in 37 in the league and 21 in 42 in all competitions. 

This season, however, with Jay Rodriguez's move to Southampton, Charlie Austin has flourished, managing 19 in 21 in the league, and 22 in 24 in all competitions. He recently made headlines for being one of only three strikers in Europe to have scored 20 goals in all competitions so far this season alongside the lesser known names of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Austin managed an excellent goal return last season considering he wasn’t Burnley’s main man, but "Second Season Syndrome" has struck for him this season. He has taken the Championship by storm and is now being linked with a move to several Premier League clubs in January.

Then there is the second highest goal scorer in the Championship, a player who is important to me for all the wrong reasons; Glenn Murray. Murray led the line for Brighton in their excellent League One title winning campaign of 2010-11. He was known as the League One Dimitar Berbatov for his languid style of play and his classy finishing. He then decided to up sticks in the summer and move to Brighton’s bitter rivals Crystal Palace on a free transfer. 

Last season he had a relatively dismal first campaign, though he managed a goal against former club Brighton at their new home, sealing a 3-1 win (the b*****d) and a winner in the League Cup against Manchester United at Old Trafford (the b*****d). In the league though, he managed just six in 38. This season though, he has been fantastic, linking up fantastically with Crystal Palace starlet Wilfried Zaha. Murray has managed 20 in 18 in the league so far (he put two past Brighton a couple of weeks ago, making me feel physically sick). 


Both Glenn Murray and Charlie Austin are examples of how "Second Season Syndrome" can be construed to have a positive effect on a player who uses the experience of their first season for a new club at a new level to adjust, then excels in their second season. But perhaps then, it shouldn’t be called a "syndrome", as syndrome is a word with negative connotations. 

Perhaps it should be referred to in these cases as "Second Season Synergy" (admittedly I’m unsure what "synergy" actually means, but my dictionary is all the way downstairs and not on my equipment list so I can’t use it. But it sounds positive and sort of similar to "syndrome", so I’m going to use it anyway, and football is well known for making up words ((such as the Iain Dowie classic ‘bouncebackability’)).


Charlie Austin and Glenn Murray—"Second Season Synergy" strikes. Both players used their first seasons of Championship football for their new sides to adjust and bed in, and are now excelling in their second seasons.

The False Dawn Hypothesis


Fernando Torres. Fernando Torres is rubbish. Just watch him play for Chelsea. In the Club World Cup final he was absolutely shocking. He has unfortunately scored a few lately, which has inevitably led to another "false dawn" fiasco. Hopefully it won’t last too long.


Fernando Torres is rubbish.


See above.


I feel as though I have rationally explained and provided evidence to suggest that every single one of my hypotheses do in fact prove that "Second Season Syndrome" really is "a thing".

Teams can suffer from it, in cases such as Ipswich Town, and so can players, with examples such as Marcus Stewart and Grant Holt having clear dips in form in their respective second Premier League seasons. It will be interesting to see in the future whether players such as Swansea’s Michu, the joint top scorer in the league this season, will struggle next season like Cisse or Holt have this season, or maybe he’ll move to a bigger club and find it difficult to adapt like Gylfi Sigurdsson.

I am also using this experiment to prove the existence of my new concept "Second Season Synergy", which can now exist alongside the better known "Second Season Syndrome". There is proof players can use an average or difficult first season as experience in order to flourish in their second, and in the cases of Charlie Austin and Glenn Murray, it is something that is prevalent in every level of football, not just the Premier League. 


Scientifically speaking, and I’m speaking scientifically here, the evidence I have provided speaks for itself. "Second Season Syndrome" and now "Second Season Synergy", as well, despite being somewhat of a cliché, are most certainly "a thing".    


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