6 of the Most Impressive Runs from Obscurity to Premiership in EPL

Sean BabcockCorrespondent IIJune 29, 2011

6 of the Most Impressive Runs from Obscurity to Premiership in EPL

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    English football still takes a lot of criticism for its long history of "Big Four" dominance, with vocal supporters of smaller clubs wondering if they'll ever have a legitimate shot at the ultimate English title.  But even as a handful of those traditionally less-impressive sides begin to show that they intend to be taken seriously, the stigma may never be broken.  

    But there's another story here altogether that is often forgotten, because in its long existence, English football has written its share of underdog stories into the pages of history as well.  These stories, such as Notthingham Forest's incredible run under Brian Clough to win promotion into the top tier and eventually take both the English and European titles, have given the little teams hope.  

    Since the inauguration of the Premier League, similar stories have not been absent.  Here are a few of the most impressive and motivational stories of clubs that have battled from the depths of obscurity to win a coveted position in the Premier League.

Blackpool FC: 2001-2010

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    Like many teams on this list, Blackpool FC started their run to Premiership in the fourth tier of English football, the basement of the Football League.  That's when the club hired former Liverpool and England great, Steve McMahon.

    In the 2000-01 season, his first full season as head coach of Blackpool, McMahon was issued the tough task of bringing one of England's oldest teams out of obscurity.  And he certainly started off on the right foot, leading them to promotion in that first year, taking the hard way through the playoffs.

    McMahon would not have the opportunity to see the club through to a higher level, however, as he was replaced in 2004 after insisting the club had no hope of success under the current budget plan.  McMahon had brought one promotion and two Football League Trophies to Blackpool during his stay.

    The year following his departure saw two new managers, after Colin Hendry's short-lived stint at the helm left Blackpool barely out of the relegation zone.  Simon Grayson took over, and led the team, finally, to another promotion in 2007, their 100th overall season in the Football League, after another playoff final at Wembley.  Blackpool had won a spot in the second tier for the first time in 29 years.

    Blackpool finished an unimpressive 19th place in the first season in the Football Championship, narrowly avoiding another relegation.  The next season was hardly any better, as Grayson left the club to manage Leeds.  He was ultimately replaced by Ian Holloway in May 2009, shortly before the club announced it would be considerably increasing its transfer budget, which Blackpool used to sign Charlie Adams for a record fee.  The move had a huge impact on the quality of the club, hoisting them to sixth place in the championship, just narrowly beating Swansea City for the spot.

    In another playoff final, Blackpool overcame Cardiff City 3-2 to earn their spot in the Premier League.

    That spot was short lived, as they were relegated once again the following season, but Blackpool fans surely have to appreciate the effort it took getting there from where their club stood 10 years prior.  And, with out a doubt, many of them wonder if another dramatic playoff promotion is in their near future.

Fulham FC: 1997-2001

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    Fulham F.C. now feels like a staple in the English top tier, but that has not always been the case.  From 1969 forward, the boys from Craven Cottage spent most of their history bouncing back and forth between what was then division two and division three, before finally falling all the way to the fourth tier in 1994.

    In the 1995-96 season, Fulham couldn't even secure a midtable position in the lowest tier of English football, finishing 17th in the final count.  But that was far enough, the club decided.

    Fulham hired a new player-manager, Micky Adams, to lead them out of the Football League basement, and he did so in his first full season as head of the club, bringing Fulham to a strong second-place finish and automatic promotion.

    The next year, Adams was fired, after a poor start to the season, by new club owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed, who would eventually prove to be the club's savior.  Promising to lift the club to premiership "within five years," Al-Fayed shook up the management staff and the overall leadership style of the club.  The result was Fulham finishing in 1999 with 101 points and another promotion to the second tier.

    After a disappointing first season following promotion, Al-Fayed made another management change, this time bringing in French manager Jean Tigana, who was brilliant in the signing of key players like fellow countryman Louis Saha who served as an impressive striker for Fulham.  Saha led the club to another 101 point season and their third promotion in five years.  This time, the promotion was to a coveted spot in the Premiership, from which Fulham FC has never looked back.

Manchester City: 1996-2002

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    Manchester City's history has been long and full of ups and downs in the shadow of hometown powerhouse rivals, Manchester United.  Long regarded as little more than United's "noisy neighbors," City has now fought their way to a top four place in the Premiership table, securing a Champions League berth and validating them as a powerful force in modern football.

    Which is why it's so hard to believe where they were just thirteen years ago.

    Manchester City was a founding member of the Premier League in 1992, but struggled for their first several years.  In 1996, they finished bottom three, and were relegated to the second tier.  In 1998, they found themselves facing a second relegation, and fell to England's division two.  It was the farthest that any former winner of the European trophy had ever fallen.

    To call Manchester City "obscure" would be as much of a crime, given their history, as it would be to say the same about Leeds United, so including them on this list was a bit of a debate.  But it was what they did after falling that far that made them worthy of a spot.

    Unhappy with the position they were in, and surely sick and tired of hearing the word "United" uttered throughout town, Manchester City hired new chairman David Bernstein to bring a unique financial vision to the club.  With the discipline he brought to City's pocketbook, the club were promoted back to the second tier in their first attempt, and then back to Premiership only two years after departing.

    The turnaround proved to be a little to quick for City to handle, as they endured another relegation the following season.  But again, just one season later, City battled back to Premiership, this time for good.

    The rest is history, as Manchester City was eventually purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group, who immediately brought world-class talent to the club.  In 2009-10, they finished in fifth, losing a top-four spot to the Tottenham Hotspur in the final league match.  But, in 2011, those two clubs reversed positions, this time with Tottenham in fifth, and City earning another shot at European glory.

Wigan Athletic: 1995-2005

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    In 1995, Wigan Athletic was in shambles.  In the fourth tier of English football, and with all team operations being controlled from a small trailer they fancied to be an "office," Wigan was a dead brand with no options and no hope.  That is, until longtime fan (who happened to be a millionaire) Dave Whelan bought the club with the sole intention of turning things around forever.

    Whelan's first major move as self-appointed chairman was crucial, and wildly successful.  Using his business connections in Spain, he was able to attract three iconic Spaniards to the club: Jesus Seba, Roberto Martinez, and Isidro Diaz, who will be forever etched in club lore as "The Three Amigos."  Two years later, Wigan won promotion out of the bottom tier, and began their run towards Premiership.

    But it quickly became clear that it would not be as easy as Whelan made it seem, when he so casually stated his intentions to bring the club from the bottom of English football to the Premier League.  It wasn't until 2003, with a huge signing of popular English midfielder Jimmy Bullard playing a key role in their success, that Wigan finally had their breakaway season in what was then Division Two, England's third tier. They finished with 100 points in the standings, coming off of an impressive 10-game win streak to earn promotion once again.

    Their inaugural season in Division One appeared as though it would be be short-lived, dropping the first game in a disappointing loss, only to rebound with a 17-game unbeaten streak that appeared to propel them to the shortlist for promotion.  But, a mediocre second-half to the 2003-04 season caused them to fall to seventh place, and out of the promotion race.

    The next year, they intended to do everything right, starting the season with another 17-game unbeaten streak, and this time not falling so far behind in the home stretch.  In 2005, Wigan Athletic sealed their automatic promotion in front of a home crowd with a 3-1 victory over Ipswich in the last game of the season.  Wigan Athletic had reached the Premier League, and were in the top tier of English football for the first time in their history.  While many newly-promoted clubs often struggle in the top tier and face relegation soon after, Wigan Athletic has retained their Premiership since that 2004-05 season, finishing as high as a respectable 11th place in the standings.

Hull City: 2003-2008

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    Unlike most clubs on this list, Hull City is a team that had never truly known success.  Founded in 1904, the club had really only flirted with promotion to England's top flight twice in its history: once in 1910, and once in 1971, just missing the mark on both occasions.

    Almost the entirety of Hull's long history has spent going back and forth between the second and third tiers of English football.  But their never-to-be-forgotten run to glory began in the fourth tier.

    It was 1996 when Hull City first found themselves in what was then Division Four.  And in 1998, they ended up at the lowest position they had ever finished: 22nd in the bottom tier and two positions away from relegation out of the Football League.

    Struggling to find a road to success, and marred by financial turmoil, Hull City was desperate for a solution.  And that solution came in March of 2001, when the club was purchased by former Leeds United commercial director Adam Pearson, who appointed himself as chairman.  After months of pouring funds into his new purchase, Pearson appointed Peter Taylor (not that Peter Taylor) as the new manager in December of 2002.  Taylor didn't have quite enough time to salvage Hull's season for 2002-03, but in the next season, they won their promotion out of the bottom flight.  The next season, they were promoted again, and found themselves back in the League Championship, England's second tier.

    After a forgettable 2005-06 season, Taylor left Hull City for Chrystal Palace, and was eventually succeeded by Phil Brown, whose greatest influence was bringing hometown hero and top goal-scorer Dean Windass back to the club from being out on loan.  But after another season of second tier mediocrity, Pearson came to believe that he "had taken the club as far as [he] could," and the club was sold once again to an ownership group.  Under the new owners, Brown succeeded in leading Hull City to a third place finish in the Championship during the 2007-08 season, and eventually to playoff victory and promotion to Premiership.

    While their time in the top flight was short-lived, Hull City surprised many critics by avoiding relegation during their first season in the Premier League.  Their second season, they were not so victorious.  Still, Hull City's run from the bottom of English football to the top tier took a mere five seasons.  In becoming the third fastest club to do so in Football League history, Hull City gave their fans more than enough to be proud of.

Swansea City: 2005-2011

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    The first Welsh club to ever win a spot in the Premier League did so in spectacular fashion in one of the most exciting League Championship playoff victories in recent memory.  But that's hardly the full story behind everything Swansea City accomplished in that May 29th playoff final in 2011.

    In 2004, the Swans were as far from Premiership as a club can be, competing in League Two, the fourth tier of English football.  The club had seen its moments of glory in the past, particularly in the late '70s and early '80s, but now they were in over their heads.  At least that's how it appeared.

    After losing six consecutive matches at the end of the 2003-04 season, manager Kenny Jackett decided to take a different approach and recruited several new defenders for starting roles.  In a 2004-05 season that saw the Swans earning many clean-sheets, including a string of seven in a row that all resulted in victories, they won promotion out of the fourth tier and began their historic march to the top.

    It took them another two years to fight their way out of League One, but they had one playoff shot at doing so (which they lost) and brought home a Football League Trophy along the way.  With a little help from an 18-game unbeaten streak and 29 goals scored by their star player Jason Scotland, the Swans were promoted to the Football League Championship in 2008, where they would spend the next three years waiting for their opportunity.

    That chance came in 2010-11, when the Swans finished third in the table, and qualified for a playoff to win promotion.  In their first of a home-and-away aggregate against Nottingham Forest, Swansea City settled for a nil-nil draw to take home for the second leg.  And after pulling ahead 2-1 against Forest in Game 2, Swansea fended off Forest's aggressive attempts to tie things up in the final minutes.  When it seemed as though Forest would surely pull off the tying goal, the Swans took advantage of a decision to pull the goalkeeper in a corner effort as Darren Pratley scored a long third goal on an empty net from midfield.

    The Swans went on to clinch promotion in front of a packed crowd against Reading at Wembley, playing succinctly and looking sharp throughout the match, leaving many to wonder what Swansea City might have in store for their new Premier League rivals in their 2011-2012 campaign.


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