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Monday, July 26, 2010

Bouncing Back

Sides relegated from the Premier League traditionally find it difficult to bounce back at the first attempt. Nobes looks at the challenges facing this year's trio as they re-enter the Championship.

Burnley boss Brian Laws is hoping to take his club back up this season

You can excuse the fans of Hull, Burnley, and Portsmouth for not being the most optimistic of supporters ahead of the new season. All three clubs face individual challenges on their return to the second tier.

However, a speedy return to life in the Premier League is the common goal shared by the relegated trio. Unfortunately, a look at the statistics, and they will realise the mountain they are attempting to climb.

Indeed, the success, or lack of, shown by sides coming down into the Championship will act as a sobering thought - even more so than a fixture list including the likes of Scunthorpe and Doncaster.

In the last ten seasons, just eight of the thirty teams relegated from the Premier League have bounced back at the first attempt. Half of those promotions were achieved by just two clubs as well - Birmingham and West Brom - who have each managed it twice.

Despite the huge financial advantages Premier League teams hold above their closest challengers, when they find themselves down in the Championship, wealth suddenly doesn't count for all that much.

Even illustrious names such as West Ham and Blackburn failed to escape at the first time of asking from the arduous 46-game campaign presented in the second tier.

Observers will point to last season's success for Newcastle and West Brom - who both secured an immediate return to the top flight for 2010/11. However, this was very much an anomaly when looking at how relegated teams generally perform.

Why is it though that these teams, who generally have greater wealth and bigger, more expensively assembled and more talented squads, seem to flounder when they drop out of the big time?

Certainly it would be fair to say that relegation brings about the exodus of top players a relegated team at any level experiences.

Sometimes it's for financial reasons - needing to clear players off a wage bill that will be stretched with lower gates and less income. Sometimes players wish to leave for their own career - not willing to slum it in the lower leagues.

Whatever the motivation, it can leave the heart of a club ripped out - and in need of being replaced before the new campaign. Not an easy task for any manager, especially when he's unlikely to see much of the money accrued through sales to rebuild his team.

However, with the aid of parachute payments, the loss of key players can be kept down to a minimum - meaning the manager still has the core of a Premier League team to work with.

While still left with players of quality, though, the spotlight then falls on the mentality of the squad - and the man selecting the team.

West Brom's instant promotion is not a common sight for relegated teams

Relegation to a lower division brings with it a huge change in culture. Instead of going to the top clubs and shutting up shop - hoping to steal a point or maybe even nick a win - the onus is now on you.

A relegated club is now the scalp, the side who will be faced with having to break down a stubborn defence who park the bus in front of their goal when they come visit.

Suddenly the emphasis is not on avoiding defeat but actually striving to win games. It requires a completely different tactical and mental approach - one that can often lead to a relegated side getting off to a slow start.

They must also face up to the reality that now as a 'big cheese' in their new division, they will be the team everyone wants to beat and take the scalp of. Sides will work harder and give even more. It is another hurdle which must be overcome.

As is the hubris associated with ex-top flight teams. Winter afternoons on boggy pitches and evening matches at small away grounds in the cold and rain are not a Premier League footballer's idea of fun.

Even Newcastle, runaway winners of last term's Championship, found their players outbattled, outworked, and deservedly beaten at Scunthorpe in a midweek game.

For the Toon Army, it was a rare defeat but, for those whose attitude is consistently wrong, such results can become common place as they get used to life in the Championship.

Indeed, the psychological battle can often be the most difficult. The shedding of the losing mentality acquired in the previous season is the first hurdle to get over. Just like winning, losing football matches can become a habit.

Once that is negotiated, players must be able to deal with the huge expectations on their shoulders. When a club's very future depends on the finances gained by being in the Premier League, the pressure is suddenly even greater.

Time is of the essence. Getting back to the top flight as quickly as possible is all that matters - and the longer you fail to succeed, the harder it becomes.

Which bring us onto this season's three clubs hoping their stay in the Championship is short and sweet.

However, it says a lot for their prospects that some pundits fancy the chances of promoted clubs Norwich and Leeds more than those of Portsmouth, Hull, and Burnley.

The first two face battles off the pitch, as well as on it, as they begin to come to terms with the overspending during their respective Premier League tenures. Balancing the books and making sure the club is stable off the field of play will be just as important as results on it.

New Pompey boss Steve Cotterill has Championship experience with Burnley

It perhaps makes both of their needs to reclaim their Premier League place even more important. Pompey and Hull are also joined in the fact they begin the campaign with new managers.

On the South Coast, Avram Grant's resignation and subsequent departure to West Ham opened the door for Steve Cotterill to make a return to the second tier of English football.

The 46-year-old had been out of the game since leaving Burnley in 2007 before re-surfacing last February to take over at League Two Notts County.

A sensational run at the end of season saw him capture the title at Meadow Lane and capture the attention of clubs up and down the country - one of the reasons for him leaving subsequently Notts.

Now he faces arguably his most difficult managerial challenge at a club who have been shedding players off their inflated wage bill for almost two years.

Portsmouth's financial mismanagement saw the club forced to operate under a transfer embargo last season as they became the first ever top flight club to enter administration on their way to the drop.

Cotterill must now steady the good ship Pompey. The straight-talking Westcountry man has a reputation for making sides organised and difficult to beat.

His no-frills approach is probably exactly what the Fratton Park outfit require at this moment in time. It might not always be pretty, but few sides will work harder than Portsmouth - a fact sure to be appreciated by some of England's most passionate supporters.

During his time at Burnley, he helped tighten up a notoriously leaky backline at Turf Moor and took the Clarets to three respectable mid table finishes. The re-building job at Pompey may require a similar performance this term.

The same can be said on the banks of the Humber. The future always looked bleak for Hull when their two year sojourn facing the country's finest came to an end in May.

Chairman Adam Pearson - no relation to his new manager, Nigel - had been sending out warnings about the club's financial future should relegation be forthcoming after he returned to the club at the start of 2010.

The desperation with which they have appeared to act in attempts to off-load Jimmy Bullard is an indication of the the club's urgency to cut its cloth accordingly after demotion.

In many ways, the signing of Bullard was a microcosm of everything that went wrong at the KC Stadium when the Premier League champagne went to their heads.

Nigel Pearson has taken on the challenge at relegated Hull City

Paying £5 million for a player with such a dubious injury record was folly to say the least. His astronomical wages, too, reflect poorly on former chairman Paul Duffen and ex-boss Phil Brown.

In his 18 months in East Yorkshire, the 31-year-old has made just 15 appearances due to injury. His refusal to lower his wage demands also scuppered a loan move to Celtic - something he should be ashamed of.

Fortunately, in Nigel Pearson, the Tigers have appointed a manager of great standing who has proven his ability in guiding Leicester to the League One title in 2009 then narrowly missing out in the play-offs last season with the Foxes.

If he can get the best out of a squad heavy in industry, if not inspiration, then City - finances permitting - could surprise many this term.

The third of the relegated trio, Burnley, are perhaps the most interesting case going into the 2010/11 season. The Clarets lasted just a single season amongst the big boys before their all too predictable swift return.

They are probably in the strongest position of the three relegated clubs to challenge though. The majority of the squad which won promotion in 2009 has been kept - as have the smart additions they made while in the Premier League.

Chairman Barry Kilby was determined not to 'risk the farm' in his approach to life in the top flight. Relegation only to come back stronger always seemed to be part of the Clarets's master plan.

While financially stable and boasting a good squad, though, the Lancashire club's hopes of challenging appear to rest on whether manager Brian Laws has the ability to make the best use of his resources.

He was a surprise appointment to replace Bolton-bound Owen Coyle in January. He had only just been dismissed by Sheffield Wednesday after a disastrous run saw them slump into the Championship's bottom three.

A few weeks later and he had another relegation fight on his hands - only this time in the top flight. However, Burnley lost 15 of their 18 games under Laws as they lost their battle against the drop.

Most worrying was a squad that Coyle had managed to coax every last drop out of suddenly seemed to have lost something under his successor. Kilby resisted the calls for a quick dismissal - and Laws survived.

Ultimately, not preventing relegation to the Championship is not a sackable offence for Laws. However, if Burnley fail to figure at the right end this season, he is unlikely to be afforded such backing from his Chairman again.

For Messrs Cotterill, Pearson, and Laws, it will be a lot more than just history weighing them down this season.

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