When bottom half Premier League clubs are discussed by neutral observers, it’s often their existence itself that is questioned. “What’s the point of X club?”, they say. But most of the time it’s a case of not looking hard enough for the club’s appeal. In a world of news outlets promoting click bait, and sports coverage monopolised by a small group of super clubs, the Burnley’s, Brighton’s and West Brom’s of this world are often overlooked. But the soul and the story of these club are often even more interesting than they are given credit for.
The documentary “Artist in Residence” by Tai-Shan Schierenberg about his time following West Bromwich Albion showed just this. Tai said of his time with the club: “I wanted to make art about football, because I wanted to understand what it was about the game that makes it so compelling” and compelling it was, as the season he followed was when West Brom’s run of mid table mediocrity finally came to an end and they were relegated from the Premier league despite a dramatic late push in hope of survival. As Tai’s documentary culminating artwork depicts, it’s the hope that kills you.
That season, all three of the eventually relegated club’s (Stoke, Swansea and West Brom) were relatively established Premier League clubs. In fact outside of the traditional top 6 and Everton, they went into the season as the three clubs that had the current longest serving records in the topflight. A status now jointly held by West Ham and Southampton.
West Brom’s last season in the topflight coincided with Brighton’s first. The demise of these three established club’s enabled the three promoted teams to survive, and Brighton are now set for their fourth consecutive topflight season. At the start of the current season Brighton’s board stated its ambition to now progress beyond just surviving and become an established top ten club, but if examples like West Brom tell us anything, it’s that achieving this and sustaining it are two very different things.
This is especially true with next season seeing the return of West Brom after two seasons out of the topflight and the return of Leeds United after 16 season away. Both of whom, like most club’s in the top two tiers of English football, will have ambitions and notions of bettering Brighton’s performance next season.
The nature of the Premier League is that it is all encompassing, if you’re in it your team feel like kings, if you’re out of it then the focus is entirely on getting back in. So much so that the Championship is full of clubs who are spending more just on players wages than the club’s entire turnover. The irony of all the drama of the Championship’s final day of the season this week is that at the same time as being considered one of the most entertaining leagues in world football by fans, it’s also the most repulsed league in world football by its member clubs.
Ever since Leeds United were relegated from the Premier league in 2004, they’ve been told they nonetheless belong in the topflight, despite continued failed attempts to return to it. The problem for clubs like Leeds and Nottingham Forest, whose history overshadows its present, is that this feeling of belonging in a place you’ve not been for a significant period of time creates a culture of discontent and resentment. A culture that’s spawned the type of discourse surrounding the future of Brighton’s Ben White, who spent the last season on loan at Leeds.
The reality for West Brom and Brighton however in comparison to Leeds United, is that familiarity breeds contempt. Whilst Leeds are a fairly resoundingly disliked club, their now novel presence in the Premier League will be celebrated. Moreover, their history and reputation across the world allows for greater interest and commercial opportunities for the Premier League. But status alone won’t itself lead to success, just as Aston Villa have found this season.
The Premier League is a very different place to where it was 16 years ago, the amount of investment from the ever-increasing TV broadcasting revenue generated has left its club’s stronger than ever. The global economic crisis and its effect on football’s transfer market are likely to make next season the most difficult season for the newly promoted club’s. Couple that with the fact that, like our own club, every existing Premier League club has a long term strategy to establish themselves as bigger players in the division and it makes for an intimidating environment for any new club to enter. But, as Leicester showed us in 2016, football often has a habit of defying the odds.
Brighton’s aim is to achieve the somewhat poisoned chalice of mid-table mediocrity is a difficult one, one sought after by not just the Premier League’s bottom-half clubs, but also by most of the countries second tier and many others further down the football league ladder too. The evidence shows achieving it is harder than it is to simply talk about achieving it.
In Brighton’s inaugural Premier League season, three established teams with experienced squad’s failed to retain their status, whilst more recently the evidence of Fulham and Aston Villa’s experiences shows spending lots of money on new players is far from a guarantee of success, whilst Norwich’s experiences this season show not doing so makes the step up even harder still. Furthermore, it seems that as quickly as the West Brom’s and Swansea’s of the Premier League are held up as the latest model for success and stability, they just as quick become the model for failure. Just as the examples like Charlton and Bolton in previous eras.
What history does tell us is that the Premier League is a ruthless place, where reputations are redundant, statuses are quickly squandered and the joy of success is quickly replaced with the will to progress or worst, the torment of failure. If there is one thing that is certain for Premier League’s many mid table aspirers, it’s that for most their ambitions will not be met. But as the Championship’s final day showed us, just as much of the joy is in the drama and anticipation of the battle, as it is in achieving those likely short-lived successes.