Promotion and Relegation in English Football


Just how much of an effect does promotion and relegation have on a team for the following season and are all divisions equally difficult to stay in following promotion or to get straight back out of following relegation?

For all those fans celebrating a promotion this season or hoping for their team to bounce straight back from a relegation, this article will look at the stats behind promotion and relegation and the effects it has on the following season depending on which division they are playing in. Throughout this article we will be looking at the finishing positions of teams following a promotion/relegation, whether there is a significant difference between those who get promoted automatically and those through the play-offs, the hardest divisions to be promoted/ relegated from and finally looking at any back to back promotion/relegations.

All the data used has been taken from the 1992/1993 season onwards (formation of the Premier League) and will be looking at the top four tiers of English football. For the purpose of this article, the divisions will be referred to in the same way they are now (despite the football leagues renaming in 2004/2005) e.g. any data on the second tier of English football will always be referred to as ‘The Championship’ regardless of whether it was before the renaming in 2004. For most of this period the relegation and promotion spots in each division have been in the same format:

Promotion Spots Relegation Spots
Premier League n/a 3
Championship 3 3
League 1 3 4
League 2 4 2

The only slight difference was in the 1994/1995 season when the Premier League changed to a 20 team league and therefore created one more relegation spot per division and one less promotion spot for that season only.

Going up and staying up

Gaining promotion is a very exciting time for a club and is the result of a successful season where they will have won a lot of their games, however a few months later when the new season starts this can suddenly change and can hit the club hard with a difficult season. Staying in the new division can become the team's sole aim for that season and can prove to be a difficult task, but does this change depending on the division being promoted into?

By quite a big jump, the Premier League is the hardest division to survive in, with a 28% difference between them and the Championship. This proves without a doubt that the Premier League is the hardest of the four divisions with 44% of its teams being relegated in the first season following promotion, whilst League 2 is undoubtedly the easiest, having none.

This is good news for any Cheltenham Town or Grimsby Town fans as no teams promoted from the Conference to League 2 have been relegated in their first season in the Football League. In fact, the least amount of time a club has spent in this division following promotion from the Conference before being relegated again is four seasons which was way back in 1997/1998 when Halifax Town were promoted and then relegated in the 2001/2002 season. Below is a graph showing the number of promotions into each division since 1992 and how many of those teams have then been relegated in their first season.

As expected, the Premier League shows the highest number of first season relegations with 30 of the 68 promoted teams being relegated in their first season. This will be in part due to the separation of the Premier League and the Football League and the amount of money involved in the top flight, meaning teams making that step are already at a huge financial disadvantage when first entering the division. Both the Championship and League 1 have a lower relegation rate which shows that promotion between the Football League divisions is easier than making the jump into the top flight. The biggest piece of information from this section is in League 2 which shows no first season relegations after being promoted from the Conference.

Automatic Promotion v Play-offs

Although the obvious preferred choice of promotion is automatic, the excitement of winning a play-off finally at Wembley is an unforgettable experience and grants them the same prize as those finishing in the automatic spots- promotion to the division above. With the following season in a harder division, do the teams that get promoted automatically have a better chance of survival than those promoted through the play-offs? The graph below shows the percentage of teams that are relegated from the division in their first season following promotion split between automatic and play-offs.

As you may have expected, the Premier League shows the highest numbers, with teams struggling to make the jump from the Championship a permanent one. The Premier League shows that promotion via the play-offs results in more chance of relegation that an automatic spot with 61% compared to 36%.

Moving down the divisions, we see that there is a higher percentage of first season relegations from automatically promoted teams than those via the play-offs in both the Championship and League 1. Although there isn’t a huge gap, it seems it is good news for Barnsley and AFC Wimbledon after winning the play-offs, as they appear to have a better chance of survival than the teams who beat them to the automatic spots. Below is a table which breaks this down into each division:

1st Season Relegations
Automatic Promotion Play-offs Total
Automatic Promotion Automatic Spots % Play-offs Play Off Spots % 1st Season Relegation Promotion Spots %
Premier League 16 45 36% 14 23 61% 30 68 44%
Champ 9 45 20% 2 23 9% 11 68 16%
League 1 16 69 23% 4 22 18% 20 91 22%
League 2 0 20 0% 0 13 0% 0 33 0%
Total 41 180 23% 21 82 26% 62 262 24%

The ‘Total’ column shows the combination of all promoted teams and how they fared the following season. Close to half (44%) of the teams promoted into the Premier League were relegated in their first season (30 of 68). This goes down to a more respectable amount in the Championship and League 1 with 16% and 22% respectively. As mentioned earlier, there have been no first season relegations for newly promoted teams in League 2, however, as you can see there are also significantly fewer promotion spots into the division.

It seems that there is little correlation between automatic promotion and winning the play-offs when looking at survival the following season with the Championship and League 1 actually showing numbers in favour of the teams promoted in the play-offs being 11% and 5% better off respectively.

The Premier League threw up no surprises when seeing how many teams are relegated in their first season because of the large financial gap to the Championship and it is for this reason that the Championship play-off final is constantly referred to in terms of how much money the club stand to make if they win e.g. Hull City v Sheffield Wednesday was dubbed ‘the £200 million game’.

One piece of comforting news came in the form of League 2 survival which showed that from 1992 (when we started looking at this data) no team has been relegated in their first season following promotion from the Conference.


We’ve looked at which division is the hardest to survive in following promotion, now to look at how easy it is for a team to gain promotion straight back up following a relegation and the divisions which have been easiest to get straight back out of.

Promotion Spots 1st Season Promotion
Championship 71 20
League 1 71 14
League 2 95 20
Conference 35 4

Looking at the above table it seems as though League 2 has finally shown a negative with only four clubs of the 35 relegated since 1992 gaining promotion back into the Football League at the first attempt. This shows the similarity in competitiveness between League 2 and the Conference with teams moving freely between the two divisions and settle in with similar abilities. To put these figures into perspective, the below graph shows the same information but in percentage form.

We see here a predictable trend with teams less likely to get re-promoted the further down the leagues you go. With teams in the Premier League earning so much money compared to other divisions, a club being relegated into the Championship will go straight back up 28% of the time largely due to the huge financial advantage they will have and have had over their new competitors. It seems as though there are a few links between divisions here, with League 2 and the Conference at a similar level as previously mentioned and then League 1 and the Championship with a small percentage of teams getting re-promoted. Coupled with the earlier topic of relegation it seems as though teams are able to survive the jump from Conference to League 2 as well as the jump between League 1 and the Championship more comfortably than the jump from League 2 and League 1 or the Championship into the Premier League.

Average finishing positions

We have looked at the number of first season relegations and first season promotions following a division change. But we need to take this further and gather more information to establish which divisions are hardest and easiest. The best way to do this is the finishing position of those teams. We looked at each of the promoted and relegated teams to create the average finishing position for the following season.

The graph shows that the further down the English professional leagues you go, the harder it becomes for a team the following season, before then looking slightly better in the Conference for relegated League 2 teams. The average finishing position for a team relegated to the Championship from the Premier League team is 8th which is only just outside the play-off spots, whereas when looking at League 2 this drops down to 12th which is mid-table in a league of 24. It is therefore no surprise that when we look at the average finishing position of teams following promotion that the opposite trend occurs.

A trend appears here which is only to be expected, as the higher up the football ladder you go, the harder it is for a team to be successful in their new division. The Premier League, as well as having the worst finishing position, is actually worse than it looks in the graph as there are only 20 teams who compete in the Premier League whereas the Championship, League 1 & 2 all have 24. Therefore, despite the steady drop from 14th to 12th between the Championship and League 2, there is a bigger drop in league performance for the Premier League with an average finishing position of 15th only just missing the relegation spots, whereas as the other 3 divisions boast a mid-table finish.

We also looked earlier at the difference between being promoted via an automatic spot compared to a play-off spot, so how do these change when looking at average finishing positions? The table below shows the highest, lowest and average finishing position of teams the season after they have left a division through automatic promotion, the play-offs or relegation.

Promotion/ Relegation Highest Finish Lowest Finish Average Finish
Premier League Relegation 1 23 8
Championship Automatic Promotion 3 20 14
Championship Play-offs 5 22 16
Championship Relegation 1 24 11
League 1 Automatic Promotion 2 24 13
League 1 Play-offs 2 24 16
League 1 Relegation 1 24 12
League 2 Automatic Promotion 1 24 13
League 2 Play-offs 1 23 13
League 2 Relegation 1 24 9

In most cases, the highest and lowest finishing positions are first and last in the division, with the exception of the Championship, which again as expected shows that teams struggle more in the Premier League the following season than they would in any other division.

Earlier we saw a slight unexpected result when we saw that teams who were promoted into the Championship and League 1 via the play-offs were actually more likely to survive than those in the automatic spots. Here we see it slightly reverts back to the norm. In all four divisions, the average finishing position of automatically promoted teams is equal to or better than those in the play-offs. The biggest difference is in the Championship with a gap of three places, but it is worth noting that in the Championship, League 1 & 2 the average finishing positions are far from the relegation zone. The Premier League also shows a strong finishing position however once again remember that the Premier League has just 20 teams compared to the other leagues of 24.

Second season syndrome- myth or fact?

One topic we wanted to address was the theory of ‘second season syndrome’, whereby regardless of how well a team does in its first season after promotion (assuming they don’t gain promotion again), they will then struggle a lot more in their second season. We looked at the promotions from each division to see how many of them were then relegated in their first or second season and the results are below.

This graph slightly disproves the theory, obviously there are still relegations in the second season, but not enough of a link to show that a team should worry anymore about their second season than they should their first. The Championship is one division where ‘second season syndrome’ is most evident as almost as many teams fail in their second season as do in their first; however it is worth noting that this is still a small amount considering there have been 68 promotions to this division since 1992.

With a high portion of relegations, the Premier League actually seems to show fewer second season relegations than you would imagine, (possibly because of the high number of first season relegations) showing the same amount as the Championship and only one more than League 1. League 2 once again fires ahead in this category by boasting none in their first or second seasons.

Back-to-back promotion and relegation

The final section will take a look at teams who have jumped two divisions in two seasons and whether those were back-to-back promotions or back-to-back relegations. The sample size for this is obviously a lot smaller and happen less often, but they do still occur, so we wanted to check if there was a specific division that caused more problems than others.

Back-to-back promotions can suddenly take a team through massive change and propel them into the limelight, it is no surprise however that this occurs more often in the lower leagues. The graph below shows the divisions in which a back-to-back promotion has happened; the data shows the division the team was in at the time they gained their second promotion e.g. four teams have been promoted into the Championship and then promoted straight to the Premier League in their first season in the Championship.

As predicted, gaining a back to back promotion into the Premier League is rare and has happened just four times in 24 years, whereas both League 1 and 2 boast eight a piece. Looking deeper into these numbers shows no specific trends, with all these promotions being spread evenly over the past 24 years.

This somewhat contradicts the information we showed earlier, with the links between certain divisions being slightly better as teams seem to be able to gain a back-to-back promotion from League 2 to the Championship a lot easier than they would from League 1 to the Premier League, despite us showing that a team being able to avoid the drop in League 1 following promotion from League 2 being harder than normal. It seems as though some teams are able to not only beat the drop, but go on to do the opposite and gain promotion again which is exactly what Burton Albion have achieved this season.

Back-to-back relegations are usually the consequence of actions away from the football pitch but it can still be the result of being relegated from a certain division in particular.

When looking at relegations, we follow a similar trend with only two teams being relegated from the Championship the season following their relegation from the Premier League. League 1 stands out from the crowd with it having more than twice as many back-to-back relegations than any other division at seven.

With money playing a much bigger part in football now than it ever has, it is not surprising that when we dug deeper into these numbers, they were a lot more recent. Out of the 12 back-to-back relegations since 1992, seven of them have come in the past six years with Blackpool being the latest victim. The Seasiders were relegated to League 2 this season following their quick demise after a spell in the Premier league which ended just five seasons ago in 2011.

Final Score

Through all the information we have shown, it is good news for fans of lower league teams currently celebrating promotion as the likelihood is they will be able to avoid getting relegated next season, especially in League 2 as we showed that no team has been promoted into that division and then relegated in any of its first first seasons.

Burnley, Middlesbrough and Hull City all have some work to do over the summer as the percentage of first season relegations in the Premier League is at 44%, with Hull City specifically in trouble being promoted through the play-offs which has seen 61% of teams failing in their first season. There has been a total of 30 first season Premier League relegations since 1992 and in only two seasons in this time have all promoted teams avoided the drop.

Some interesting results came up when we looked at the difference between gaining promotion through the automatic spots and play-offs as it showed that gaining promotion to the Championship or League 1 via the play-offs actually had more teams surviving the following season than the automatic spots did.

20% of automatically promoted teams were relegated straight back out of the Championship compared to only 9% of play-off teams. In league 1, it was a similar story with 23% of automatically promoted teams failing to beat the drop and just 18% of play-off teams. The Premier League once again had the highest figures in this area with 36% of teams through automatic promotion being relegated and a massive 61% of play-offs teams lasting just one season in the big league.

On the flip side of these, first season promotions following relegation showed no unusual trends with 28% of teams relegated from the Premier League gaining promotion straight back out of the Championship at the first attempt. This went down to 20% in League 1, 21% in League 2 and just 11% in the Conference.

This was the same story when we delved into finishing positions following promotion or relegation from each division with the lower leagues being harder to get straight back out of. League 2 had an average finishing position for relegated teams of 12th, whilst League 1 was slightly better at 11th and the Championship showed the best position of 8th. The opposite occurred with teams following promotion as the higher the division promoted into, the lower your finishing position, with the average finishing position of teams promoted into the Premier League being 15th (of 20) whilst in League 2 it was just 12th (of 24).

The dreaded second season syndrome, which we hear about a lot when talking about teams in the Premier League who have survived their first season seemed to have no evidence to back it up. The number of Premier League teams relegated in their 2nd season (9) was no different to the Championship (9) and only one more than League 1 (8). It seemed as though the best piece of evidence that it exists was in the Championship where first season relegations were at 11 and second season relegations dropping to just nine meaning almost as many teams fail in their second season as they do their first.

The final section we looked at was back-to-back movements, with back-to-back promotions happening more in the lower leagues and have been steady since 1992, whereas relegations seemed to happen a lot more in League 1 with 7 of the 12 back-to-back relegations being in League 1. These have also happened a lot more in recent years with seven in the past six years. Charlton Athletic, MK Dons and Bolton Wanderers have all suffered Championship relegation this season and with a back-to-back relegation in each of the past two seasons in League 1, it is not looking good for these three teams, whose task it seems may not be to just hunt for promotion, but to ensure they avoid the drop once again.

With all this info taken on board it has brought up some very good and bad news for teams with Hull City looking as though they are in for a very tough year in the Premier League whilst Cheltenham Town and Grimsby Town who have just re-entered the Football League will have a much better time.

Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Norwich City are looking at the best percentage chance of a first time promotion and with all of them being big clubs with good top-flight experience, the trio will be looking to bounce straight back.

Since 1992 however, there has never been an occasion where all the Premier League relegated teams have managed to gain promotion at the first attempt together. In fact, out of the 24 seasons measured, there has only been four occasions when two of the Premier Leagues three relegated teams have gained promotion together to following season. Regardless of all this info, we football fans always believe our team will be different and with Leicester City winning the Premier League, could this be the season that teams ignore the trends, do something different and believe they can achieve whatever they want?