6,588 days out of the top divisions. John Heyda investigates

Last updated : 22 August 2003 By Michael Morris
One theme that stood out among the many comments posted to the Cardiff City Online messageboard after City's first home match in Division One touched on the big difference in the brand of football played in the league's upper echelons. Messages spoke of City's having to go on "a learning curve" this season, of the club's needing "to learn a few things before we establish ourselves in this division," of the opposition's administering "a sharp lesson" on Saturday. Others noted that "the players seem bigger, hit the ball harder and are a lot fitter," that "mistakes get punished more often," and that there's "much more pace and strength."

Comments and observations such as these raise the question of just how much of a learning curve might be involved for City, a club back up in the second flight of the football league after 18 consecutive years (or a total of 6588 days) in the lower divisions. Can the Bluebirds master the sharp lessons awaiting them this season, establishing their Division One bonafides, or will mistakes be punished so often that City struggle the whole year? More generally, how well have clubs fared upon moving up to this level after long runs in the bottom two divisions?

With such questions in mind, I've been looking at how well clubs promoted to the second flight of the football league have done in that first season up after at least 15 consecutive seasons in the lower divisions. In other words, clubs in the same spot as City find themselves this season. I've sifted through league tables beginning with the 1946-47 season and discovered over 30 instances of clubs winning promotion to the second tier after 15 or more years in the lower reaches. Here's a summary of what I've found out:

* There have been 35 instances since WWII of clubs coming up to the old Second/ new First Division after spending at least 15 straight seasons in the lower divisions. These instances involve 32 different clubs. Only three have managed the feat twice - QPR, Rotherham, and Walsall.

* Of those 35, only one club managed to win promotion to the top flight in their first year up - QPR (Rodney Marsh & Co.) in 1967-68. No doubt QPR were something special in those days. They were defending League Cup champions in 1967-68 as well, having won the first-ever League Cup final played at Wembley the season before.

* Only one other club finished in the top six - Barnsley in 1981-82 - and that was before there were playoffs, of course. No such club has made it to the top six in the playoff era. Since playoffs began with the 1986-87 season, the club in this category to come closest to a playoff berth finished eighth. That club? Stockport, in 1997-98, managed by Gary Megson. They wound up nine points behind sixth-place Sheffield United.

* 15 of the 35 finished in the top half of the table.

* Two were relegated - Mansfield in 1977-78 (their one and only year in the upper echelons) and Walsall in 1988-89.

* Interestingly enough, clubs that spent "only" 15 to 20 consecutive years in the lower divisions before the big promotion have fared better in their first year up than clubs promoted after more than 20 years away. This aspect of the "form guide" for clubs like this year's Bluebirds suggests that City should fare well enough. Of the seven clubs in this particular category, all but one finished in the top half of the table, the lone exception the Rotherham entry that finished 21st in 2001-02.

* Perhaps the most remarkable stats to surface in this review of clubs' postwar histories are those that show just how long some clubs have had to labour in the lower divisions before finally reaching the promised land of second-flight football. Would you believe that Crewe spent 69 straight seasons in the lower divisions before reaching the First Division in 1997-98? Or that Southend had to go 64 straight before reaching the old Second Division in 1991-92? Incredible but true. Other clubs over 40 years include Bournemouth with 57, Stockport with 52, Gillingham and Wrexham with 50, Reading with 48, Tranmere with 45, and Watford with 42.

All in all, a reading of these tea leaves suggests that City fans have reason to hope for a midtable finish. These historical records show, though, that a playoff berth, let alone promotion, would be just about without precedent.

John Heyda