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How does Sunderland’s first season in League One compare with other previously relegated clubs?

Chris Wynn takes a look back at the last twenty years to see not only how relegated clubs have managed in their first season in League One, but how Sunderland stand up.

Rotherham United v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One Play Off Final
Rotherham United celebrating winning last year's League One play-off final
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

It’s possibly a bit soon for this but as we start digesting what lies ahead in the play-offs, I thought I’d make a start on making sense on how our League campaign compares with teams previously relegated to League One.

There’s a huge variety of clubs in the years gone by, including current Premier League champions Manchester City and Stockport County from the National League North, who were relegated from the second tier in varying positions of strength, on and off the field, but all went through the same process. It’s not exactly scientific, and unlikely to provide any definitive summary of our season, but why not?

The Stats

I’ve taken a look at how all the relegated sides managed in their League One campaign following relegation from the second tier over the last twenty years beginning with 1998-99. This gives us sixty teams to compare against, which is probably enough to paint a picture.

League Position

The numbers show a varying degree of success over the last twenty years where the average of the sixty clubs was a mid-table finish of 11th place, with a points tally of ~20 less than our’s for this season at 67 points.

Taking this into consideration, the spread of the final league positions are unsurprisingly all over the place.

The numbers show that, out of the sixty teams we’ve looked at, the same number of teams have gone straight back up as champions as there have been clubs who dropped straight into League Two.

So the last twenty years would suggest there is a 10% chance of winning the title at your first attempt and there’s a 10% chance you’ll go down.

Although the championship winning sides includes Wigan Athletic, who have ended as champions twice in the last three years, and all six titles have been in the last ten years.

Looking at what we have just missed out on, the automatic promotion spots, only 15% of teams have achieved this at the first attempt in the last twenty years.

Not many more have achieved what we have in getting to the play-offs, with only nine out of the sixty sides finishing 3rd-6th.

The most popular final positions lie between the play-offs and bottom three, where roughly one out of every two relegated clubs finishing in-between the two.


So, how many teams have successfully met their goal of getting promoted? Well, since 1998 on average only one team in every four goes back up at the first attempt.

Relevant to our play-off campaign to come, six years out of the twenty have seen a relegated side gain promotion through the play-offs and seven teams have lost out via the play-offs.

Looking through the individual teams there are some bigger clubs such as Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday that missed out on the play-offs completely at the first time of asking.

For the years that have seen little success, 40% of the seasons we looked at saw all three relegated sides fail to gain promotion back to the Championship.

Total Points

A spread of 19 points between 79 and 98 have been enough to see top two finishes since the late 90’s. Looking into greater detail, Sunderland would have already been promoted with our current total of 85 in five of the last twenty years.

Also, in 60% of the seasons we looked at, victory on the last day against Southend United would potentially have seen us return to the Championship on 88 points.


As we know, each team who suffer the drop does so with a different set of circumstances and tools to be able to force an immediate return. Although, it does clearly stand out just how difficult it is to get out of this league at the first attempt.

With six games remaining it was in our hands and we all expected us to finish it off. We didn’t. A run of one win in five has meant we follow in the footsteps of the likes of Manchester City, Sheffield United and Leeds United in fighting it out in the lottery of the play-offs in the third tier.

There have been mistakes this season and it’s led to a feeling of frustration that we didn’t put a place in the top two to bed when we had the chance. But this shouldn’t detract from the fact that we should be proud of this season.

It would be a different feeling had we been on the edge of the play-offs for most of the season then confirmed it with a late run, but the outcome would be the same.

Despite playing nine more league games we have lost the same amount of games as Manchester City this season. We’re difficult to beat, and not many sides will want to face us in the play-offs.

For those with nails left after a cup final and the run-in, there are a few more twists and turns to come yet.

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