Reality Bites For Premier League New Boys After Opening Day Action


Ian Holloway probably knows how Watford are feeling today, but he wasn’t exactly feeling in the mood to get too excited when his Blackpool team enjoyed an even better start to the Premier League five years ago. Just promoted to the top flight for the first time since 1971, the Tangerines thumped Wigan Athletic 4-0, to immediately - if somewhat superficially - go top.

“I might take a photo of it and retire now,” Holloway said of his side’s position, before immediately changing direction. “We’ve got to find three teams to finish above. That’s the reality. Reality tells me we need so many players, it’s scary.”

Reality has also hit for Bournemouth and Norwich City, even if Watford are still allowed to wonder what might be possible this season. Their 2-2 draw with Everton maintained that giddy enthusiasm, not least the fact it was at Goodison Park. Their first home game back in the Premier League - against West Brom on Saturday - will be untainted, at least until the final whistle.

That was what was so slightly depressing about the opening day for the other two sides to come up from the Championship. With the first set of fixtures, there are few games that match the fervour and fun atmosphere of a newly promoted club playing their first match at home, but the Bournemouth and Watford carnivals were soon quelled.

It was not just that they lost those opening games. It was who they lost to, and how. A controversial high-foot decision aside, Norwich City were well beaten by Crystal Palace, while Bournemouth were made to realise how much sharper you need to be in the Premier League as they wasted a series of opportunities against a relatively limited Aston Villa.

There’s also a more concerning question out of this. If these two sides can’t use all of the momentum of promotion to claim three points in eminently winnable home games, then when will they get those points? Who will they beat? It fosters the sense those points are going to be hard to come by, and these are going to be hard seasons.

That is not to be too downbeat about their chances, or make long-term conclusions from the opening day. It merely reflects the “reality”, as Holloway put it.

That reality is best displayed by the numbers.

The graph below shows the massive difference in income between the Championship and Premier League. Officials at promoted clubs may be thrilled at this, but the more relevant issue from it for their actual teams is that they are up against sides who have had the benefit of such money for much longer.

It is little wonder that clubs like West Ham United, West Brom, QPR and Norwich City have yo-yoed in the past few years. They are initially hit by financial discrepancies on first coming up, only to feel some benefit when they go back down and then gradually get to the point where they have enough of a base to build in the Premier League for the longer term.

That base is essential.

Consider some of the other numbers. It was 2004 when the Champions League finance began to properly influence the Premier League, and set in motion an era where the final table was conditioned by cash like never before.

Of 33 teams to come up since, eight have not been relegated at all, seven were relegated within two seasons and 14 - by far the most - were relegated immediately.

Four of those have come in the past three seasons, so that’s out of nine - almost 50%.

It's hard not to think Bournemouth and Watford will be joining them, further skewing the recent ratio, especially when you consider their underwhelming business and their starts.

Of course, a perfect start is far from an indication of a perfect season. Blackpool are the evidence of that, and Holloway’s words were vindicated. Their limited squad ran out of energy and they barely gained a point after Christmas, to the point they were one of those 14 immediately relegated.

That, alternatively, should be encouragement for Eddie Howe and Alex Neil.

As the Bournemouth manager himself said: “The start of any season is pivotal, but not defining.” There’s also the fact that they are both such bright managers, capable of exactly the kind of adjustment and innovation needed in such situations.

Money’s increasingly massive conditioning of the game - at all levels, right up to the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur trying to qualify for the Champions League - means that it’s futile to try and get involved in any kind of arms race. Rather, the only way for lesser-resourced teams to get around it is to be creative, to gradually learn and spot the gaps in the system.

In that sense, Howe can be right. Bournemouth can “take a lot of positives from the game”. They’re at least filling in the knowledge gap, and know what they’re up against. They have to build a base in a different way.

They need to use reality to their advantage.

 

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