Second season syndrome is about how making it in football is never quite enough. A good first campaign at a new level only counts if you follow it up.
It can apply to individuals, such as Bradfordian Mason Greenwood, who this time last year was looking well set to make England’s European Championships on the back of a breakthrough season which saw him score 18 times for Manchester United in all competitions. But from the moment the young striker was sent home after the opening game, a Nations League match in Iceland, his 2020-21 has never really got going.
There were encouraging signs of improved form against West Ham United at the weekend but with only four goals to his name, he will not be in the senior squad Gareth Southgate selects this afternoon, having already been picked for the Under-21s instead.
It is not just an individual phenomenon.
Sheffield United were ninth in last season’s Premier League, five points behind Tottenham Hotspur. That they are now breaking unwanted records at the bottom, 12 points from safety, shows how tight the margins can be between the division’s also-rans and its stragglers, and how hard kicking on after a good first season is.
Huddersfield Town and Hull City stayed up in their debut Premier League seasons (the Terriers had long ago played in the old First Division, the Tigers had not), only to go down 12 months later. City returned for another two-year stint in 2013-15 but Town are still to recover.
The dilemma at the end of that first season is what to do next. Nowadays staying in the Premier League means another £100m-plus in the bank, although this season a lot of that has gone towards filling gaps left by Covid-19. The temptation is to splurge it but that can be dangerous too.
Bradford City tried in their second Premier League season and are now in English football’s fourth tier, having been through some harrowing times financially.
Like Wilder’s Sheffield United, the Bantams were one of modern football’s great romantic stories when they beat Liverpool on the final day of 1999-2000 to stay in the top division. They made signings after stepping up a level, even some big names like Dean Saunders and Lee Sharpe, but the most they paid for a player was £1.4m for David Weatherall, who would make over 300 appearances for them and have two spells as caretaker manager.
It was season two where they started to get giddy. David Hopkin cost £2.5m, Ashley Ward £1.5m and Dan Petrescu £1m but the headline signings were free transfers Benito Carbone and Stan Collymore.
All were gone by the following year except Ward and Carbone, and chairman Geoffrey Richmond wished out loud the latter had too, claiming his £40,000-a-week wages could cause the club to fold.
They were all talented players, but the chemistry of a band of brothers who had taken the club up was disrupted, and it was not just in the dressing room where egos were rife. Richmond told manager Paul Jewell at an end-of-season lunch he would not have kept him on were he not under contract and before the year was out they had parted.
Richmond was unhappy at Jewell’s weak team selection for a League Cup tie, his over-expansive tactics in a 5-4 defeat to West Ham United and playing Weatherall in attack to chase a game against Derby County, but it was when the two men compared their lists of transfer targets for the summer that things really started to go wrong. As soon as a chairman has his own list, things are only likely to go one way. A chairman unhappy with his manager’s transfer dealing was at the root of the break-up between Wilder and his lifelong love Sheffield United too, only this time the owner was applying the brakes, not stamping on the accelerator.
The Blades needed the humility to recognise luck played its part last season when they enjoyed a remarkable injury record, and more quality was needed to kick them on.
Signings like Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash were Championship players of similar profiles to those they would be joining. They would have been gambles but the seasons they are having at Aston Villa, who invested heavily after narrowly staying up in 2019-20, are vindicating Wilder.
Instead they paid fees and wages which brought in players who might prosper in next season’s Championship but were not ready to shoulder much of the load in the Premier League.When it comes to avoiding second season syndrome there is no manual to follow, just plenty of told-you-so moments if you get it wrong.
It is a balance Leeds United and Harrogate Town will have to strike this summer. Rotherham United will be hoping to get the chance too. All will have to strengthen to make sure they do not stand still, but in the way Leeds did after their Championship title, adding a few high-quality players easily integrated into the dressing room and the team.
Evolution not revolution is the way forward when you already have a successful formula.
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