When speaking of clubs that ‘don’t belong’ in a certain division, angry reactions are very much commonplace. Those infuriated by such statements argue that a club earns its place in a league by footballing merit alone, and that size and history are ultimately irrelevant in the discussion surrounding where a club should be. While it is true that a team’s performances are the deciding factor in a clubs status, it is fair to say that there are many clubs who are expected to be occupying a higher position in the football pyramid, some with very rich and successful histories. Here, the aim is to put a few of these clubs under the spotlight and examine just why they haven’t been able to compete at the levels they have in the past.
When Sunderland were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2016-17 season, there was very little in the way of optimism regarding how they would fare in the Championship. Many predicted a mid-table finish, and Simon Grayson seemed to be a dependable if unspectacular appointment who would give the club some much needed stability. However, Sunderland haven’t even been able to manage this, and with 2 games to go till the halfway point of the season they sit in 23rd, having won only 2 games all season. This is remarkable for a club with a 49,000 capacity stadium and one of the most passionate sets of fans in the country, who had maintained Premier League status, albeit sometimes by the skin of their teeth, since 2007. They received an initial £25 million fee from the transfer of Jordan Pickford to Everton, yet very little appears to have been reinvested into the squad. The club is most likely still paying Premier League wages to the likes of Jack Rodwell and Darron Gibson, and transfer activity in January may well be hindered by the uncertainty surrounding Ellis Short’s ownership, who says that the club is not officially for sale but will listen to credible offers from potential suitors. It is clear that there are a multitude of factors that are contributing to Sunderland’s freefall, and even though the appointment of Chris Coleman has raised hopes somewhat on Wearside, whether he can drag a team that seems to only know failure out of a relegation dogfight remains to be seen.
Portsmouth currently occupy 7th place in League 1 and sit 3 points adrift of the playoffs, making 2 successive promotions a very real possibility. If one was to go back to 2008 however, Portsmouth were playing UEFA Cup football, pitting themselves against the likes of Wolfsburg and AC Milan on the back of an FA Cup triumph against Cardiff. They finished the 2008-09 season in 14th place, and the club was clearly in one of the loftiest positions it had ever achieved. Unfortunately, this could not be maintained, and at the start of the 2009-10 season key players such as Peter Crouch, Glen Johnson and Niko Kranjcar were sold due to financial issues. Players and Staff saw their wages delayed throughout the season, and despite reaching another FA Cup final in which they lost 1-0 to Chelsea, the club was relegated to the Championship that season. This was not to be the end of the drama at Portsmouth, with arrest warrants being issued for their owner in 2011, the club going into administration again and eventual relegation into League 1 in 2012. This 2nd relegation saw the entire playing squad leave the club, and their fall from grace was completed when the club found itself relegated to League 2 in 2013. The club’s remarkable success up to 2009 was followed by an even more remarkable decline, and only in 2017 did Portsmouth finally make the first steps towards redemption by winning the League 2 title. The team does seem to be making strides back towards success, but there is much more work to be done before the club can say they have finally reached the position that they feel they belong in.
Tranmere may be seen by some as lying in the shadow of Everton and Liverpool across the River Mersey, but the Birkenhead club is by no means unsuccessful. They had played in the Football League for 94 years up until their relegation in 2015, with perhaps their most successful period taking place in the mid 90’s when the club lost 3 successive playoffs in an attempt to reach the promised land of the Premier League. Any club situated so closely to teams that compete in the Premier League and European competition is going to struggle in terms of attendance, yet Tranmere still maintain a very dedicated and loyal group of fans. After relegation from the second tier in 2001 Tranmere had established themselves in the third tier, with average attendances reaching a respectable 9044 in 2005. However, successive relegation’s in 2014 and 2015 saw the club drop out of the Football League, something that was both unprecedented for the club and unexpected by the fans. Tranmere adapted well to their new climate and had the highest average attendances in the league across their first two seasons, but missed out on promotion by the smallest of margins. They finished just 2 points outside of the National League playoffs in the 2015-16 season, before a season in which Tranmere picked up 95 points and finished second only behind the imperious Lincoln City before an agonising 3-1 loss in the playoff final against Forest Green Rovers. The club sit 9th in the National League at the time of writing, although the new playoff format has opened up two extra spots, giving Tranmere a realistic chance of regaining the Football League status that a club with such strong support deserves.
Another club with a long history of Football League status, Stockport had played in the top 4 divisions continuously from 1905 to 2011, a span of an incredible 106 years. Their highest league position was 8th in the second tier of English football in 1998, finishing just 2 places below the playoffs and a chance at promotion to the Premier League. Although this was the pinnacle of the club’s success, they maintained their league status and drifted between League 1 and 2, with a 3-2 playoff victory over Rochdale in 2008 perhaps the last real success the club tasted. They were relegated from League 1 in 2010 after mustering only 5 wins all season, and another relegation the season after saw the club lose its Football League status. They failed to adjust to life in the National League, and in 2013 found themselves competing in the National League North. Not only has the club found itself in its lowest division since its formative years, but it has so far been unable to claw its way out of this division since, only managing to finish as high as 8th in the 2016-17 season. Furthermore, the club had to relinquish its professional status, which would have no doubt been a kick in the teeth to those who supported the club as it threatened promotion to the Premier League less than 20 years before. The side sits in 9th, yet like Tranmere they may well benefit from the 2 extra playoff spots that have opened up this year, meaning that the journey back towards professional status and the restoration of their proud history may well be underway.
Which other clubs should make this list? Let us know in the comments below!