How Do Promoted Teams Usually Fair In League One?

Credit Graham Burrell

The recent furore over the Imps’ below-par season, and comments such as ‘lack of progression’, got me thinking about how history suggests City are doing.

Yes, we know that the club haven’t done as well as we’d have hoped, although some might say safety is an achievement. For some, it was disappointing with three matches to go that we were not safe from the drop, especially when, on our day, we can match any team in this division.

What I decided to do was to look at all 40 teams to be promoted from League Two since 2010/11, and track their average finishing place, to find out a couple of things. Firstly, I wanted to know how long, on average, a promoted team remains in this division before either promotion, or relegation. I wanted to know how many teams made the play-offs after promotion, how many teams actually went up or down, and what the final finishing position was, on average, to see how we’re genuinely doing. It is easy to be blinded by some poor home performances, rolling out rhetoric such as ‘not good enough’, or ‘shambles’, without taking into account whether we’re actually outperforming our peers, promoted from League One, or not.

This sample does only show the last ten seasons, so I appreciate it is a snapshot rather than a comprehensive overview, but it hopefully puts into context where we are right now.

Credit Graham Burrell

The Headlines

Firstly, before we drill down into specifics, these are the headlines. Teams promoted from League Two spend an average of three seasons in League One. In most cases, after three seasons, they suffer relegation, not promotion. Indeed, of the 40 teams promoted out of League Two since Chesterfield, Bury, Wycombe and Stevenage in 2010/11, 22 have been relegated; more than half. Six have been promoted and twelve teams to come out of League Two remain in the division; Gillingham (2012/13), Fleetwood (2013/14), Shrewsbury (2014/15), Wimbledon and Oxford (2015/16), Portsmouth and Doncaster (2016/17), Accrington (2017/18), Us and MK Dons (2018/19), Crewe and Plymouth (2019/20). The longest-serving team currently in League One, promoted from League Two since 2010/11 are Gillingham, with eight seasons since their 2012/13 promotion.

Bear in mind that my stats do not include Crewe and Doncaster being relegated this season, nor Wimbledon (if it happens), or the other team to join them. Given that it’s one of Gillingham, Fleetwood or Morecambe, this season will mean of 44 teams promoted from League Two, 26 will have been relegated.

By completing our third season in this division, we will statistically be above average kicking off as a League One side next season. More than 50% of teams promoted from League Two leave this division within three seasons. Indeed, six of the 40 teams have been relegated immediately (with Morecambe in danger this season), with another four down in their second season (five if you were to include Crewe this season). Three have been promoted immediately (Rotherham, Burton and Luton), with two passing through in their second season (Wycombe and Coventry). Indeed, the year we failed to get out of League Two it was the toughest in terms of teams going on to better things in many years; three of the teams who went up have since played in the Championship and the other, Accrington, will complete their fourth season at this level at the end of the month.

Credit Graham Burrell


In making the play-offs last season, we became the 16th promoted team to finish in the top six having come out of League Two, and only the eighth to do so in two years or less. Two were promoted via the playoffs within two seasons (Wycombe and Rotherham), whilst of the other five, Stevenage, Swindon and Chesterfield have since been relegated, Doncaster will follow suit this season, meaning only Portsmouth will have survived having been in the play-offs. Stevenage were relegated within two seasons of making the play-offs, Swindon made them twice (2013 and 2015), but were relegated in 2017, and Chesterfield were also relegated within two seasons. Here’s an ominous warning; both Stevenage and Chesterfield finished 18th the year after appearing in the play-offs, and both were rock bottom the year after. However, neither made the play-off final.

Best and Worst

As confirmed above, Gillingham are the best performing promoted League Two team in a decade; they’ve spent eight seasons in this division and finish, on average, 14th. Rochdale were next, until their relegation last season, with seven campaigns and an average placement of 15th. After that Bradford City (six seasons 11th), and Scunthorpe and Swindon (five seasons and 11th) were best. Assuming we finish 18th, we will have gone for three seasons and average 13th place. The actual average of all 40 teams, is three seasons and 14th, so we’re pretty much sticking true to form.

Credit Graham Burrell


Each team is different; for instance, some should never have been in League Two (Coventry) and have since rebuilt. Plus, the division has got harder; in 2010/11, only three League One teams had been in the Premier League (Southampton, Sheff Weds and Charlton), whereas next season it could be as many as eight (Barnsley, Derby, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Charlton, Bolton and Wigan), so actually it is getting statistically harder for teams to be promoted from League Two and to do well.

The headline here is whilst this season hasn’t thrilled everyone, we have achieved something simply by staying up this season. When you chuck in the play-offs, I think Michael has done a decent job. Remember, Graham Taylor’s record-breakers were relegated within three seasons, mainly as a result of the great man himself moving on and the incoming manager not being able to successfully replace the dynasty. Well, Michael has, he had to take a successful side, reshape it and keep us in the division. He’s done that, with bells on, and we have a good chance of kicking on and continuing to establish ourselves as a League One staple.

Personally, I see nothing wrong in being the next Gillingham, spending eight seasons here, enjoying the ride and maybe grabbing a few scalps along the way. Who knows, we might become one of those few promoted League Two clubs who go on to play Championship football, albeit for just a season.