Football in England – Leagues Overview

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Contrary to popular belief football was not invented by the Englishmen. It originates from many different games but the first ever football rules were in fact written at the Cambridge University back in 1848. The rules were gradually supplemented with some of the Sheffield Rules’ innovations such as free kicks, corner kicks, handball, throw-ins and the crossbar. These rules got their name after they were invented by Sheffield Football Club which is the oldest club (founded in 1857) that is still playing association football.

 

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Nevertheless even if England is technically not the inventor of football it sure is its modern home. With 42,490 clubs (FIFA Big Count 2006) England has 13,000 more clubs than Brazil that is placed second. Keep in mind that the population of England is just over 53 million while there are more than 200 million Brazilians.

With that many clubs, you need to have a big league and the league system in England is huge. There are over 5,300 clubs that are members of a league in English men’s football system. That accounts for more than 140 individual leagues, containing more than 480 divisions that are spread through 12 tiers. The system has a hierarchical format so in theory it is possible for a club from 12th tier to progress to the English Premier League.

Of course, not all football in England is played professionally. In fact, only the top four divisions (Premier League, Football League Championship, Football League One, Football League Two) are filled with full-time professional clubs. They are often referred to as “League clubs” because, before the establishment of the Premier League in 1992, the Football League included all 92 clubs. The top tier of non-League football is the National League, which contains National League (5th tier) as its top division and two divisions on the next level (6th tier) known as National League North and National League South. The majority of the clubs in these two tiers are semi-professional although there are a few full-time professional clubs. Below the National League, only some of the stronger clubs are semi-pro.

As you probably figured out by now this league review is going to be a bit different than our usual reviews because we will review multiple leagues at once. We believe there is not much to say about the Premier League that you don’t already know therefore we will skip it as well as the lower tiers where amateur football is played. This leaves us with the Football Leagues and the National League’s divisions. However, there is still a huge difference (organization and quality-wise) between Championship (2nd tier) and National League North (6th tier). That is why we will make two separate reviews. The first one will cover the Football league (Championship, League One, League Two) and the second one will be about the National League (North/South).

 

The Football League

Originally founded in 1888 with 12 member clubs it is the oldest association football league in the world. It was the top tier of English football until 1992 when the top clubs split away to form the Premier League. Although it was primarily designed as a competition for English clubs, clubs from Wales also take part nowadays. The league has 72 clubs evenly divided into three divisions, which are known as the Championship, League One and League Two. The Football League also organizes two knock-out competitions, the Football League Cup, and Football League Trophy.

 

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Country: England, Wales
Confederation: UEFA
Founded: 1888
Number of teams: 72 (24 +24+24)
Level on the pyramid: 2-4
Domestic cup: FA Cup, Football League Cup, Football League Trophy
International Cup: UEFA Europa League (via FA Cup/League Cup)
Current champions: Burnley FC (Championship), Wigan Athletic (League One), Northampton Town (League Two)
Transfer window: 9th June – 31st August and 1st January – 31st January
Number of players: 1918 (642+637+639)
Foreign players: 718 (324+210+184)
Average age: 26,6 (Championship); 25,2 (League One); 25,7 (League Two)

 

There are 24 teams in each division that play each other twice (home and away) for a total of 46 games each. The season starts in mid-August and lasts until late-May. Promotion and relegation are possible in all three tiers. The clubs from Championship get promoted to English Premier League, meanwhile, the clubs from League Two get relegated to National League. In the table below you can see the promotion/relegation rules for the Football League.

 

Division Promoted Directly Promoted via Playoffs Relegated
Championship Top 2 clubs One from 3rd-6th place finishers Bottom 3 clubs
League One Top 2 clubs One from 3rd-6th place finishers Bottom 4 clubs
League Two Top 3 clubs One from 4th-7th place finishers Bottom 2 clubs

 

The top four teams that just missed on a direct promotion in each division play a special playoff knock-out system for the last place in a higher tier. It consists of two-legged semi-finals and a one-legged final. The playoff finals are played at Wembley as the last games of the season in English football.

With major sponsors/TV partners, such as Sky Sports, the Football League does not lack in financial power. The Championship is the wealthiest non-top flight league in the world and 9th overall in Europe. League One and League Two are also the wealthiest 3rd and 4th divisions in terms of total market value per club.

Money, of course, attracts foreign players that come looking for an opportunity abroad. It does not come as a surprise that most foreigners come from their neighboring countries (Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) but there are also a lot of players from former English colonies. There are no limitations on the number of foreigners allowed in the matchday squad, however, teams must have at least 6 players that were trained by a club in England.

 

Division Total Market Value (€) * Foreign players * Country with most foreign players **
Championship 752,85m 50,5% France, Spain
League One 128,35m 32,9% France
League Two 76,58m 29,0% France, Jamaica
SUM/AVERAGE 957,78m 37,5% France

*www.transfermarkt.de, **UK, Scotland and Ireland excluded

The Football League will undergo some changes for the following season(s). It will be rebranded as English Football League (EFL). In addition to the name change, there will also be a new logo consisting of a circle composed of three swathes (representing each division) with 25 little circles (representing each club).

 

The National League

The league was first formed as the Alliance Premier League in 1979 in an attempt to create a fully national league under the Football League system. It greatly improved the quality of football played in lower leagues as well as their financial status. At the moment, it consists of a mixture of full-time (usually clubs which have been in the Football League before) and semi-professional clubs. The league has 68 clubs divided into three divisions into two different tiers. The first one is the National League which represents the 5th tier in English football league system. National League North and the National League South are equal at the second step and form the 6th tier of football in England.

 

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Country: England
Confederation: UEFA
Founded: 1979
Number of teams: 68 (24+22+22)
Level on the pyramid: 5-6
Domestic cup: FA Cup, FA Trophy
International Cup: UEFA Europa League (via FA Cup)
Current champions: Cheltenham Town (National League), Soilhull Moors (North), Sutton United (South)
Transfer window: 9th June – 31st August and 1st January – 31st January
Number of players: 557*
Foreign players: 99*
Average age: 25,9*
*National League (division) only

There are 24 clubs in the National League and 22 in each of the other two divisions. The teams play each other twice for a total of 42-46 games in a season that lasts from August to May. In 1986-87, the Football League began accepting promotions and relegations between the first tier of the National League and last tier of the Football League for the first time. The promotion/relegation system is similar to the Football League with a playoff being held at the end of each season for the last promotion spot in each division. The FA’s NLS (National League System) committee decides which teams end up in the Southern division and which end up in the Northern division. In the table below you can see the promotion/relegation rules for the National League.

 

Division Promoted Directly Promoted via Playoffs Relegated
National League Champion One from 2nd-5th place finishers Bottom 4 clubs
National League N/S Champion One from 2nd-5th place finishers Bottom 3 clubs

 

The league’s main sponsor is a van leasing company Vanarama, therefore all divisions have a “Vanarama” prefix in front of their name. Same as the Football League, National League divisions are the wealthiest at their respective tier(s) worldwide. Due to a lower level of football played (and less capital) in the National League there aren’t as many foreigners as in League football. However, the share of foreigners playing in the top division (17,8%) is still higher than in many European top flights. There are no player restrictions in place for clubs that play in the National League.

 

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Although the majority of clubs in National League are semi-pro it is a great environment to start your professional career. Just five years ago an ex-factory worker led FC Halifax Town to a title in the National League North (6th tier). Today he is an England international and a newly crowned champion of the Premier League. Jamie Vardy’s case is the perfect success story but there are many players like him that play in the Football League or even the Premier League. English football league system is the proof that with hard work and dedication everything is possible.

 

FA cup

The Football Association Challenge Cup is the oldest and most prestigious domestic cup competition in the world. It was founded in 1871 and features all clubs that are registered with the Football Association. This year a total of 736 clubs were accepted for the competition. Entrants are not seeded, although a system based on league level ensures that higher ranked teams join at a later stage. There are two major stages of the competition, the qualifying competition (six rounds) and competition proper (eight rounds). All fixtures prior to semi-finals resulting in a tie are replayed at a later date, decided by extra time and penalties if they end in a draw again. The semi-finals and the final are all played at the rebuilt Wembley Stadium since 2008. The most successful club in the competition is Arsenal which has 12 titles so far. This year the final will be played on 21st of May between Manchester United and Crystal Palace.

 

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Rivalries

England is notoriously known for its hooligan culture which is not that much of a problem anymore to be fair. However, it still gets hot when two teams that have been rivals through history meet on the pitch. We all know famous local derbies like Arsenal-Tottenham, Manchester City-Manchester United, and Liverpool-Everton but there are also a lot of fierce rivalries in the lower leagues.

One of them is the oldest rivalry in England between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United known as the Steel City derby due to Sheffield’s history of steel production. The teams first met in 1890 in a friendly after Sheffield United was formed.  Since then they have met 127 times competitively, with United having won 3 more than Wednesday. One of the best encounters was “The Boxing Day Massacre” which is famous for being the biggest win in recent history, Wednesday won 4-0.

Another notable rivalry is the South Wales derby between Swansea City and Cardiff City. Despite both clubs being in Wales, they play in the English football league system. In 1988, a group of Cardiff fans was chased in the sea by Swansea fans after an away victory from Cardiff. Since then Swansea fans are mocking their rivals that they “swim away” and wear swim caps to honor the occasion. After an incident in 1993 the, away fans were banned from attending the derby for several years. In 2013/14 season the teams met for the first time in English top flight after Cardiff got promoted from the Championship.

Most rivalries are born due to the location of the clubs in question. And the rivalry between Millwall FC and West Ham FC is no different. Both clubs, previously known as Millwall Athletic and Thames Ironworks, are located in Eastern London, each on its own side of the River Thames, just three miles apart. The first supporters were dock workers on either side of the river, which intensified the tensions between them. There have been several incidents of hooliganism, the most recent one being “2009 Upton Park riot” when a Millwall fan got stabbed before the match began. The teams don’t play each other that often anymore because West Ham is now a regular in the Premier League and Millwall play in the Football League One, two tiers below.

 

National Team

The Three Lions are one of the most exposed national sports teams. Every major tournament whole England lives and breathes football. That is why it is even more painful for them that they did not win a trophy for ages. The only title in their resume is from ancient 1966 when they won the World Cup, played on their home soil, in a classic match against West Germany (4-2 after extra time). Currently, they have a young and talented team, led by iconic Wayne Rooney. They directly qualified for the upcoming European Championship in France. Rod Hodgson and his lads will play in Group B against Russia, Wales, and Slovakia.

 

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