An English Football Primer: A Guide To English Football Leagues

William McGregor at Villa Park (Photo by Kirsten Schlewitz)

Villa fans-did you know that the Football League was founded by Aston Villa director William McGregor? If you're a regular at Villa Park, you might've seen his statue. He's responsible for creating the football system still used in England today. Although the Premier League has split from the Football League, the basic system of promotion and relegation remains the same.

(Note: clubs claim the division title by earning the most points in their tier, and they are relegated by earning the least. 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, 0 points for a loss. If clubs are equal on points, standings are then determined first on goal difference, then on goals scored. If somehow everything stays equal, a playoff occurs).

Premier League:

Only one division in this league-it split from the Football League in 1992. Top flight of English football. Comprised of twenty teams who compete to win the Premier League title. No promotion from this league (nowhere to go) but the bottom three teams are relegated to the Championship. Top four teams play in the Champions League. The next three teams, typically, play in the Europa League, although a team that wins the FA Cup can also earn entry into Europa. All teams in the Premier League participate in the League Cup and the FA Cup, although how seriously they take these competitions varies.

Current: Title Holders: Chelsea FA Cup Holders: Chelsea League Cup: Manchester United Relegated clubs: Portsmouth, Burnley and Hull City

Special Note: Aston Villa made it to the semi-finals of the FA Cup last season, and played Manchester United in the final of the League Cup at Wembley.

The Football League

Championship: Second tier of English football. Comprised of twenty-four teams competing to win the Football League Championship. The winner automatically moves into the Premier League, as does the league runner-up. The third club that wins promotion to the Premier League does so through a playoff battle in which the 3rd-6th place teams play a two-legged semi-final. The winner of each moves to the final at Wembley Stadium, and the winner of that match moves up to the Premier League. Bottom three teams are relegated to League One. No European play in this league (although if Portsmouth had won the FA Cup, they could have been in Europa and the Championship). All teams in the Championship participate in the League Cup and the FA Cup.

Current: Title Holders: Newcastle Promoted: Newcastle, West Brom, and Blackpool Relegated: Sheffield Wednesday, Plymouth Argyle, and Petersborough United

League One: Third tier of English football. Comprised of twenty-four teams trying to win the League One title. The winner automatically moves into the Championship, as does the League One runner-up. The third club that earns promotion to the Championship does it through a playoff battle in which the 3rd-6th place teams play a two-legged semi-final. The winner of each moves to the final at Wembley Stadium, and the winner of that match moves up to the Championship. Bottom four teams are relegated to League Two. Teams in League One participate in the League Trophy, the League Cup and the FA Cup.

Current: Title Holders: Norwich City League Trophy: Southampton Promoted: Norwich City, Leeds United, and Millwall Relegated: Stockport County, Wycombe Wanderers, Southend United, and Gillingham.

Special Fact: Your esteemed author and editor is a newly-devout Exeter City FC supporter. Relegation battles are both fun and terrifying. I recommend finding a League One or Championship team.

League Two: Fourth tier of English football. Comprised of twenty-four teams trying to win the League Two title. The top three clubs automatically move up to League One. The fourth team that earns promotion to League One does so through a playoff battle in which the 4th-7th place teams play a two-legged semi-final. The winner of each moves to the final at Wembley Stadium, and the winner of that match moves up to League One. Bottom two teams are relegated to non-league football. Teams in League Two participate in the League Trophy, the League Cup and the FA Cup.

Current: Title Holders: Notts County Promoted: Notts County, AFC Bournemouth, Rochdale and Dagenham and Redbridge Relegated: Darlington, Grimsby

Non-League Football

Non-league football is another post in itself. Non-league simply refers to the fact that the clubs are not playing in the Premier League or the Football League, although nearly all of them play within league competitions. Some of these clubs are fully professional, but most are semi-professional, which, in case you can't figure it out, means that the players can't survive on football alone, unless perhaps they are English aristocrats.

The National League System (NLS) is composed of the seven levels of English football that are directly below league football, ie the fifth-eleventh tiers of the system. The highest of these tiers is called the Conference National, whose top two clubs get promoted into the Football League via League Two. This year, that was Stevenage Borough and Oxford United. Teams in the Conference National participate in the Conference League Cup, the FA Trophy, and the FA Cup.


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