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English Football Pyramid

The English Football Pyramid

For those of you who are short of time, here is the quick definition:

The English Football Pyramid is how the main football leagues/divisions in England are organised, so that teams finishing at the top each season can be promoted to a higher league/division in the Pyramid and, those finishing at the bottom can be relegated to a league/division at a lower level.


It means that in theory, any team currently at the bottom of the Pyramid
has the chance to eventually be promoted to the Premier League.


  For those with a bit more time, read on to understand exactly how it works.  

League or Division?
First, we need to clear up exactly what we mean by “League” and “Division” because these words are often used to describe the same thing.

What is a League?
Let’s start by making this more confusing: a League is thought of as two things, and one of these can also be called a Division.

Let’s explain with a bit of history. Before 1888, the early football teams only played in cup competitions and friendlies, mainly against other local teams. To make things more interesting for the fans, several football clubs got together to form the Football League – the first League of its kind in the World.

The basic structure included each team playing each other home and away with points awarded depending on the result of each game. A League Table could then be published ranking the teams by the number of points they each won. This latter idea captured the public imagination, which was lucky because the Football League didn’t initially agree on how many points to award, or publish any tables of its own!

The sporting press of the day created the first tables once the League announced 2 points would be awarded for a win and 1 for a draw, but they didn't announce this until each team had played 9 or so games. Prior to that the press had simply ranked the clubs on the number of games each had won.

The “Football League” referred to both the organisation that administered things like the fixtures each team plays, and also to the actual League Table that was published showing the number of points each team had won. The first is more accurately referred to as the League Management Committee and the second as the League Table, but a lot of people simply refer to both as “The League” – hence the confusion.

  (The organisational side of a League is much the same today – each League committee is made up of officials from clubs in the League, plus other independent staff such as a secretary, and this committee basically runs the League each season. At the end of a season, if a club is promoted or relegated they apply to become a member of the League they are moving to and the committee changes accordingly with new members welcomed from the promoted clubs.)  

What is a Division?
As the Football League became popular, more and more teams applied to become members. The League quickly expanded from the original 12 members in 1888, to 28 in 1892 when the Football League agreed to allow clubs from one of its competitors, the Football Alliance League, to become members.

The League realised that teams would not have enough time to play each other twice, so they divided the teams into two sections; calling one the First Division and the other the Second Division. (When you think about the word ‘division’ it means to divide something, so it was a good choice.)

Each Division was run like a mini-League with teams just playing home and away against the other teams in that Division. At the end of the season, promotion and relegation took place between those at the bottom of the First and the top of the Second – the first step on the road to the Pyramid we have today.


The important points to take from all of this are that:

  1. Each club is a member of a League and they play games against the other teams in their Division.
  2. Teams are ranked in a Division by the number of points they win.
  3. The First Division was above the Second Division - think of it as being Level 1 and the Second Division being Level 2.
  4. At the end of the season, those at the top move up to a higher Division, and those at the bottom are relegated to a lower Division.

What is a League Level?
It makes it easier to show which is the better Division if they are ranked. So in the early days of the Football League there were just two Levels – the First Division was Level 1 and the Second Division was Level 2.  Traditionally, when League Tables are shown, the highest Level is shown at the top so that the best team (top of the top Division) appears at the top of the page.

What Happened Next?
Football just kept getting popular; other Leagues started up, but the Football League was always considered the best of them and kept expanding as clubs from other Leagues applied to become members.

The Football League was mainly a northern League so a Southern Football League was started for clubs from the Midlands and below, which became very popular and was even challenging the Football League for supremacy in the early 1900s. However, in 1920 the top 22 clubs in the Southern League were invited to become members of a new Third Division (Level 3) in the Football League and this cemented the Football League as the dominant League in England.

The Football League’s expansion continued a year later with the admission of a further 20 clubs, mainly from the north of England. You would think that this would have resulted in the creation of a Fourth Division, but this didn’t happen because the League recognised that some of the newer clubs would not be able to afford to travel to play teams at the other end of the country. So instead they made a decision that was the next important step on the way to the Pyramid. They created two Divisions but said they were at the same Level. They created the Third Division South mainly using the teams who became members in 1920, and the Third Division North mainly made up of the new northern clubs. The important thing to remember is that they were organised geographically (as their names helpfully suggest) and both Divisions were Level 3.

At the end of that and subsequent seasons, the top teams in both Third Divisions were promoted to the Second Division, and the bottom teams in the Second Division were relegated to whichever Third Division made sense. This did mean that if two teams from the north of England were relegated, the most southern team in the Third Division North was moved to the Third Division South. Midlands’ teams like Coventry would often find themselves switching and having a whole new Division of teams to play against.


We now have the building blocks of the Pyramid in place, which are:

  1. A set of Divisions with promotion and relegation between them.
  2. A Level for each Division, which determines the Division promoted and relegated teams move to at the end of each season.
  3. The idea that more than one Division can have the same Level when the members at this Level would not be able to afford to travel long distances to play games.
  National or Regional?
Leagues that accept members from anywhere in the country are known as National leagues. Those based in a certain part of the country are known as Regional leagues. Currently the Premier League, The Football League and the National League (previously The Conference) are the only National Leagues in England.
  (Confusingly, the National League (that used to be called the Conference) has one National Division and two Regional Divisions – the National North and the National South!)  

League or Non-League?
With the Football League becoming the dominant force in English football, more and more clubs were applying to join each season. However the Football League committee did not want to expand further than their 92 clubs spread over 4 Divisions, so it became very rare for new clubs to be accepted in. This led to teams being referred to as “League” if they were a member of the Football League or “non-League” if not.

At the end of each season, The Football League Management Committee would have a meeting to review the structure of the League for the following season. Right from 1888 this involved reviewing the current member clubs and considering the applications from non-League clubs. Some clubs were expelled for financial reasons, or resigned because they couldn’t keep going. The Committee would decide how many clubs would be in the League the following season and then vote amongst themselves to decide which clubs to accept as new members.

This process gradually evolved over the years so that the teams finishing bottom of the lowest Level Divisions had to apply for re-election to the League alongside the non-League clubs applying to join. Given that the people with the vote were almost always the Chairmen of the existing League clubs, they very rarely voted against their fellow-members. It was therefore extremely rare that a non-League club could get enough votes to replace one of the League clubs up for re-election.

  The 92 League clubs still held sway over football in England, much to the annoyance of the Football Association and the thousands of non-League clubs.  


The National League System
Up until the 1990s, the non-League structure was fairly chaotic, with local agreements determining which Division a team could expect to move to if they won the top Division in their League. The Football Association decided to do something about this and gradually developed a structure so that each League had a clear route up and down for its promoted and relegated clubs. This became known as the National League System, and once complete tied together 80 or so Divisions in seven Levels, called 'Steps', below the Football League – Levels 5 to 11 or Steps 1 to 7.

  This now pretty much covers every club playing at an enclosed ground
where admission can be charged to watch the game.

The road to the complete National League System was rocky and took a long time. The first step on the way was the creation of a new top national League in 1979, called the Alliance Premier League, by several clubs from the Southern Premier League and the Northern Premier League. It was also agreed that only the winner of this new national League would apply for promotion to the Football League each season, to increase the chance of them gaining enough votes.

The Pyramid – a Fair System
The election process was clearly still unfair to non-League clubs and the Football League finally agreed to change it in 1987 when Scarborough were automatically promoted into the League and Lincoln automatically relegated to the Alliance Premier (now the National League).

This was only made possible because of the work done to create the National League System. Once this was in place and shown to be working, the Football League finally had to concede that automatic promotion to the top Levels of the game was the logical final step to take.

Levels and Steps?
As mentioned above, the National League Structure is based on 'Steps', which is the same idea as Levels except that they start with the National League as Step 1. (So Step 1 is now also referred to as Level 5.)

People involved in the non-League game tend to talk about Steps, but when looking at football in England as a whole it’s easier to talk about Levels.

The Premier League
In 1992, the Football League was replaced as the top English League by the creation of the Premier League, which became the new Level 1 Division in the country. The remaining Football League clubs formed three Divisions at Levels 2, 3 and 4, so for them there was not much change beyond the fact that they were no longer members of the top League in the country.

For convenience, the Premier League clubs are still known as being League clubs, rather than non-League clubs. So there are still 92 clubs in the “League”, which is a relief to everyone working on this website.

The Perfect Pyramid
The FA have been striving to create a Perfect Pyramid for a number of years and started implementing their plan at the before the 2018/19 season with the creation of several new Divisions. The Perfect Pyramid structure refers to there being 1 Division at the top of the National League System (the National League), 2 below at Step 2, then 4 at Step 3, 8 at Step 4 and 16 at Step 5. For the 2018/19 season, the structure was 1-2-4-7. COVID-19 delayed subsequent changes until the start of 2021/22, when the FA introduced 3 new Divisions at Steps 4 / 5 to finally create a perfect pyramid of 1-2-4-8-16 down to that level.

Does the Pyramid Work?
In the main, yes. Clubs now have a pretty clear path up and down all the Divisions in England, which helps both their aspirations and those of their fans.
One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that life is never straightforward and each League has a set of criteria that new member clubs must satisfy before being accepted. These relate to things like number of seats at the ground, quality of the dressing rooms and other items that clubs playing at a particular level expect to be in place. Therefore, if you do not have separate changing rooms for the two teams and the match officials for example, you cannot expect to be accepted by a League above a certain level.

Each League publishes their rules so that promoted clubs know in advance what improvements they will have to make.

Some promoted clubs decide to ground-share with a local team already playing at a higher level rather than pay to upgrade their old ground. Others simply turn down the promotion and stay at their current Level, although the FA started introducing large fines for clubs that do this. At the end of the season up to the start of August, League officials spend hours tying up exactly which clubs will be members the following season. Relegated teams are sometimes offered a reprieve if there are no promoted clubs to replace them. They can sometimes even be offered a place by another League at the higher Level if that League is having trouble finding enough members.

  If you’ve got this far, well done - you now know more about the Football League structure in England than most football fans!  



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