We take a look at how the English Football league system, known as 'The Football Pyramid', works...
The Structure The English football league system, also known as the football pyramid, is a series of interconnected leagues for football clubs in England, Wales, Guernsey, Jersey, and Isle of Man. The pyramid has a hierarchical format where the best performing teams (divisions 2-10) go through promotion to a higher-level league with the Premier League sitting at the pinnacle of the pyramid. The worst performing teams face relegation to a lower level league (all divisions). Promotion and relegation are based on results over the course of a season.
With this system, even the smallest clubs in the country can theoretically rise to the very top league in the system. There are in the region of 140 individual leagues that contain more than 480 divisions. However, in the current system, we will be looking at the top 10 levels of the league system.
A Short History Lesson England is undoubtedly the home of the world's first football league system. The first system, simply called The Football League, was created in 1888 by Aston Villa Club director William McGregor. He wanted to bring professionalism and reform to the English football clubs at that time.
There were 12 teams in the league, which were divided into 2 regions. The Lancashire region included Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, and Preston North End. The Midlands region included Aston Villa, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, and Wolves.
The Premier League The top tier of the English football pyramid, with 20 team battling it out for the honour of being crowned English Champions, is the highest level of the men’s English football league system. As of today, the English Premier League is the highest league in the English football league system. Its inaugural season in 1992 featured 22 clubs in the league. The 1995-1996 season saw the league change to a 20-team structure. The Premier League is the most viewed and most popular football league in the world. For more insight in the Premier League refer to our blog – A League of their own.
From the start of the Premier League, only three of the bottom teams faced relegation to the Second Division. The thing that distinguishes this league from the others is that there is no promotion to another league (for obvious reasons). Instead, the top four teams in the league will gain automatic qualification to the UEFA Champions League, while the teams placed fifth and sixth will play in the UEFA Europa League. As of 2021, the seventh-placed team will play in the UEFA Europa Conference League.
The participants of the Premier League automatically compete in cup games such as the League Cup (third round onward) and the FA Cup (third round onward). The former is a cup tournament for teams in divisions 1-4 and the latter is a cup tournament for teams throughout the United Kingdom.
English Football League - Championship The English Football League (also known as The Championship or the Football League Championship) is a different entity from the Premier League. The EFL Championship is fully run by the English Football League, which also operates League 1 & League 2. The top four levels in the United Kingdom are considered League football. Anyone below level four is considered non-league, which we will cover later.
In The Championship, the top two teams are automatically promoted to the Premier League while the teams placed third through sixth compete in a short tournament. The four teams will play against each other, and the winner will be promoted to the Premier League. This is referred to as a playoff.
At the other end of the league table, the four worst-performing teams placed 21st through 24th will be relegated to League 1 (the third level of the English football league system).
League 1 & League 2 (Third & Fourth Division) Both of these leagues have similar systems. League 1 & League 2 are the third and fourth division in the football league system.
Both leagues have four promotion spots. The top three in both leagues will be promoted. Teams that finish fourth through seventh will have a playoff. The winner of the playoff will be the fourth team promoted.
There's a little difference in relegation in both leagues. In League 1, the bottom four teams are relegated to League 2. In League 2, the bottom two teams are relegated to the Fifth Division.
National League (Fifth Division) We're halfway there! The bottom two teams of League 2 will be relegated to non-league football. This is where things start to get special. Non-league football is a mixture of both professional clubs and semi-professional clubs. It's also the lowest league division organized nationwide.
The winner of the National League will play in a professional league. They automatically gain promotion to the Fourth Division. The next six teams will compete in a playoff; the winner will be the second team to be promoted to the football league. Four teams will be relegated from this league to two different leagues, depending on their region. This is where it gets confusing.
National League North & South (Sixth Division) Division 6 sees two different leagues where each league has 24 teams (as of the 2021-22 season). Similar to the Fifth Division, the winner of both leagues will be automatically promoted to the National League. The next six teams of both leagues will qualify for a playoff, with the winner being the second team promoted from their respective leagues. So a total of four teams will be promoted to the Fifth Division.
The worst performing two teams of the National League North will be relegated to the Northern Premier League Premier Division or the Southern League Central Division, depending on their regions. The worst two teams of the National League South will be relegated to the Southern League South Division or the Isthmian League Premier Division, depending on their regions.
Northern Premier League, Southern League Central Division, Southern League South Division & Isthmian League Premier Division (Seventh Division) Should I stop here or should I go on? This is about to get confusing. For a little summary, two teams are relegated from the National League North and two teams are relegated from the National League South.
To make it simple, two teams from the Northern Premier League and two teams from the Southern League Central Division will be promoted to the National League North, while two teams from the Southern League South Division and two teams from the Isthmian League Premier Division will be promoted to the National League South. So that's four teams in total. Now, the relegation is a little simpler. All the leagues relegate their three worst-performing teams with the exception of the Southern League South Division, which only relegates two teams. Phew!
4 Northern Leagues & 4 Southern Leagues (Eighth Division) There are eight leagues in total here, each of them divided by region. The Northern Premier League Division 1 has East, Midlands, West & Central. These four leagues have their respective champions promoted to either the Northern Premier League Premier Division or the Southern League Central Division, depending on their region.
Similarly, four of the league champions are promoted to the Southern League South Division or the Isthmian League Premier Division on the south side. In this division, it is a mix of the South and the Isthmian leagues where there is Southern League Division 1 and the Isthmian leagues from South, North, and East.
Each of the eight leagues will have one or two clubs relegated. At this point, some clubs may pull out from the league due to financial reasons.
The Counties Leagues (Ninth & Tenth Division) Ninth and Tenth Division is officially the last two leagues of the official football league system. These two divisions have semi-professional teams and even amateur teams.
The 9thDivision at Step 5 is made up of 14 Regional Leagues.
The 10thDivision at Step 6 is made up of a further 20 Regional Leagues.
In these levels, the leagues are divided geographically with various systems. Clubs that are relegated from the Eighth Division will end up in the Ninth Division, and it continues to the Tenth Division of the pyramid. Step 11 and beyond Sitting below the Great Pyramid of the FA governed National League System, there are 48 county leagues at level 11, with a further 9 levels of grassroots leagues making up the English football league system.