Competition structures · English clubs · English league · Football history

11 Tiers Of English Football

The pinnacle of English club football is part of a strong and entrenched system of leagues, an important factor in its quality and global prominence.

Last weekend, the 7 divisions of the Premier League, the Football League and the Football Conference kicked off the 2007-2008 season in England. Approximately 857,000 fans and spectators attended 80 matches at grounds across the country. Significantly less than half of them were at Premier League matches.

This weekend, a host of other semi-professional and amateur leagues will kick off in England. The leagues that make up the seventh to eleventh tiers comprise of more than 1,000 clubs organized in almost 90 divisions. Together with the 2 tiers of the Football Conference, they make up the National League System in England, with promotion and relegation occurring at the end of each season between the 7 tiers. With promotion and relegation between the Premier League, the three divisions of the Football League and the top division of the Football Conference, it is in theory possible for a club to rise from the eleventh tier of English football to the Premier League! The re-structuring of leagues outside of the Premier League and Football League that has taken place since 1979 has brought about the National League System as it is today.

The Premier League, with its big-name clubs, players and managers, is the star at the top of the structure. The lower tiers tend to be organized regionally, and attract only local fans. As there are more divisions and clubs in each of the lower tiers of the system, the structure is often referred to as a “pyramid”.

However, in terms of numbers of spectators at matches, the tiers outside of the Premier League carry more weight than the Premier League. For example, last season, an average of 343,780 fans and spectators attended Premier League matches each week. On the other hand, each week, close to half a million fans and spectators attended matches in the 10 tiers below the Premier League.

The formation of football leagues and the growth of the league structure in England is a process that has been ongoing for almost 120 years.

Prior to 1888, the only major competition available to football clubs was the FA Cup, which dates back to 1872. With the legitimization of professional football in 1885, the major clubs of the time needed a more consistent source of revenue. If a club was knocked out of the FA Cup in an early round, it would be reduced to one or two competitive matches that season. Although clubs arranged several friendly matches during the season, fixtures were not guaranteed, and public interest and attendances were low.

In early 1888, William McGregor, then secretary of Aston Villa, wrote to some of the more prominent clubs of the time, as follows:

“Every year it is becoming more and more difficult for football clubs of any standing to meet their friendly engagements and even arrange friendly matches. The consequence is that at the last moment, through cup-tie interference, clubs are compelled to take on teams who will not attract the public.

I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season, the said fixtures to be arranged at a friendly conference about the same time as the International Conference.

My object in writing to you at present is merely to draw your attention to the subject, and to suggest a friendly conference to discuss the matter more fully. I would take it as a favour if you would kindly think the matter over, and make whatever suggestions you deem necessary. I am only writing to the following – Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion, and Aston Villa, and would like to hear what other clubs you would suggest.

I am, yours very truly, William McGregor (Aston Villa F.C.) ….”

After two meetings in March and April 1888, plans for the formation of the Football League were announced. The Football League, which kicked of in September 1888, is the oldest football league, as well as the second oldest league in any sport, in the world. Its 12 founder members were Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

12 clubs formed the rival Football Alliance in 1889. The 12 clubs included Crewe Alexandra, Grimsby Town, Newton Heath (now Manchester United), Nottingham Forest, The Wednesday (now Sheffield Wednesday), Small Heath (now Birmingham City) and Walsall Town Swifts (now Walsall).

In 1892, the Football Alliance became the Second Division to the Football League, with promotion and relegation between the First and Second Divisions. By that stage, the First Division had already expanded to 16 clubs. The two divisions comprised entirely of clubs from the north and the midlands, refecting the rapid growth of professional football in those parts of the country. In 1891, Arsenal (then known as Woolwich Arsenal) became the first southern club to turn professional. Arsenal joined the Football League in 1893, and for a long time, remained the only London side in the league.

The rapid expansion of the Football League in its early years reflected the popularity of the league structure. By 1906, the First and Second Divisions had grown to 20 clubs each. By 1921, the Football League comprised of four divisions with a total of 86 clubs. Outside of the Football League, many semi-professional and amateur leagues were being formed and reformed.

As professional football grew in southern England, the Southern League was formed in 1894, which included clubs such as Reading, Luton Town, Millwall, Swindon Town and Gillingham. In 1920, the Southern League became the Third Division of the Football League.

The English league system has grown and been re-structured from time to time, without changing its basic format and structure – divisions of 12 to 24 clubs, playing each other home and away over the season, with promotion and relegation between the divisions at the end of the season. This basic structure has been replicated in football leagues throughout the world. The formation of the Premier League in 1992 may have had a major impact on the televising and financing of the top tier of English club football, but has hardly changed the format and structure of the league system.

The depth of the system provides a high degree of competitiveness across the divisions in all 11 tiers. From the perspective of clubs in the top flight, once caught in a downward spiral of relegation, clubs can rapidly fall from the top flight to the third, fourth or fifth level, as each of Bradford City, Leeds Utd, Swindon Town, Wimbledon (now known as Milton Keynes Dons) and Oxford United have experienced in the last 20 years.

On the other hand, clubs can rise through the divisions as rapidly. 10 years ago, Fulham was playing in the fourth tier of English football. Within four years, it had risen to the Premier League. Other notable climbs through the divisions in the last 30 years were achieved by Swansea City (fourth to first tier between 1978 and 1981, Watford (fourth tier to first tier between 1978 and 1982) and Wimbledon (admitted to the Football League in 1977, and rising from the fourth to first tier between 1983 and 1986). Wigan Athletic, now enjoying its third successive season in the Premier League, was only admitted into the Football League in 1978, less than 30 years ago.

The competition in each division, including the pressure to rise up or to avoid falling through the divisions, is often stressful, but equally exciting. The historical continuity of the league structure and of clubs participating within it provide the platform on which fan loyalty is developed, and clubs build up a history and profile which enable them to sell themselves, not only to fans, but to potential investors as well.

The football league system in England remains without equal anywhere in the world for its depth, intensity and history. While the Premier League attracts global attention, the remaining 10 tiers of English football are of equal if not greater importance to English fans.

The Pyramid of the English Football League Systems

The Premier League and Football League


Current League

Historical / Periods

Average weekly attendance (2006-07)


Premier League
20 clubs

1888 to 1992 – Football League First Division, 1992 to date – Premier League



Football League Championship
24 clubs

1892 to 1992 – Football League Second Division, 1992 to 2004 – First Division, 2004 to date – Championship



Football League One
24 clubs

1920-21 – Football League Third Division, 1921 to 1958 – Third Division (North) & Third Division (South), 1958 to 1992 – Third Division, 1992 to 2004 – Second Division, 2004 to date – League One



Football League Two

1958 to 1992 – Fourth Division, 1992 to 2004 – Third Division, 2004 to date – League Two


The National League System



Average weekly attendance (2006-07)


Conference National
24 clubs



Conference North
22 clubs

Conference South
22 clubs



Northern Premier League Premier Division
21 clubs

Southern Football League Premier Division
22 clubs

Isthmian League Premier Division
22 clubs



36 clubs in the two divisions of the second tier of the Northern Premier League

43 clubs in the two divisions of the second tier of the Southern Football League

44 clubs in the two divisions of the second tier of the Isthmian League



Top tier of 14 regionally based feeder leagues comprising of 291 clubs in total



15 divisions in second tier of regionally based feeder leagues comprising of 285 clubs in total



Total of 327 clubs in the top tier of 46 largely county-based feeder leagues


For historical reasons, the major Welsh clubs, namely, Cardiff City, Swansea City, Wrexham and Methyr Tydfil play in the English league system, and not in the Welsh league.

(The article as appeared in the Weekend Today on 18 August 2007)


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