The term “non-league” doesn’t make as much sense as it did before the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the fourth and fifth tiers of English football in 1987 and the formation of the Premier League in 1992.
Nevertheless, I’ve had a look at the movement of clubs between the Football League and non-league since the formation of the Football League. Apart from 1987, 1921 is treated as a marker year, as for the first time the Football League had four divisions. Click here for the details.
I’ve listed clubs under 7 categories:
- Clubs that were in the Football League in 1986-87 when automatic promotion and relegation was introduced, but subsequently played in non-league (17 clubs).
- Clubs that were not in the Football League in 1986-87 when automatic promotion and relegation was introduced, but subsequently played in the League (13 clubs).
- Clubs that were in the Football League but lost their place without regaining it before 1987 (27 clubs).
- Clubs that were not in the Football League by 1921 but subsequently joined the League before 1987 (21 clubs).
- Other clubs that lost their place in the Football League but regained it by 1921 (15 clubs).
- Years in which all other clubs first joined the Football League (52 clubs).
- What has happened to former Football League clubs that are not currently in the League (38 clubs)
A club playing in the Premier League is not considered as having lost its place in the Football League.
Every club that has played in the Football League since 1888 is covered.
Burton Albion are not regarded as a continuation of Burton Swift/Wanderers/United as the fans of the club themselves do not appear to regard the club as a continuation of the earlier clubs.
Even excluding category 7, several clubs fall under more than one category. There are several clubs that fall under both categories 1 and 4. Other highlights:
- Accrington Stanley are the only club that lost there place in the Football League before 1987 that have regained it since.
- Of the 12 clubs that played in the Football League for the first time after 1987, 5 have since lost their place. Barnet lost their place, but regained it.
- Of the 17 clubs in category 1, 10 have since regained their place in the Football League.
While category 6 is not directly on point, the following is noteworthy:
- Only 2 of the 12 clubs that formed the Football League in 1888 ever lost their place – Stoke City and Accrington.
- 15 of the 22 Southern League clubs that joined the Football League in 1920 to form the Third Division have never lost their place. Cardiff City went straight into the Second Division while Grimsby Town, who had finished bottom of the Second Division, took their place in the Third Division.
- 17 of the 19 northern clubs that joined the Football League in 1921 to form the Third Division North have lost their place in the Football League at some time, even though several of them subsequently regained their place. The Third Division of the previous season became the Third Division South with Grimsby Town transferring to the North division, and Charlton Athletic taking their place in the South division.
Four clubs joined the Football League in 1950 when Divisions 3 and 4 were increased from 22 to 24 clubs -Colchester United, Gillingham, Scunthorpe United and Shrewsbury Town.
Before automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and non-league football was introduced in 1987, clubs entering the Football League was very rare under the old re-election system. Apart from the four clubs that joined the Football League when it expanded from 88 to 92 clubs in 1950, the only other way a club could enter the Football League was if a League club was dissolved and needed to be replaced.
Between 1951 and 1986, only the following clubs entered the League:
- 1951 – Workington replaced New Brighton who had ceased to exist.
- 1960 – Peterborough United replaced Gateshead.
- 1962 – Oxford United replaced Accrington Stanley.
- 1970 – Cambridge United replaced Bradford Park Avenue.
- 1972 – Hereford United replaced Barrow.
- 1977 – Wimbledon replaced Workington.
- 1978 – Wigan Athletic replaced Southport.
Ironically, Accrington Stanley replaced Oxford United 44 years later, in 2006.
(Post edited. See second and third comments below.)