Strength In Depth In English Football

21Aug08

This post will explore the structure of football in England. The pyramid system has provided the platform that allows the Premier League to flourish as the best football league in the world. The pyramid consists of over 140 leagues, 480 divisions and over 7,000 clubs. This doesn’t include the amateur game which is prevalent in England, often referred to as Sunday League football.

The top five levels of the pyramid each contain just one division. These are the Premier League, the Championship, Football League One, Football League Two and the Blue Square Conference. Below this, the levels have progressively more parallel leagues. For example, below the Blue Square Conference are the Blue Square North and South Leagues, which both feed into the Blue Square Premier. These top six levels are known as the National League System, which are controlled by the Football Association. 

Below the Blue Square North and South are the UniBond League, the British Gas Business Football League and the Ryman Football League. The UniBond league (also known as the Northern Premier League) covers the north of England. The British Gas Business Football League (also known as the Southern League) covers southern England, the Midlands and parts of Wales. The Ryman Football League (also known as the Isthmian League) covers the south-east. These leagues all have Premier Divisions (Level 7) and two parallel divisions below (Level 8). Level 9 consists of the top divisions of a large group of sub-regional leagues.

There are currently 24 different levels. The FA Cup is open to clubs from levels 1-11. The Football League Cup is restricted to levels 1-4, whilst the Football League Trophy is just levels 3 and 4. The FA Trophy is contested between clubs situated in levels 5-8 and the Conference League Cup restricted to levels 5 and 6. The FA Vase is open for teams from level 9-11 and the FA National League System Cup is contested by representative teams from each league of level 11.

As there are opportunities for promotion and relegation between the leagues, there is the prospect of the small clubs being able to reach the pinnacle of the structure. Such as the journey of the ‘original’ Wimbledon Football Club, who rose from non-league status to appear in the Premiership. Although these stories are not that common, there is significant movement between the leagues.  

The participants in the top four levels, from the Premier League to League Two, are often referred to as league clubs and consist of full-time professional clubs. Below level four is referred to as non-league football. Level five and six, the Blue Square Premier, Blue Square North and the Blue Square South, contain a mixture of professional and semi-professional clubs. As you move down the levels the stronger clubs remain professional, yet the majority are amateur.

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