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The English Football Pyramid: A Guide To The Tiers Of English Football

The English Football Pyramid: A Guide To The Tiers Of English Football

Football is hugely popular all over the world, but the sport's roots are in the United Kingdom, and the level of fanaticism across the country is testament to that. Not only do the biggest and best clubs in the land attract huge crowds to grounds like Manchester United's Old Trafford, Liverpool's Anfield, and Newcastle United's St. James' Park, there is also a massive appetite for the game across the lower tiers of English football.

When people talk about the English football pyramid, there are referring to the large network of divisions that make up the country's vibrant footballing landscape. This stretches down from the Premier League to the very bottom of the system, where county level teams play in basic grounds with small crowds watching.

There is a huge difference between the standard of football played at different levels, and in this article we'll be fleshing out those distinctions by explaining the English football pyramid in detail.

We'll explore the different tiers of English football and give you an in-depth guide to the English football league pyramid, offering information about each level and explaining how teams are relegated and promoted between them.

English Football Pyramid: How Many Professional English Soccer Leagues Are There?

Professional English football (aka football in which teams and players run on a full-time basis and are paid accordingly) consists of four leagues: The Premier League (the top tier), The Championship (the second tier), League One (the third tier), and League Two (the fourth tier).

Over the years, these divisions have had a number of different names. Before the Premier League rebrand in 1992/93, things were fairly simple, with the leagues simply structured as the old First Division, Second Division, Third Division and Fourth Division.

However, the big money breakaway league changed things, and the creation of the Championship in 2004 led to the current system being devised.

The three fully professional leagues below the Premier League make up a wider system called the English Football League (EFL). Initially founded as the Football League in 1888, it is the oldest football competition in the world, and consists of 72 teams in total, all fully professional, divided between the Championship, League One and League Two. 

However, it's worth noting that you'll often find teams below League Two level who are also professionalised. Over the last decade or so, England's fifth tier the National League (more on this later) has dramatically improved when it comes to standard of football, investment, attendances and overall professionalism, to the extent that many clubs at this level are run professionally.

Look at Wrexham, for example — the huge sums invested by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney on playing personnel, infrastructure and the local community allowed the Welsh club to secure promotion to League Two, and they look set to go up again this season.

During the rest of this article, we'll explain each level of the English football pyramid, which can also be referred to as the National League System, or NLS.

The Premier League

The top of the pyramid is the Premier League, where huge, mega-wealthy clubs such as Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur compete against each other for the most prestigious title in the land. In recent years, Pep Guardiola's Manchester City have dominated the top of the table, winning five of the last six league titles.

Historically, though, their local rivals Manchester United are the most successful side of the Premier League era. Led by Sir Alex Ferguson, the Red Devils have notched up a record 13 titles since the advent of the Premier League in 1992.

The Premier League is the most popular soccer league in the world, reportedly broadcast in 212 countries to 643 million homes, with a staggering potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. It's lapped up by football fans everywhere from the United States to India, Ghana to Australia, with the high standard of play, vast international talent and passionate fanbases making English football a unique spectacle.

The Championship

The next step down is the Championship, England's second tier. The standard of football in this league is still extremely high, but it's not quite on the level of the Premier League. In fact, the difference between the top two leagues in English football is made clear by the presence of parachute payments, which are handed out by the Premier League to relegated clubs in order to protect them from financial disaster.

Invented in 2006, the parachute payments system essentially provides relegated teams with a percentage of broadcasting revenue for three years in order to lessen the financial impact of dropping down from the top flight.

Given the huge power and riches of the Premier League, many second tier teams work extremely hard and expend a lot resources attempting to gain promotion.

This can be done either by finishing in the top two spots of the Championship (the automatic promotion places) at the end of the season, or by winning the play-offs, which offers the chance for teams placed between 3rd and 6th in the Championship to compete against each other in a mini-knockout competition at the end of the season, with the winner of the play-off final getting promoted to the Premier League.

Teams can also move in the opposite direction; each season, the clubs that finish in the bottom three places of the league (aka the relegation zone) automatically drop down to the third tier, League One. Promotion and relegation ensures that the 24 teams in the Championship are refreshed each new campaign.

League One

Don't be fooled by the name; despite its title, League One is the third-highest division in English football. That being said, it's the home of some giants within the English game.

At the time of writing, historic clubs such as Derby County, Bolton Wanderers, Portsmouth, and Blackpool all play their football in League One, and in recent years former title winners such as Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland and Ipswich Town have all had spells at this level.

With three promotion spots up for grabs and two of them automatically given to the league's top two performers, League One also features a play-off system that allows teams in 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th to battle it out for a final shot at the Championship.

While the difference in standard between League One and the Championship isn't as drastic as the gap between England's top two tiers, it's still a significant jump-up, and newly-promoted teams such as Rotherham United and Peterborough United have sometimes struggled to adapt to going up.

Just like the leagues above and below it, League One also consists of 24 teams, although relegation is decided in a slightly different way to the Championship. In League One, the threat of the drop is even more troublesome for struggling sides, as four teams are automatically relegated to League Two, as opposed to three.

League Two

The final division in the English Football League (EFL), League Two is where the minnows of the English professional game play their football; sides like Harrogate Town, Barrow, and Forest Green have all surpassed expectations in the fourth tier in recent seasons, having worked their way up from non-league.

However, there are also some huge, historic sides at this level, with clubs like Wrexham, Notts County, Bradford City, and AFC Wimbledon occupying the division at the time of writing.

League Two is made up of 24 teams, and because more sides come down from League One, the odds of gaining promotion are also higher at this level, as there are three automatic promotion spots and an opportunity for the teams finishing between 4th and 7th to go up via the play-offs.

The reason for there being more switching about between Leagues One and Two is all about keeping the balance in terms of promotion and relegation, as each season only two teams are relegated from League Two to the division below, the National League. League organisers made this decision in order to reduce the amount of teams having to adapt to dropping out of the professionalised EFL, which can be financially catastrophic at times. 

The National League

The National League is the fifth tier of English football, a step below League Two. Technically speaking, it's the highest level of the English non-league (or semi-professional) system; however, many of the clubs in this division operate on a full-time basis, paying players and staff professional wages in a bid to lay the foundations for upward advancement.

In particular, this tends to be the strategy for wealthier clubs aiming to get promoted to the EFL, although this is no mean feat.

There's only one automatic promotion spot in the National League (which meant last season that Notts County's record-breaking 107-point tally still wasn't enough to get them automatic promotion, and the play-offs were required instead).

Teams that finish 2nd and 3rd go straight through to the play-off semi-finals, whereas teams finishing 4th to 7th must first compete in quarter-finals in order to reach that stage of the end-of-season mini-tournament. It's a complex job getting into the English Football League.

And the English football league pyramid doesn't stop there. The vast number of people playing organised football in the UK — estimated to be around 2 million, far more per capita than most countries — mean there are dozens of divisions below National League level.

The two lowest-finishing National League teams are relegated to Step 6, consisting of two regionalised leagues: National League North and National League South. These divisions feed into the top flight of non-league football, and below that are various other regionalised leagues. The next rung of the ladder is the Isthmian League in the South, the Southern League in East Anglia, the Midlands, parts of the South and South Wales, and the Northern Premier League in England's Northern counties.

Sounds confusing, right? The vast, complex network of leagues operating in England and Wales can seem pretty complex, and it's a testament to the passion for playing that exists all across this football-loving nation.

If you'd like to find out more about the importance of non-league football to England's sporting identity, check out our interview with football author Nige Tassell, who spent a season documenting non-league football across the country in his book The Bottom Corner.