History of the English non-League football system

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The National League System consists of a group of semi-professional football leagues in England, below the fully professional Premier League and the English Football League. The NLS spans seven levels of the overall English football league system, and consists of around 80 divisions in total.

Although many of the leagues within the National League System have been around for a long time, the System itself is a fairly recent development. It was created by The Football Association in the 1990s to bring together various ad-hoc arrangements from around the country, and to give clubs a clear path of promotion and relegation from the lower levels of the pyramid right through to the professional leagues.

For more information on the current structure of the NLS, see the main article.

Before 1979[edit]

Football League Fourth Division
Northern Premier League Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
  Southern League
First Division North
Southern League
First Division South
Isthmian League
First Division
      Isthmian League
Second Division

In the late nineteenth century a number of different football leagues were developed. Of these, only the Football League and the Football Alliance had national and professional pretensions. The Football Alliance was merged into the Football League in 1892, creating a two tier competition. The Northern League (1889) and the Southern League (1894) were the principal regional leagues, with the Southern League the stronger of the two — it provided an FA Cup winner, Tottenham Hotspur in 1901, whilst northern side Bradford Park Avenue joined it in 1907, reflecting its strength. In 1920, the top division of the Southern League was merged into the Football League to form the Third Division; the following season a further division of teams from a series of northern leagues formed the Third Division North, with the existing league renamed the Third Division South accordingly.

From then on, the Southern League's influence was reduced, although it remained the second strongest competition in England. In 1968, the Northern Premier League was formed by the strongest clubs from the north of England outside the Football League, and after 1968, all League applicants came from either the Southern League or the Northern Premier League. The Northern League and the 1905-founded Isthmian League remained the strongest amateur leagues. The Isthmian League covered the area around London, whilst the Northern League was concentrated in North East England. Those two leagues dominated the FA Amateur Cup, collecting the trophy 50 times between them from 1894 to 1974. However, as both leagues were strictly amateur, none of their clubs applied directly for League status, although occasionally teams turned professional to seek stronger challenges, such as Wimbledon, who progressed from the Isthmian League to the Football League via the Southern League. This remaining group of regional amateur and semi-professional leagues formed a patchwork across England and Wales, collectively known as "non-League football". Non-League in this sense referred to outside the national, professional Football League, rather than without a league. There was relatively little movement between leagues, although ambitious clubs could apply for membership of a stronger competition, often to replace a club that had folded.

Clubs in the strongest leagues could apply to join the Football League by standing in an annual election. The bottom four teams in the League's lowest division were also obliged to stand in the election, and the existing League members would vote on the four teams from all those applying. Typically, around 10–15 non-League teams applied each year, but most of them gained only a handful of votes, and between 1950 and 1979, only seven non-league clubs won election to the League at the expense of an existing League club. The teams that were successful[1] were:

In the mid-1970s the Football Association abolished the distinction between professionals and amateurs. The Isthmian League went on a slow process of professionalization, though even in the early 1980s many of its clubs were still amateur. The Northern League remained staunchly amateur and was eclipsed by the Northern Premier League; it refused to enter the National League System until 1991, by which stage many of its teams had defected to other leagues.

1979–82[edit]

Football League Fourth Division
Alliance Premier League
Northern Premier League Southern League
Midland Division
Southern League
Southern Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
      Isthmian League
First Division
      Isthmian League
Second Division

In 1979, the Alliance Premier League was formed by a group of leading Southern League and Northern Premier League clubs. The Southern and Northern Premier Leagues became "feeder" leagues to the APL, with automatic promotion and relegation between them. The Isthmian League, while it was now becoming recognised as one of the strongest semi-professional leagues, remained outside the fledgling "pyramid". The Southern League also restructured, reducing itself from three divisions to two (running in parallel) to compensate for the loss of many of its Premier Division clubs to the new league.

One of the reasons for the creation of the APL was so that there would be a single club each year that could apply for Football League status, so as not to split the favourable votes between several clubs, as had happened in many previous years. Some years even saw the applicants receive more votes combined than any of the clubs up for re-election (including every year between 1973 and 1976[2][3][4][5]). However, the League was still reluctant to increase its turnover of clubs, and none of the early APL champions succeeded in gaining election.

1982–84[edit]

Football League Fourth Division
Alliance Premier League
Northern Premier League Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
  Southern League
Midland Division
Southern League
Southern Division
Isthmian League
First Division
      Isthmian League
Second Division

In 1982, the Southern League reinstated its Premier Division, absorbing 13 clubs from various smaller regional leagues. From this season onwards, the exchange of clubs between the regional leagues and the "big three" feeder leagues increased considerably, with around 8 clubs each season being promoted to the Southern, Northern Premier or Isthmian Leagues, and around 5 being relegated (the balance being made up of clubs folding or merging).

Southern League feeders 1982–2003:

The Midland Alliance was formed in 1994 by clubs from the West Midlands (Regional) League and the Midland Combination. The Leicestershire Senior League is currently also a feeder league to the Alliance.

The Wessex League was formed in 1986 by clubs from the Hampshire League and from some neighbouring counties; it superseded the Hampshire League as a direct feeder for the Southern League.

Isthmian League feeders 1982–2003:

The Spartan South Midlands League was formed in 1998 by a merger of the Spartan League and the South Midlands League.

A rationalisation of feeder leagues in the north of England took place in 1982. The Northern League remained untouched, but the Yorkshire League and the Midland League amalgamated to form the Northern Counties (East) League, while to the west of the Pennines, the Cheshire County League and the Lancashire Combination joined forces to become the North West Counties League. Both these leagues became feeders for the Northern Premier League, but without automatic promotion and relegation — clubs still had to apply to join the higher league.

Northern Premier League feeders 1982–2003:

1984–87[edit]

Football League Fourth Division
Alliance Premier League
Northern Premier League Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
  Southern League
Midland Division
Southern League
Southern Division
Isthmian League
First Division
      Isthmian League
Second Division North
Isthmian League
Second Division South

In 1984, the Isthmian League absorbed the Athenian League, forming two parallel Second Divisions, and in 1985, it was accepted as a third feeder to the APL (although two Isthmian clubs, Dagenham and Enfield, had joined the APL in 1981). Each year, the champions of the APL's three feeder leagues would be promoted to the APL and the three lowest-ranking teams would be relegated down. The Southern League and Isthmian League's footprints overlapped considerably, with both having members throughout the south east of England, but despite occasional transfers between the two leagues, there was no concerted effort to fix their common boundary, and clubs in the South East were more or less free to choose which league to play in. In particular Yeovil Town, who had been a long-standing Southern League member until they became founder members of the APL, played in the Isthmian League from 1985–88, and again from 1995–97, despite being based 100 miles from any of their opponents.

1987–91[edit]

Football League Fourth Division
Football Conference
Northern Premier League
Premier Division
Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
Northern Premier League
First Division
Southern League
Midland Division
Southern League
Southern Division
Isthmian League
First Division
        Isthmian League
Second Division North
Isthmian League
Second Division South

From 1987, the Conference champions were finally granted automatic promotion to the Football League. Over the next few years, the clubs relegated from the League were typically able to rebound straight away, with Lincoln City, Darlington and Colchester United all gaining promotion in one or two seasons.[1] (although Newport County, relegated in 1988, went bankrupt partway through their first Conference season).

Also in 1987, the Northern Premier League created a new First Division, with its existing clubs forming the Premier Division. Automatic promotion and relegation was then instigated with its feeder leagues.

Scarborough were the first Conference club to win promotion to the Football League, when they finished as Conference champions at the end of the 1986-87 season.

1991–2002[edit]

Football League Third Division
Football Conference
Northern Premier League
Premier Division
Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
Northern Premier League
First Division
Southern League
Midland Division
Southern League
Southern Division
Isthmian League
First Division
      Isthmian League
Second Division
      Isthmian League
Third Division

In 1992 the Football League Fourth Division changed its name to the Third Division following the creation of the Premier League and the transfer to it of all the clubs of the First Division. The Isthmian League de-regionalised its second division to create new Second and Third Divisions.

2002–04[edit]

Football League Third Division
Football Conference
Northern Premier League
Premier Division
Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
Northern Premier League
First Division
Southern League
Division One West
Southern League
Division One East
Isthmian League
First Division North
Isthmian League
First Division South
      Isthmian League
Second Division

In 2003, playoffs were introduced for clubs finishing 2nd–5th in the Conference, allowing two clubs to go up to the Football League for the first time.

2004–06[edit]

  Football League Two
Step 1 Conference National
Step 2 Conference North Conference South
Step 3 Northern Premier League
Premier Division
Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
Step 4 Northern Premier League
First Division
Southern League
Division One West
Southern League
Division One East
Isthmian League
First Division
Step 5 Isthmian League Second Division and 14 other feeder leagues

In 2004, the Football League renamed Football League Division Three to Football League Two as part of a rebranding exercise.

In 2004, a new level was added immediately below the Football Conference, consisting of two divisions, Conference North and Conference South. The clubs for these new divisions were drawn equally from the three feeder leagues. The existing Conference division at Step 1 was renamed Conference National.

As part of the restructuring, the Isthmian League's two First Divisions were merged, and the boundary between the Southern League and the Isthmian League was redrawn, with 12 clubs transferring from the Southern to the Isthmian, and 27 moving in the opposite direction. To make up the numbers at Step 4, no clubs were relegated and a total of 20 clubs were promoted from the Step 5 feeder leagues.

2006–07[edit]

  Football League Two
Step 1 Conference National
Step 2 Conference North Conference South
Step 3 Northern Premier League
Premier Division
Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
Step 4 Northern Premier League
First Division
Southern League
Division One Midlands
Southern League
Division One South & West
Isthmian League
First Division North
Isthmian League
First Division South
Step 5 14 feeder leagues

For the 2006–07 season, the Isthmian League First Division was split back out into North and South sections again to reduce travel costs, in the wake of Hastings United's complaints over these costs in 1998, causing them to drop out of the Southern league when their application to transfer to the Isthmian was denied. The Southern League Division Ones were also rearranged slightly, and renamed as Midlands and South & West. Plans to split the Northern Premier League First Division in the same way were put on hold due to a lack of suitable clubs.

Each of the divisions at Steps 2–4 had a quota of 22 clubs, although the Northern Premier League First Division ran with 24 clubs for this season as part of the future expansion plans. The Conference National was expanded to 24 clubs, the same as the Football League's three divisions.

A total of 30 clubs were promoted from Step 5 to Step 4, including 4 from the Isthmian League Second Division. The division was then disbanded, with its remaining clubs distributed across the other Step 5 leagues in the South East. It was planned to reduce the number of divisions at that level from 15 to 12, but there was no consensus on how this should be achieved, so 2006–07 ran with fourteen Step 5 divisions, each with between eighteen and twenty-two clubs.

It was hoped that the restructuring would improve the lower levels of the system in a number of ways. There will be less travelling for the Level 8 clubs as there will be five divisions, not four. This will be of particular benefit to Midlands-based clubs who will now predominantly compete in the Southern League Division One Midlands, rather than being split between the geographically larger older divisions. There should also be less overlapping at Level 9.

Lower down the pyramid, the Liverpool County Combination merged with the I Zingari League to form the Liverpool County Premier League, while the Somerset County League split its lower levels from Division Two and Division Three to Division Two East and Division Two West. The East Cornwall Premier League changed its name to the East Cornwall League, divided into two divisions (Premier Division and Division One). In a purely cosmetic change, the Bedford & District League became the Bedfordshire League.

2007–09[edit]

  Football League Two
Step 1 Conference Premier
Step 2 Conference North Conference South
Step 3 Northern Premier League
Premier Division
Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
Step 4 Northern Premier League
Division One North
Northern Premier League
Division One South
Southern League
Division One Midlands
Southern League
Division One South & West
Isthmian League
First Division North
Isthmian League
First Division South
Step 5 14 feeder leagues

For the 2007–08 season, the Conference National was renamed Conference Premier and the Northern Premier League Division One was split into two, completing the plan of six divisions at Step 4. They were split along a North/South basis.[6] Because each division only had 18 clubs initially, they played an unusual format, with each division being split into East and West sections. Each club played all the others in its division home and away, and will also play all the others in its section a third time, either home or away. This will give each club 42 games (rather than the 34 they would have with just a straight round-robin). The extra games are spread across the season. Further down, the South Western League and the Devon County League merged to form the South West Peninsula League. It has a Premier Division at Step 6, and Division One East and Division One West at Step 7. The new league fed directly into the Premier Division of the Western League, in parallel with the Western League Division One. It was hoped that the new division would encourage more clubs from the West Country to move up the pyramid, without having to jump directly from local Cornwall and West Devon leagues to the Western League (which can mean journeys of over 200 miles each way). Further down still, Step 7's Wessex League Division Two was disbanded and its clubs returned to local leagues, including the new Hampshire Premier Football League, which would run alongside the now-defunct Hampshire League.

On 16 May 2008, the FA Leagues Committee added the East Midlands Counties League at Step 6, taking clubs from the Central Midlands League and the Leicestershire Senior League (both at Step 7 at the time).[7] It was to run parallel to the Northern Counties League Division One, which was re-centred on Yorkshire, with both feeding into the Northern Counties League Premier Division. Both the Central Midlands League and the Leicestershire Senior League will retain their current formats and their current Step 7 status for their highest divisions. The possible addition of Surrey Elite Intermediate League at Step 7 was also announced.[8] This included some of the best clubs from the existing Intermediate leagues in the county, some clubs dropping down from the Combined Counties League Division One, and some teams from areas adjacent to the county boundary. The FA refused to give this new league the expected Step 7 status but pledged to keep the matter under review. The Hampshire Premier League was also officially named as a Step 7 league from 2008.

2009–15[edit]

  Football League Two
Step 1 Conference Premier
Step 2 Conference North Conference South
Step 3 Northern Premier League
Premier Division
Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
Step 4 Northern Premier League
Division One North
Northern Premier League
Division One South
Southern League
Division One Central
Southern League
Division One South & West
Isthmian League
First Division North
Isthmian League
First Division South
Step 5 14 feeder leagues

In 2009 Southern League Division One Midlands was renamed Division One Central.

For the 2011–12 season, the Kent Invicta Football League was created at Step 6 to bridge the gap between the Kent League at Step 5 and the Kent County League at Step 7. The FA hoped to reduce the number of Step 5 leagues to twelve by the 2013–14 season, with the number of clubs in each league being gradually reduced to 22 through adjustments to the number of relegation places.[9] This change never materialised.[10]

A series of changes were introduced for the 2013–14 season to ensure that each Step 5 league had the opportunity to promote a team to Step 4. Since there were 14 Step 5 leagues and 6 Step 4 leagues, a simple promotion/relegation system would not work. All three Step 3 leagues (Northern Premier League Premier, Southern Premier, Isthmian Premier) were expanded from 22 to 24 teams. The two Isthmian leagues at Step 4 (Division One North, Division One South) were expanded from 22 to 24 teams and the number of relegated sides in both divisions increased from two to three. The remaining four Step 4 leagues would still each have 22 teams and two relegation spots. The Isthmian League was chosen for expansion due to the greater number of clubs competing in its geographical area at Step 5 and to ensure there were 14 relegation places at Step 4, in line with the 14 Step 5 divisions. At Step 5, teams finishing as low as third at Step 5 could be promoted, as long as they applied for promotion and met the ground grading criteria, but only one team from each Step 5 division could be promoted each season, the highest placed eligible club.[10] For changes for the 2013–14 season to take place, a "16-up, 6-down" system applied for the 2012–13 season only, whereby 16 teams from Step 5 were promoted (rather than 14) and only six teams from Step 4 were relegated (rather than 12).

In 2013 the Kent League was renamed Southern Counties East League while the Midland Alliance and Midland Combination merged to become the new Midland League at step 5.

2015–present[edit]

  English Football League Two
Step 1 National League
Step 2 National League North National League South
Step 3 Northern Premier League
Premier Division
Southern League
Premier Division
Isthmian League
Premier Division
Step 4 Northern Premier League
Division One North
Northern Premier League
Division One South
Southern League
Division One Central
Southern League
Division One South & West
Isthmian League
First Division North
Isthmian League
First Division South
Step 5 14 feeder leagues

In 2015 the Football Conference and its divisions were renamed the National League, and a year later the Southern Counties East League absorbed the Kent Invicta League to become the former's second division, still at Step 6.

Sources[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Promotion to/Relegation from the Football League by year". Retrieved 20 November 2006. 
  2. ^ "footballsite – Division 4 1972/73". Retrieved 20 November 2006. 
  3. ^ "footballsite – Division 4 1973/74". Retrieved 20 November 2006. 
  4. ^ "footballsite – Division 4 1974/75". Retrieved 20 November 2006. 
  5. ^ "footballsite – Division 4 1975/76". Retrieved 20 November 2006. 
  6. ^ http://www.tonykempster.co.uk/maps07-08.htm
  7. ^ "Central Midlands Lge and Leicestershire Senior League merge". Archived from the original on 19 August 2014. Retrieved 2 March 2008. 
  8. ^ TheFA.com – National League structure Archived 20 July 2008 at Archive.is
  9. ^ The FA – National League System – Step 5/6 Review Accessed 24 January 2012
  10. ^ a b The FA – National League System - Step 5 Review[dead link] Accessed 24 April 2013