What are all the leagues and cups of English football? This was utterly mysterious to me for years. And it may still be for many Americans. Allow me to explain.
One time, I heard a British TV announcer say something you would never hear an American announcer say: that a team (in this case Manchester City) was playing their next four games in four different competitions! Specifically, what he said was their next four games are in the League this weekend, the League Cup Final at Wembley next weekend, then the FA Cup quarterfinals, then at Barcelona in the Champions League.
Now, I’ve watched enough soccer to know what he meant by that, but would the Pittsburgh Steelers ever play in different competitions, including two tournaments and another “league” in a different country?
So, it occurred to me that I should write a guide to the various leagues and “cups” in English football.
Premier League: Top of the Pyramid
When Americans think of English soccer, they usually think of teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, and so on. Those teams are in what is now called the Premier League. This used to be called the First Division, but the allure of TV money and marketing power created a “re-branding” back in the early 90s.
The Premier League, with 20 teams, is really the top of a massive pyramid of clubs, and the best way I can explain it is through analogy: imagine if every professional baseball team in America was an independent entity. In other words, if the Memphis Redbirds were, instead of the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, a completely independent team that’s been playing in Memphis for more than 100 years. And imagine if, all the way down to the local firefighters’ union putting together a baseball team and paying them part-time wages, it was all connected into one massive pyramid of leagues. That’s more or less what English football looks like.
A major difference between English football and every sport in America is how they determine the champion. Americans insist on a “regular season” follow by “playoffs.” The English, and pretty much everybody else in the world, do it another way: Everybody in the league plays everybody else in the league, home and away. You get three points if you win and one if you tie. At the end of the season, whoever has the most points wins. (The first tiebreaker is “goal differential.”)
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The most exciting finish ever was when Manchester City won the league by scoring a goal with about 30 seconds left in the very last game of the year — taking it away from their rivals Manchester United to win it for the first time in 46 years. It’s basically the greatest thing that ever happened in English football … unless you’re a United fan.
Promotion and Relegation
Now, there’s another crucial thing to understand: the system of promotion and relegation. Imagine if, for example, the Pirates had a crappy year and finished last in the Major Leagues, then had to spend the entire next season playing in AAA. And meanwhile, let’s say Memphis finished with the best record in AAA; they would move up to the “big leagues” for the whole next season. In English soccer terms, we’d say the Pirates got relegated and Memphis was promoted.
In England, the bottom clubs at each level of the sport get relegated for the next season, and the top clubs get promoted. For example, last season Norwich City spent the season playing the heavyweights like Man U and Liverpool, but they finished last in the Premier League, so this year they are playing the likes of Reading, Middlesbrough, and Birmingham City.
The Football League
The three levels below the Premier League make up the Football League. Basically it’s the old league system without the top level, which broke off to call itself Premier. The top level of the Football League is called The Championship, with 24 teams. This is confusing to some Americans, because being “relegated to the Championship” doesn’t sound right, but in fact it’s very, very costly to a club. (Imagine selling tickets for the Man U game vs. selling tickets for the Wigan game.)
The next level below the Championship is League One, another odd name since it’s the third level of English football. League One has 24 teams, almost all of whom Americans will never have heard of, such as Fleetwood Town, Bristol Rovers, and Oxford United.
Below League One is League Two, with another 24 teams. 2020-21 members include Port Vale, Forest Green Rovers, and Stevenage. And just for a little perspective, Stevenage is basically a suburb of London, and their stadium has about 6,000 seats.
This, by the way, is one of the things I think Americans will love about English soccer: fairly small stadiums, fairly close to each other.
By the way, England does actually have playoffs. In all three Football League levels, the top two teams get automatically promoted, while the next four have a playoff to determine which one goes up. These finals are played at Wembley Stadium in London and make for some pretty dramatic stuff. Imagine a one-game playoff between two AAA teams at Yankee Stadium, with the winner going to the Majors for the whole next season.
Map of the Top Six Tiers of English Soccer Clubs
Here’s a Google Map of everything from the Premier League down to tier six, the National League North and South.
Levels 5 and 6: The National League
Okay, so that’s it for the Football League. We’ve now covered the top 92 teams in English football, but we’re hardly a quarter of the way done! But we’ll go faster, because it gets so confusing from this point on that I don’t know what to say.
The next two levels just below the Football League are the National League and the National League North/South. I’ll defer to Wikipedia for a moment:
The top tier of non-League football is the National League. It contains a national division (National League) of 24 clubs (Level 5), and is the lowest level with a single nationwide league. There are two divisions at Level 6, covering the north (National League North) and south (National League South), with 22 clubs each. Some of these clubs are full-time professional and the others are semi-professional. Below the National League, some of the stronger clubs are semi-professional, but continuing down the tiers, soon all the clubs are amateur. Lower-level leagues also tend to cater to progressively smaller geographic regions.
One club in the National League, where I saw a 2016 FA Cup game against League Two Notts County, is Boreham Wood, kind of out in the suburbs of London.
Levels 7 and Below
Okay, now we’ve covered the top 160 teams in English football, but wait, there’s more! The seventh tier is made up of – brace yourselves – the Northern Premier League Premier Division, the Southern Football League Premier Division, and the Isthmian League Premier Division.
The eighth tier has six leagues – three sets of pairs that feed, through promotion and relegation, to the three leagues in the 7th tier.
And … right there I will quit trying. There are, incredibly, 24 levels of English football with an estimated 7,000 teams, but that number changes from year to year. If you really want to dig into this, I defer once again to Wikipedia.
Maybe Charts Will Help?
Here are two good images to help you out. The first is the big picture, showing the first nine levels (with out-of-date sponsorship, but still):
Next up is the non-league structure, levels 6 and down. I will soon have this poster on my wall at home.
Okay, still with me? Probably not, but I need to write this for my book. So on I trudge.
“Cup” is what the English call a tournament, and these go on throughout the year. Every country has at least one domestic Cup, and in England, the biggest and best of them all is the FA Cup. (FA being “Football Association.”) The beauty of the FA Cup is that it is open to the first nine levels of English football described above; this year, there were 737 teams entered!
(Skip over to a whole blog post called What Is The FA Cup?)
The other beautiful thing is that the pairings are drawn at random, including where the games happen. And if a game ends in a tie, they replay it at the other stadium.
It starts out in August with some preliminary rounds, then four rounds of qualifying, then the “proper” rounds start in November. That is when the League One and League Two teams enter – but again, remember that it’s unseeded and totally random. So you might be sitting third in League One, enter the FA Cup, and have to go play at some semi-pro team from the Isthmian League. It’s crazy.
The Third Round Proper is when the teams from the Premier League and Championship come in, and that’s usually the first weekend in January. This is where most of the country starts to notice, because every year some Premier League team has to go play on some cow pasture of a field, and everybody is always rooting for the “minnows.” In January 2017, for example, Liverpool hosted Plymouth Argyle from League Two — and they drew 0-0! Liverpool had to go down there and play them again, winning only by 1-0.
You also get random tasty matches like Tottenham-Arsenal, two bitter North London rivals who might happen to draw each other in the Cup, in addition to their two Premier League meetings each year.
In the Fourth Round Proper, played in late January, there are still some “giant killings” possible, but most of the time this is where the Big Boys start to push the little ones out of the way.
The Sixth Round is the quarterfinals, and in 2017 a couple of non-league teams made it this far. The semis are at Wembley in mid-April, and all this leads up to the CA Cup Final, played almost every year since 1872, which now happens annually in May at Wembley. It’s like the Super Bowl of English football. One famous giant-killing was when Wigan beat mighty Manchester City, 1-0, on a fantastic last-minute goal. Here are the highlights:
Interesting side note: Wigan became the first team ever to win the FA Cup and be relegated (from the Premier League to the Championship) in the same season.
So that’s the biggie, the FA Cup. The second one to know about is the League Cup, which is the same deal as the FA Cup but only for the Premier League and the three Football League divisions, so a total of 92 teams.
The semifinals of the League Cup are played in two legs (collectively called a “tie”), one at each stadium, total goals win. It happens that during my travels in 2018, I saw the second leg of each semifinal. Manchester City won at West Ham, 3-0, to finish that tie 9-0! But the truly great game of my tour was the second leg of Sunderland vs. Manchester United. Sunderland won the first leg at home, 2-1, and then won the second leg in a penalty shootout at Manchester United – a game which I wrote about as “Sunderland’s Big Night at Old Trafford.” That’s the game that made me an Honorary Mackem.
Other Cups that get played during the season:
- Football League Trophy (aka Checkatrade Trophy) for Leagues One and Two only — sort of.
- FA Trophy for Levels 5-8
- FA Vase for levels 9-10
- Conference League Cup for levels 5-6
- And a bunch of others.
For clubs in the Premier League, “getting to Europe” is a major goal, usually reserved for the top five teams in the league.
The biggest of these is the Champions League, which takes top teams from every European domestic league and makes a tournament for the following season. In England, the top four teams go. The whole thing is 32 teams, divided into eight groups of four. The groups of four all play each other, home and away, with the top two advancing to the “knockout stage” where they play home-and-away ties. This goes on until the final, which is a single game on a neutral field in late May.
The second European competition to know about is the Europa League, which is like the NIT to the Champions League’s NCAA. The fifth-place English team goes to this one, and it runs just like the Champions League, only hardly anybody really cares unless their team is in it.
Other than the money, the significance of these European competitions is in helping you attract big-time players. If you qualify for Europe for next year, you’ll find it easier to sign these guys, and of course with the TV and ticket revenue, you’ll have the money to pay them, as well.
World Cup, Etc.
Everything I’ve described so far is for clubs, not countries. Many Americans only know about the World Cup, but that’s countries playing each other. It’s every four years, with the world split up into six regions. Each of these has their own championships, as well as qualifying tournaments to get into the World Cup. The European Championship, played every four years alternating with World Cups, is a really big deal.
And in the United States …
The U.S. runs more or less the same; we have a league called Major League Soccer, and a cup called the Lamar Hunt Open Cup. MLS doesn’t have the single-table format and schedule everybody else uses, and there’s no promotion and relegation. As for the quality of play in the MLS, my best guess is that if you took the top MLS teams and dropped them in England, they would struggle to stay in the Championship. I think most would wind up in League One or League Two. Here’s my argument for that.
So There You Have It
So, going all the way back to the start: How was it that Manchester City (back in 2014) had four games coming up in four different competitions? Well, now you can sort of understand.
- Saturday against Stoke City in the Premier League
- The following Sunday against Sunderland in the League Cup Final
- The next Sunday against Wigan in the FA Cup Sixth Round
- And then on Wednesday at Barcelona in the Champions League.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this little exercise. This is the kind of thing I want to help folks understand in my introduction to English soccer.