The Many Layers and Complicated Hierarchy of the English Football Pyramid Tiers

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 25.1.2024.


While the Brazilians might be a proper contender, even they wouldn't be mad if England gets called the biggest footballing nation. After all, it’s the sport’s cradle and the locals are still crazy about their offspring. So much so that often third-league matches are more visited than many top-division games in other countries. But the English football pyramid tiers can be confusing even to the biggest fanatics.

Simply, the sheer size of the English football pyramid is so substantial that one has to admire the passion and organisational aspect behind it.

Understanding the depth of the English football pyramid tiers can provide a better appreciation of the trajectories some clubs and even some players made throughout the years.

The importance of the English football pyramid lies in the relegation/promotion dynamic based on a season-long format in which all teams play each other twice. In the end - May or June - the top clubs of a division get promoted to the one above at the end of the season. While those teams at the bottom of it, get relegated into a league below.

Starting from the top to the bottom, here is the full breakdown of the English football pyramid tiers.

Premier League - the Top of the English Football Pyramid Tiers

Manchester City

The pinnacle. The ceiling. Top flight. The peak of the pyramid!

The only league in which there is no promotion. The team at the top come season end is the best football club in the country!

English Premier League has 20 teams since its inception in the 1992/1993 season. Of course, the English football pyramid had a top throughout history, it was just called the First Division and it had 22 teams and slightly different rules.

Upon each season's end, the last three placed clubs are relegated to a lower tier.

- Everton has spent the most seasons in the top flight - 121 campaigns! Missing only four of the possible 125 seasons.

- Arsenal has had the most successive seasons in top-flight - 98.

- Manchester United (20) has won the most first division titles in English football, followed by Liverpool (19), Arsenal (13), Everton (9), and Manchester City (9).

The Least Confusing Part of the English Football Pyramid: The Football League

There simply aren't enough terms used for leagues, football, and rankings for all of this not to be a bit confusing. At first glance.

Championship - Second Tier of the English Football Pyramid

Stoke city

The league below the Premier League is called the Championship. It's the second tier of English football.

The Championship is part of a broader organisation called the English Football League, containing the two tiers beneath the Championship, known as League One, and League Two. This subsection of the English football pyramid is commonly known through its abbreviation as the EFL.

While it is an English football pyramid, indeed, Welsh teams can compete in the English Football League, and four of the 72 EFL teams are from Wales.

The second tier of English football provides three teams that are promoted to the Premier League at the end of the season. Replacing its relegated teams.


Wembley

The two first-placed teams at the end of the Championship season - which consists of 46 regular season matches - go directly into the Premier League. While the four clubs placed from 3rd to 6th play play-off duels, the third facing the sixth, while the fourth and the fifth measuring up. Winners of those duels play a final at Wembley.

Three last-ranked teams of a Championship season are relegated to League One.

The Championship has been established in its current format in 2004. But the second tier of English football has a long history, dating back to the 19th century.

- Two teams won the second tier of English football most times - Leicester and Manchester City - both winning 7 times.

League One - Or the Third Tier of English Football

The competition called League One is the third tier of English football consisting of 24 clubs. Promotion from here brings you into the Championship, second tier. Relegation drops the clubs to League Two - the fourth tier.

The promotion and relegation rules follow the same format as in the Championship: the two first-placed teams are promoted directly, while the teams placed from 3rd to 6th place compete in a play-off tournament. The 3rd team plays the 6th in two-leg duels, while the 4th and the 5th do the same. Winners of those games face in the final at Wembley Stadium.

The last four clubs of a League One season are relegated to League Two.

Plymouth Argyle has the honour of winning the third division of English football the most times, doing it on five occasions.

League Two - Fourth Tier of English Football

Colchester Community Stadium

The last level of the league football bracket is called League Two. It’s the fourth tier of the English football pyramid.

League Two consists of 24 clubs.

The promotion and relegation rules don’t follow the same format as in the Championship and League One: the three first-placed teams are promoted directly, while the teams placed from 4th to 7th place compete in a play-off tournament. The 4th team plays the 7th in two-leg duels, while the 5th and the 6th do the same. Winners of those games face in the final at Wembley Stadium.

The last two clubs of a League Two season are relegated each year.

- Chesterfield has had the honour of winning the fourth tier four times, more than any other club.

- Only five clubs have won all four of the English league competitions: Wolves, Burnley, Preston North End, Portsmouth, and Sheffield United.

Getting relegated from League Two and hence from the three stages of the English Football League, demotes you to Non-League football.

English Football Pyramid: The Leagues of Non-League Football

While the Premier League, Championship, League One, and League Two are the best (in that order) English leagues of the football pyramid. It's just scratching the surface of English football. They are all just a peak of the pyramid. Yes, that's how big it is.

As the three leagues from second to fourth tier are called the English Football League, there is a name for the six tiers that follow: Non-League Football

Sixth tiers, but 48 leagues!

Humble grassroots teams, pros and semi-professional clubs, this expansive system offers a down-to-earth experience for players, fans, and the communities which they form.

Oh, we're also introducing "steps" at this point.

Fifth Tier (Step One): National League

Teams relegated from League Two fall into the National League.

It's the last level of English football consisting of just one league.

Hence, the National League promotes two top teams to League Two at the end of the season.

The National League is the fifth tier of the English Football Pyramid. It’s also step one of the Non-League Football.

Four teams are relegated from the National League. But they don’t go to the same league.

National League is a fully professional league. Although some newly promoted teams keep their semi-professional status.

Sixth Tier (Step Two): National League North / National League South

As at this point we arrive at the level of clubs who can’t afford to travel across England, the leagues become geographically confined.

The first geographical separation is between National League North and National League South. They each have 24 clubs!

These divisions used to be called Conference North and Conference South.

However, there isn’t a strict geographical line in England that will make a certain team always a part of National League North or National League South.

Simply because four southern teams can technically fall out of the National League.

So comparatively, the northernmost two would go to the National League North. The two southern-most would go to the National League South.

This is the principle that applies across the further steps.

Three clubs are relegated from both the National League North and National League South.

- The biggest attendance at the National League South game was 5,351 people in a game between Torquay United and Hungerford Town.

Seventh Tier (Step Three): Premier Divisions (Not Premier Leagues)

At the seventh tier, and step three of Non-League Football, we have four different leagues!

- Northern Premier League Premier Division
- Southern League Premier Division Central
- Southern League Premier Division South
- Isthmian League Premier Division

There are 22 clubs in each of the leagues!

The Isthmian League Premier Division and Southern League Premier Division South promote into the National League South.

While the Southern League Premier Division Central and Northern Premier League Premier Division promote to the National League North.

Two teams from each of the four leagues at seventh tier will go up to the sixth tier. The four champions are promoted automatically and they are joined by a playoff winner from each division.

At this level, each playoff only features four teams, the sides that finished in 2nd to 5th in each division, but like the higher levels, all ties are one-off. The matches are played at the home ground of the highest-ranked side in the tie, including the final.

Eight Tier (Step Four): Subdivisions

There are seven leagues at the eighth tier of the English football pyramid. Or step four of Non-League Football:

- Northern Premier League Division One North-West
- Northern Premier League Division One South-East
- Southern League Division One Central
- Southern League Division One South
- Isthmian League Division One North
- Isthmian League Division One South Central
- Isthmian League Division One South East

Each league has 20 clubs. Two clubs are promoted from each division, one or none are relegated.

Ninth Tier (Step Five): Nearing the Base of the Pyramid

At this point, we have too many leagues to explain them individually as even most of the participants aren't quite sure how the relegation and promotion work.

- Combined Counties League Premier Division
- Eastern Counties Football League Premier Division
- Essex Senior League
- Hellenic League Premier Division
- Midland League Premier Division
- North West Counties League Premier Division
- Northern Counties East Football League Premier Division
- Northern League Division One
- Southern Combination League Premier Division
- Southern Counties East League Premier Division
- Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division
- United Counties League Premier Division
- Wessex League Premier Division
- Western League Premier Division

These leagues have either 19, 20, or 21 clubs in it. In total, there are 319 clubs competing in the ninth tier of the English football pyramid.

The leagues usually provide one, two or three promotion spots, while there are one or no teams relegated.

10th Tier (Step Six): The Base of the Pyramid

There are as many leagues in the 10th tier of the English football pyramid, as there are clubs in the Premier League - 20:

- Combined Counties League Division One
- East Midlands Counties League
- Eastern Counties League - Division One North
- Eastern Counties League Division One South
- Hellenic Football League Division One East
- Hellenic Football League Division One West
- Midland Football League Division One
- North West Counties League Division One North
- North West Counties League Division One South
- Northern Counties East Football League Division One
- Northern League Division Two
- South West Peninsula League Premier Division East
- South West Peninsula League Premier Division West
- Southern Combination League Division One
- Southern Counties East League Division One
- Spartan South Midlands League Division One
- United Counties League Division One c
- Wessex League Division One
- West Midlands (Regional) League Premier Division
- Western League Division One

There are 339 clubs competing in the 10th tier of the English football divisions!

Leagues contain from 16 to 22 clubs. They either promote one or two clubs, and relage in between zero and three.

Below the English Football Pyramid

The divisions of English football don't stop here, but the pyramid system does.

There are 1,070 clubs in these listed tiers of the English football pyramid.
There are more than 5,500 clubs in the various amateur leagues. Some are linked with each other with promotion and relegation, some are not.

England has a population of 56 million people, together with Wales it has 59 million! So to see the depth of the English football pyramid tiers is to truly understand that the nation breathes football.




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