The leagues and cups of English football were utterly mysterious to me for years. And they may still be for many Americans.
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) play 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 this might be a good time to 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 – and for a guide to how to pronounce that word, go here and scroll down to Premier. 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.”)
I’ve put together this list of Frequently Asked Questions to help you get started planning your soccer adventure. I also have a more detailed blog post full of starter tips. But now I have something even cooler:
The most exciting finish ever was when Manchester City won the league by scoring a goal with about two and half minutes 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.
Going Up, Going Down
Now, there’s another crucial thing to understand: the system of promotion and relegation. Imagine if, for example, the Pittsburgh 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, it’s the bottom three clubs at each level of the sport that get relegated for the next season, and the top three get promoted. For example, in the 2012-13 season, Queens Park Rangers (a team in West London) spent the season playing the heavyweights like Man U and Liverpool, but finished in the bottom three and the next year were playing the likes of Reading, Fulham, and Birmingham.
Sometimes it comes down to the very last day – when the whole league plays, all at the same time – to determine who goes up and who goes down. A classic example was the West Bromwich Albion “great escape” of 2005. You can skip ahead to about 13 minutes on this, but West Brom won their game, then had to wait to see if Charlton tied Crystal Palace about two minutes later.
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. For 2016-17, some of these are Fleetwood Town, Bristol Rovers, and Bolton Wanderers.
Below League One is League Two, with another 24 teams. 2016-17 members include Barnet, Notts County, 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.
A quick note on Football League promotions: in all three leagues, 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.
The Football Conference
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 pyramid levels just below the Football League are collectively called the Conference, and they are divided into three levels: Conference Premier, Conference North, and Conference South. I’ll defer to Wikipedia for a moment:
Around half the Conference Premier clubs are fully professional, whilst most Conference North and Conference South clubs are semi-professional. The Conference Premier is the fifth and lowest of the five nationwide football divisions in England, below the Premier League and the three divisions of the Football League, and is the top tier of the National League System of non-League football. The Conference North and Conference South form the sixth tier of English football.
There a total of 68 teams in the Conference: 24 in the Conference Premier and 22 each in North and South. One club in the Conference Premier, where I saw a 2016 FA Cup game against League Two Notts County, is Boreham Wood.
Below the Conference
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.
And here’s a good visual presentation of the whole thing so far, via shiresoccer.com:
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, 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.
- 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. End 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 America …
America 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.