Explaining the structure of non-league football in England.
For the casual football fan, understanding the structure of league football is pretty straightforward. There are four divisions and each division relegates a number of teams to the league below, and promotes a number to the league above.
However once you get down into non-league football, the structure of the game is not quite so opaque. So to explain clearly what we mean by a Step 5 club, and how you work out which team will be promoted where, we have devised this guide to the structure of non-league football in England.
The first point to clarify is that depending where you look, you will see two systems being used:
- English Football League Structure: This system includes the league football in the overall structure and ranks each division by its level. So the Premier League is Level one, the Championship is Level 2 etc. By this measure, the very lowest leagues in the English League Structure are Level 11.
- National League System: This structure is more commonly known as the ‘Football Pyramid’ as the best imagery to describe the interconnected leagues in English football. It is much more frequently used when discussing non-league football. In reality, the National League System is the same as the English Football League Structure but omits the top four divisions, and begins with the Conference as the highest level of non-league football. It also refers to each level as a Step (as in steps on the side of a pyramid) rather than a Level.
For the purposes of this guide, we will be talking about steps and using the National League System structure as our reference. The easiest way to work out which Level (in the English Football League Structure) we are referring to, is to add 4 to the Step number we reference.
Step 1: Conference Premier (Currently Vanarama Premier):
The only national league in the National League System, the Conference Premier consists of 24 teams. Each seasons the Champions and Playoff winners are promoted to League 2, with two teams being relegated down from that division. Four clubs will also be relegated down into Step 2 each season.
Step 2: Conference North and Conference South:
Two regional leagues with 22 teams each and the Champions and Playoff Winners in each being promoted to Step 1. The teams that finish in the bottom three of each division will be relegated to the appropriate Step 3 League.
The obvious question to ask here is, what happens if more than two teams relegated from Step 1 come from the north or south of the country. The answer is simple and applies to each step of the Pyramid. If, after promotion and relegation, the number of teams in the North and South divisions are not equal, one or more teams are transferred between the two divisions to even them up again. These teams do not have to be one of the new arrivals in the divisions, but rather are the teams most closest to the other leagues catchment area.
For example Lowestoft Town, promoted last season from the Isthmian Premier League (in Step 3) which would normally feed the Conference South, found themselves placed in the Conference North as they were the most northerly side available despite being based in Suffolk. This is not ideal for Lowestoft who face greater traveling costs etc., but is simply the luck of the draw. Should Lowestoft survive in the Conference North this season, they could well be reassigned to the Conference South next year, depending on who else comes up or down.
Step 3: Northern Premier League Premier Division, Southern Football League Premier Division, and Ryman Isthmian League Premier Division:
Step 3 consists of three regional leagues of 24 teams running in parallel, with the Champions and Playoff winners from each being promoted to Step 2. The Northern Premier League Premier Division consists of clubs from the north of England, Southern Premier League Premier Division consists of clubs from the south and west of England, and Ryman Isthmian League Premier Division is made up of teams from the south-east of England and London. The bottom four teams in each division are relegated to Step 4.
Step 4: Northern Premier League Division One North, Northern Premier League Division One South, Southern Football League Division One Central, Southern Football League Division One South & West, Ryman Isthmian League Division One North and Ryman Isthmian League Division One South:
Step 4 consists of two regional leagues that feed each of the Step 3 leagues. The Northern Premier and Southern Football leagues consist of 22 teams each, while the Ryman Isthmian leagues consist of 24 sides. Again, the Champions and Playoff Winners of each league are promoted to the relevant Step 3 league, while the bottom two teams in the Northern Premier League and Southern Football League Divisions, and bottom three teams in the Ryman Isthmian leagues are relegated to Step 5. The decision on which Step 5 League they will join is decided by the National League System Committee.
It is at this point that the Pyramid breaks down into a myriad of regional leagues, which we will list below, and becomes much more complicated. Step 5 consists of 14 leagues, and promotion into Step 4 is decided by the National League System Committee from the Champions of each division. From this point down, promotion and relegation is defined by individual agreements between regional leagues and is not controlled or overseen at a national level.
- Combined Counties League Premier Division
- Eastern Counties League Premier Division
- Essex Senior League
- Hellenic League Premier Division
- Midland League Premier Division
- Northern Counties East League Premier Division
- Northern League Division One
- North West Counties League Premier Division
- Southern Counties East League
- Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division
- Sussex County League Division One
- United Counties League Premier Division
- Wessex League Premier Division
- Western League Premier Division
- Combined Counties League Division One
- East Midlands Counties League
- Eastern Counties League Division One
- Hellenic League Division One East
- Hellenic League Division One West
- Kent Invicta League
- Midland League Division One
- Northern Counties East Division One
- Northern League Division Two
- North West Counties League Division One
- South West Peninsula League Premier Division
- Spartan South Midlands League Division One
- Sussex County League Division Two
- United Counties League Division One
- Wessex League Division One
- West Midlands (Regional) League Premier Division
- Western League Division One
- Anglian Combination Premier Division
- Central Midlands League North Division
- Central Midlands League South Division
- Cheshire League Division One
- Dorset Premier League
- Gloucestershire County League
- Essex Olympian League Premier Division
- Hertfordshire Senior County League Premier Division
- Humber Premier League Premier Division
- Leicestershire Senior League Premier Division
- Liverpool County Premier League Premier Division
- Midland League Division Two
- Northern Alliance Premier Division
- Peterborough & District League Premier Division
- Sheffield and Hallamshire County Senior League Premier Division
- Somerset County League Premier Division
- South West Peninsula League Division One East
- South West Peninsula League Division One West
- Staffordshire County Senior League Premier Division
- Suffolk & Ipswich League Senior Division
- Wearside League
- West Cheshire League Division One
- West Midlands (Regional) League Division One
- West Yorkshire League Premier Division
- Wiltshire League Premier Division
- Bedfordshire County League Premier Division
- Cambridgeshire League Premier Division
- Essex & Suffolk Border League Premier Division
- Hampshire Premier League Senior Division
- Manchester League Premier Division
- Middlesex County League Premier Division
- Northamptonshire Combination Premier Division
- Nottinghamshire Senior League Premier Division
- Oxfordshire Senior League Premier Division
- Reading League Senior Division
- West Lancashire League Premier Division
- York League Premier Division
- Kent County League Premier Division
- Spartan South Midlands League Division Two
- Surrey Elite Intermediate League
- West Riding County Amateur League Premier Division
There are of course further leagues in existence below this level, some of which may promote or relegate teams into Step 7, Step 7a, or Step 7b leagues, but these leagues are not formally recognised as being part of the National League System.