Betting on English Football
A Guide to the Leagues and Competitions
England is the home of football, and the passion for the sport there is unrivalled anywhere else in the world. Every single village from Land’s End in the South to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the North has a football team. From the elite players earning hundreds of thousands of pounds every week playing for Manchester United to Sunday League players dragging themselves out of bed with a hangover, there’s a place for everyone in the game.
The Football Association (English football’s governing body) has a club structure that is very democratic and well structured such that any small club can rise up the rankings should they be good enough. It’s so broad in fact that the number of entrants to the annual open knockout competition, the FA Cup, has swelled to over 750 and it’s not unusual to see tiny regional clubs come up against giants of the game in the Cup.
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English Football League Structure
The jewel in English football’s crown is the English Premier League. Home to global brands like Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool, the Premier League is followed around the world and regarded as one of the highest quality leagues in terms of standard of play. Currently contested by 20 teams, the Premier League was simply known as the First Division up until 1992 when it broke away from the traditional English League system.
If you’re not too familiar with the Premier League, we’ve got a beginners guide on this page!
Below the Premier League is the Championship, which was known as the Second Division under the old structure and again houses 24 teams. The Championship maintains a very high standard, above even the top divisions in some other European countries. Each year, the top two teams and the winner of a playoff between the teams placed third to sixth are promoted to play in the Premier League, while the three bottom ranked teams in the Premier League are relegated to the Championship. In any one year there could be up to five or six teams in the Championship that would potentially hold their own in the Premier League.
Next in line below the Championship are League One and League Two respectively, which complete the professional league setup in England. As with the other leagues, League One and League Two teams can be promoted and relegated to higher or lower divisions based on their finishing positions.
League 2 teams which finish in the relegation positions play the following season in the Football Conference which has been renamed as the National League, currently sponsored by Vanarama. Older football fans will best remember it as the ‘Vauxhall Conference’ owing to the long term sponsorship deal with the car manufacturer. The 24 teams playing in the Conference and all lower divisions are referred to as ‘non-league’ teams, denoting they are playing outside the FA’s four-league system.
Below the conference, two new regional levels were added in 2004 the National League North and South. Both contain 22 teams and are also currently sponsored by Vanarama. The Conference North and South (level 6 of the FA league system) is the first level at which leagues become confined to geographical regions. Beyond this level, teams tend be comprised mostly of amateurs, where the Conference North and South would be considered semi-professional.
Level 7 is split into three regional leagues: the Northern Premier League, the Southern Football League and the Isthmian Premier League (covering London and the South-East), each of which have 22 teams. Teams promoted from these leagues earn a spot in either the Conference North or South, depending on which is appropriate to their location.
Level 8 is further subdivided into 8 regional leagues which feed into the 3 leagues in Level 7.
The structure continues all the way down to level 24, home to the teams of the Mid-Sussex Football League Division 11. In some cases there are up to 50 leagues running in parallel at the same level.
Knockout or ‘Cup’ Competitions
Running alongside the various league seasons, the FA also operate a number of knockout competitions with various entry restrictions. The most famous and open of them is the FA Cup, the oldest football tournament in the world. The FA Cup is usually open to teams down to level 10 of the league system which represents a total of about 30 leagues. There is a system of qualification rounds and byes in place such that teams from higher levels enter the competition later and later, until the 44 Premier League and Championship teams enter the competition in the third round proper, at which point only 20 other teams remain in the competition.
The second most prestigious cup competition is the League Cup, better known at various points in time as the Littlewoods Cup, the Coca Cola Cup, the Carling Cup, and currently as the Capital One Cup.
The League Cup is only open to teams from the top four divisions, the so-called league teams. Teams from the Premier League join in the second round unless they have been competing in Europe, in which case they join in the third round.
The Football League Trophy, or EFL Trophy, currently known as the Checkatrade Trophy and the Autoglass and the LDV Trophy before that is another cup competition, and is only contested by the League One and League Two teams. Realistically these teams don’t have a legitimate chance at winning the FA Cup or the League Cup and so their only real shot at cup silverware is in the League Trophy. This competition is split into regional sections so as to minimise travelling for the teams involved in the earlier rounds.
The FA Trophy is a cup competition that caters to non-league, semi-professional teams from levels 5 to 8 in the league system. That is from the Conference National down to the Northern, Southern, and Isthmian Leagues Division One.
Lastly, the FA Community Shield (formerly known as the Charity Shield) is contested by just two teams: the winners of the Premier League and the winners of the FA Cup. Typically the Community Shield match takes place at Wembley Stadium the week before the season begins. If the same team win the League and the Cup, then they play League runners’ up in the Shield. The trophy is of little significance and is more of a curtain raiser for the season than anything else.