Non-League football describes football leagues played outside the top leagues of a country. Usually it describes leagues which are not fully professional. The term is primarily used for football in England, where it describes football played at a level below that of the Premier League (20 clubs) and the three divisions of the English Football League (EFL; 72 clubs). The term non-League was commonly used well before 1992 when the top football clubs in England all belonged to The Football League (from 2016, the EFL); all clubs which were not a part of the League were therefore 'non-League' clubs. The term can be confusing, especially when it is incorrectly written as "non-league" (with a lower-case 'l'), as the vast majority of non-League football clubs in England play in some type of league. Currently, a non-League team would be any club playing in the National League or below and therefore would not play in the EFL Cup.
The "League" (with a capital 'L') in "non-League football" refers to the English Football League, rather than leagues in general — "non-League" clubs play most of their football in league competitions. There are many leagues below the level of the EFL, and some, such as the Northern League, are almost as old as the EFL itself. The most senior of these leagues are loosely organised by The Football Association, the sport's governing body in England, into a National League System (NLS). The NLS has six levels or steps, and includes over 18 separate leagues, many with more than one division.
Prior to the 1986–87 season, there was no automatic promotion and relegation between The Football League and the leagues of non-League football. The bottom clubs of the EFL were required to apply for re-election to the League at the end of the season, but this was in most cases a mere formality. The system ensured that Football League membership remained relatively static, with non-League clubs having little chance of joining.
However, a major change came in 1986 when automatic promotion and relegation of one club between the League and the Football Conference, the top league in non-League football, was introduced, subject to the eligible club meeting the required facility and financial standards. Scarborough became the first non-League club to win automatic promotion to the League, and Lincoln City became the first League club to be relegated to the ranks of non-League football. Since the 2002–03 season, two clubs from the Conference, now National League (the champions and the winners of a play-off) have been promoted at the end of each season.
The entire English football league system includes the Premier League, the EFL, the NLS leagues, and any local leagues that have feeder relationships with an NLS league.
Many non-League clubs enter the FA Cup, where they hope to become "giant-killers" by progressing from the qualifying rounds, and first and second rounds proper, to meet and beat opposition from the Premier League or EFL Championship. Since the end of the Second World War, nine non-League clubs have reached the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, and only one (Lincoln City in 2016–17 season) reached the quarter-final stage. The only non-League team to have won the competition since The Football League started is Tottenham Hotspur in 1901, although at that time the League had only two divisions, consisting almost entirely of Northern and Midland clubs. The leading clubs in the South played in the Southern Football League, which then ran parallel to The Football League, was of a comparable standard to the League clubs.From its inaugural match in 1908 until 1912, the FA Charity Shield was contested between the champions of the League and the Southern Football League.
The Football Association Challenge Trophy was introduced in 1969 to offer semi-professional non-League clubs a realistic chance of winning an FA competition. Amateur clubs could enter the FA Amateur Cup until 1974 when the Football Association abolished the distinction between professionals and amateurs. The Amateur Cup was replaced by the FA Vase in 1974 which is currently contested by clubs at Step 5 of the NLS and below while the Trophy is contested by clubs at Steps 1–4.
In women's football, the non-League term is used for those clubs in the divisions below the FA Women's Premier League's two regional second divisions.
In Scotland, "non-League football" refers to leagues outside the top four divisions of the national Scottish Professional Football League. These consist of a number of regional senior leagues which are part of the Scottish football pyramid system, as well as the separate regional Junior leagues.
In Germany, there is a similar term, unterklassig (literally "under-class"), which usually refers to regional leagues below the three national leagues 1. Bundesliga, 2. Bundesliga and 3. Liga. The highest level of regional leagues, called Regionalliga, may or may not be included in the term.
In the Republic of Ireland, football outside the top two divisions consists of regional senior leagues based on which province the club comes from; although again these leagues are commonly referred to as 'non-League'.
The National League is an association football league in England consisting of three divisions, the National League, National League North, and National League South. It was called the "Alliance Premier League" from 1979 until 1986. Between 1986 and 2015, the league was known as the "Football Conference".
The Northern Premier League is an English football league that was founded in 1968. It has four divisions: the Premier Division, Division One East, Division One West and Division One Midlands.
The National League System comprises the six levels of the English football league system immediately below the level of the English Football League. It comes under the jurisdiction of The Football Association. The National League System has a hierarchical format with promotion and relegation between leagues at different levels. For details of leagues above and below the National League System, see the English football league system.
The Scottish football league system is a series of generally connected leagues for Scottish football clubs.
The Southern League is a men's football competition featuring semi-professional clubs from the South and Midlands of England. Together with the Isthmian League and the Northern Premier League it forms levels seven and eight of the English football league system.
The English football league system, also known as the football pyramid, is a series of interconnected leagues for men's association football clubs in England, with five teams from Wales, one from Guernsey, one from Jersey and one from the Isle of Man also competing. The system has a hierarchical format with promotion and relegation between leagues at different levels, allowing even the smallest club the theoretical possibility of ultimately rising to the very top of the system. There are more than 140 individual leagues, containing more than 480 divisions.
Association football is the most popular sport in England, where the first modern set of rules for the code were established in 1863, which were a major influence on the development of the modern Laws of the Game. With over 40,000 association football clubs, England has more clubs involved in the code than any other country as well as the world's first club—Sheffield F.C., the world's oldest professional association football club is Notts County, the oldest national governing body is the Football Association, the joint-first national team, the oldest national knockout competition is the FA Cup and the oldest national league is the English Football League. Today England's top domestic league, the Premier League, is one of the most popular and richest sports leagues in the world, with six of the ten richest football clubs in the world as of 2019.
In sports leagues, promotion and relegation is a process where teams are transferred between multiple divisions based on their performance for the completed season. Leagues that use promotion and relegation systems are often called open leagues. In a system of promotion and relegation The best-ranked team(s) in the lower division are promoted to the higher division for the next season, and the worst-ranked team(s) in the higher division are relegated to the lower division for the next season. In some leagues, playoffs or qualifying rounds are also used to determine rankings. This process can continue through several levels of divisions, with teams being exchanged between levels 1 and 2, levels 2 and 3, levels 3 and 4, and so on. During the season, teams that are high enough in the league table that they would qualify for promotion are sometimes said to be in the promotion zone, and those at the bottom are in the relegation zone.
The Bundesliga, sometimes referred to as the Fußball-Bundesliga or 1. Bundesliga, is a professional association football league in Germany. At the top of the German football league system, the Bundesliga is Germany's primary football competition. The Bundesliga comprises 18 teams and operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the 2. Bundesliga. Seasons run from August to May. Most games are played on Saturdays and Sundays, with a few games played on weekdays. All of the Bundesliga clubs qualify for the DFB-Pokal. The winner of the Bundesliga qualifies for the DFL-Supercup.
The English Football League Championship is the highest division of the English Football League (EFL) and second-highest overall in the English football league system after the Premier League. The league is contested by 24 clubs. Each season, the two top-finishing teams in the Championship are automatically promoted to the Premier League. The teams that finish the season in 3rd to 6th place enter a playoff tournament, with the winner also gaining promotion to the Premier League. The three lowest-finishing teams in the Championship are relegated to League One.
Association football is one of the national sports of Scotland and the most popular sport in the country. There is a long tradition of "football" games in Orkney, Lewis and southern Scotland, especially the Scottish Borders, although many of these include carrying the ball and passing by hand, and despite bearing the name "football" bear little resemblance to association football.
The West Midlands (Regional) League is an English association football competition for semi-professional and amateur teams based in the West Midlands county, Shropshire, Worcestershire and southern Staffordshire. It has two divisions, the highest of which is Division One, a regional feeder for the National League System (NLS) at the eleventh level of the overall English football league system.
Professional sports leagues are organized in numerous ways. The two most significant types are one that developed in Europe, characterized by a tiered structure using promotion and relegation in order to determine participation in a hierarchy of leagues or divisions, and a North American originated model characterized by its use of franchises, closed memberships, and minor leagues. Both these systems remain most common in their area of origin, although both systems are used worldwide.
For more information on the current structure of the NLS, see the main article.
The Japanese association football league system is organized in a pyramidal shape similar to football league systems in many other countries around the world. The leagues are bound by the principle of promotion and relegation; however, there are stringent criteria for promotion from the JFL to J3, which demands a club being backed by the town itself including the local government, a community of fans and corporate sponsors rather than a parent company or a corporation.
Football in Estonia is governed by the Estonian Football Association. The EJL controls the domestic club championships, the Estonian Cup, Estonian SuperCup, Estonian Small Cup and the national teams.
Men's Rugby union in England consists of 106 leagues, which includes professional leagues at the highest level, down to amateur regional leagues. Promotion and relegation are in place throughout the system.
The English Football League (EFL) is a league competition featuring professional association football clubs from England and Wales. Founded in 1888 as the Football League, the league is the oldest such competition in world football. It was the top-level football league in England from its foundation until 1992, when the top 22 clubs split away to form the Premier League.
The Trinidad and Tobago football league system, also known as the football pyramid, is a series of interconnected leagues for men's association football clubs in Trinidad and Tobago. The system has a hierarchical format with promotion and relegation between leagues at different levels and is governed by the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association at the national level. There are over eight individual leagues, containing more than ten divisions. The exact number of clubs varies from year to year as clubs join and leave leagues or fold altogether, but an estimated average of 10 clubs per division implies that more than 100 clubs are members of a league in the Trinidad and Tobago football league system.
The Malaysian football league system, also known as the football pyramid, is a series of interconnected leagues for men's association football clubs in Malaysia. The system has a hierarchical format with promotion and relegation between leagues at different levels, allowing even the smallest club the hypothetical possibility of ultimately rising to the very top of the system. The exact number of clubs varies from year to year as clubs join and leave leagues or fold altogether, but an estimated average of 10 clubs per division implies that hundreds of teams are members of a league in the Malaysian men's football league system.