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The English Football Pyramid: How it works, number of steps, big movers and more

While the concept of promotion and relegation may be alien to certain sporting cultures, it's part of what makes the English football pyramid so special.

In a matter of years, teams can go from non-League obscurity to rubbing elbows with football's big boys.

Below we look at the English football pyramid structure, how the English football pyramid works, which leagues are eligible to compete in the cups and more.

Structure of the English football pyramid

There are a total of 10 tiers making up the English football pyramid before reaching tier 11 (which contains local divisions that are run by county FAs) from the Premier League, to the Football League, to non-League. The non-League system is often referred to using steps, with step 1 (tier 5) being the National League, step 2 (tier 6) being National League North and South etc.

The 10 tiers are as follows:

Tier 1

Premier League

Tier 2

EFL Championship

Tier 3

EFL League One

Tier 4

EFL League Two

Tier 5

National League

Tier 6

National League North
National League South

Tier 7

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

Tier 8

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

Tier 9

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

Tier 10

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

Women's football pyramid

The women's football pyramid is made up of the below:

Tier 1

Women's Super League

Tier 2

Women's Championship

Tier 3

FA Women's National League Northern Premier Division
FA Women's National League Southern Premier Division

Tier 4

FA Women's National League Division 1 North
FA Women's National League Division 1 Midlands
FA Women's National League Division 1 South West
FA Women's National League Division 1 South East

Tier 5

North West Women's Regional Football League Premier Division
North East Regional Women's Football League Premier Division
West Midlands Regional Women's Football League Premier Division
East Midlands Regional Women's Football League Premier Division
Southern Region Women's Football League Premier Division
South West Regional Women's Football League Premier Division
Eastern Region Women's Football League Premier Division
London and South East Women's Regional Football League Premier Division

Promotion and relegation rules

Through most of the upper tiers of the English football pyramid, promotion and relegation is straightforward.

Three teams get relegated from the Premier League and Championship each season, with three teams promoted to the Premier League and Championship (the top two in each league, with the third spot decided by a four-team play-off). Four teams are relegated from League One with four teams promoted in their place (the top three, with the fourth spot decided by a four-team playoff), with two teams relegated from League Two to the National League.

From there, things are slightly more complex.

In the National League, two teams will earn promotion to the Football League, with four teams being relegated from the National League, to either National League North or National League South. The league winners are promoted automatically, with the second spot decided via a six-team play-off. The same applies to National League North and South.

Should there be an uneven split of teams relegated to National League North or South, teams in those division will be moved to the most geographically appropriate league to ensure the leagues have the same number of teams.

The promotion and relegation terms are the same for tiers 6 and 7 of the football pyramid (with four teams in the play-offs rather than six), with two teams being promoted and four teams relegated from each league.

In tier 8, two teams are promoted with two relegated; in step 9, two teams are promoted with one relegated.

Cup eligibility

FA Cup

All 10 tiers of the English football pyramid are eligible to compete the in FA Cup, starting with the first of six preliminary rounds. The highest ranked teams in tier 10, all of tier 9 and the lowest ranked teams in tier 8 compete in the extra preliminary round, with the remaining teams in tier 8 starting in the preliminary round. The first qualifying round sees tier 7 clubs join, with teams in the National League North and South entering in the second qualifying round

The fourth qualifying round sees the National League enter, with teams in League One and League Two being added at to the first round proper.

Teams from the Championship and Premier League enter at the third round stage.

EFL Cup

The EFL Cup is open to teams in the top four tiers only. Teams in the bottom three tiers contest the first round, with Premier League teams not involved in European competition entering for the second round, and remaining teams joining in the third round.

EFL Trophy

The EFL Trophy (currently known as the Bristol Street Motors Trophy for sponsorship reasons) is only open to teams in League One and League Two, though selected U18 teams have competed in the competition since 2016/17.

FA Trophy

The FA Trophy is open to clubs between tiers 5 and 8.

FA Vase

The FA Vase is open to tiers 9 and 10.

English football pyramid success stories

While many sports and leagues around the world utilise a franchising system, with no promotion and relegation, the English football pyramid has allowed several clubs to rise through the divisions over the years.

Wimbledon were one of the original success stories, competing in the old Fourth Division in 1983 before being promoted three times in four years to reach the top flight for the first time. In just their second season in the First Division - no more than 11 years after being a non-league club competing in the Southern Football League - they beat Liverpool to win the FA Cup.

In more recent years, there are the likes of Wigan and Bournemouth who rose from the fourth tier to the top flight inside a decade, while Luton, who were playing in non-league in 2014, earned promotion to the Premier League in 2023.

Perhaps the biggest success story, however is Leicester City, who went from League One in 2009, to the Premier League in 2014, winning the league two years later.

The most modern success story can be found at Wrexham, who have enjoyed back-to-back promotions from the National League and League Two under the ownership of Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds.

English football pyramid failures

While there are select clubs who've climbed quickly through the leagues, there are a handful of teams who've fallen just as quickly. Luton themselves suffered three straight relegations to fall out of the Football League before their rapid rise. Even Wrexham, prior to their Hollywood takeover, fell to the fifth tier of English football for the first time in their history in 2008 following two relegations in four years.

Leeds United were one of the most high-profile failures within the pyramid. Former league champions, Leeds finished third, fourth and fifth in 2000, 2001 and 2002, before financial mismanagement saw them relegated twice in four years, falling to League One, where they spent three seasons.

Leeds' West Yorkshire rivals Bradford suffered a worse fate, having been relegated from the Premier League in 2001, to being relegated against in 2004 and 2007, falling to League Two.

Bolton similarly fell through the divisions after their relegation in 2012, ending an 11-year spell in the Premier League, being relegated again in 2016. The Trotters bounced back up to the Championship at the first time of asking, but were relegated again two years later, suffering back-to-back relegations, condemning them to League Two in 2020.

There are other notable clubs who have fallen out of the Football League. Scunthorpe were playing Championship football in 2011 but were relegated twice in three years to fall to League Two. After being promoted the following season, The Irons suffered three relegations in five years, falling from League One to the National League North.

Yeovil took a similar path, suffering back-to-back relegations in 2014 and 2015 to fall to League Two, being relegated two more times in 2019 and 2023 to fall to the National League South - a drop of four divisions in a decade.

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