National League System

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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 system underwent a rearrangement from 2004 to 2008 and was rearranged again in 2018. Phase one went into operation in 2004–05. At the start of the 2006–07 season, phase two was introduced, and a further phase three started from 2007–08 with the starting of a second Step 4 league in the north of England. Phase four took effect in 2018–19. Ahead of the 2020-21 season, Step 7 was abolished, being replaced by feeder leagues overseen by local county FAs.

Organisation[edit]

The areas covered by the National League North and South: Step 2 of the National League System.

At the top of the National League System pyramid is the National League. Its top division, also called the National League (currently called the Motorama National League), is the only division in the System which is organised on a national rather than regional basis. Although the National League is the top level of the non-league pyramid, it is not the highest level of English football (it is actually the fifth overall division). The Premier League and the three divisions of the English Football League (EFL) comprise the top 92 clubs in the English game, and two teams from the National League are currently able to achieve promotion to the English Football League. Some leagues have more than one division. At the lower levels the existence of leagues becomes intermittent, although in some areas there are as many as twenty layers.

All the leagues are bound together by the principle of promotion and relegation. Clubs that are successful in their league can rise higher in the pyramid, whilst those that finish at the bottom can find themselves sinking further down. In theory it is possible for a lowly local amateur club to rise to the pinnacle of the English game and become champions of the Premier League. While this may be unlikely in practice, there certainly is significant movement within the pyramid. The number of teams promoted between leagues or divisions varies, and promotion is usually contingent on meeting criteria set by the higher league, especially concerning appropriate facilities and finances. In particular, clubs that hope to be promoted from Step 5 leagues to Step 4 must apply in advance to be assessed for whether they meet the grading requirements. The teams must then also finish in the top 3 in their league to be considered for promotion, which is not automatic. For instance, in the 2005–06 season 100 clubs applied to be considered for promotion, of which 51 met the grading requirements, and 29 of those finished in the top 3 in their leagues. With an additional division commencing at Step 4 in 2006–07, all 29 clubs had their promotions accepted.

Under the direction of The Football Association, the National League System evolved over many years. Today's pyramid can be said to be barely twenty years old. Leagues have formed and dissolved over the years and reorganisations have taken place every few years as a result. Beginning with the 2004–05 season, Phase One of the latest change was introduced with the formation of a Conference North and Conference South immediately below the Football Conference, renamed Conference Premier, dropping the top divisions of the Southern League, Isthmian League, and Northern Premier League down one level. The Conference North and South have since been renamed the National League North and South.

The system[edit]

This table includes the six steps of the National League System (NLS). Above the NLS are the Premier League and the English Football League. Two teams from the National League can be promoted to EFL League Two at the end of each season. This structure was the result of changes made after the 2005–06 season.

The official name is given for all the leagues listed, and the sponsorship name is also provided for the leagues in the top four steps. All divisions in the top four steps have 20 to 24 clubs each. The FA's National League System Committee determine promotion and relegation between leagues shown, mainly based on location. The NLS Committee also has the power to transfer clubs between divisions and even leagues at the same level of the pyramid should this be deemed necessary to maintain geographically practical and numerically balanced divisions and leagues at every level.

All clubs in the NLS are eligible to compete in the FA Cup, but are seeded into it according to Step standing. Step 1 to 4 clubs are eligible for the FA Trophy and Step 5 to 6 clubs (and some at NLS Feeder League level) for the FA Vase, as well as their respective regional and county cups.

Step League/Division
1 National League
(Vanarama National League)
Promoted to League Two of the English Football League: Champion and winner of 2nd–7th play-off.
Relegated to either National League North or National League South: 4 clubs.
2 National League North
(Vanarama North)
National League South
(Vanarama South)
Promoted to National League: Champions of each division;
the winners of a 2nd–7th play-off in each division will also be promoted
.
Relegated to Step 3 leagues: 3 clubs from each division.
3 Northern Premier League
(Evo-Stik League)
Premier Division
Southern League
(Evo-Stik League Southern)
Central Division
Southern League
(Evo-Stik League Southern)
South Division
Isthmian League
(Bostik League)
Premier Division
Promoted to National League North or South: Champion of each league and 2 winners of divisional play-offs.
Relegated to Step 4 leagues: 3 clubs from each division.
4 Northern Premier League
(Evo-Stik League)
Division One North West
Northern Premier League
(Evo-Stik League)
Division One South East
Southern Football League
(Evo-Stik League Southern)
Division One Central
Southern Football League
(Evo-Stik League Southern)
Division One South
Isthmian League
(Bostik League)
Division One North
Isthmian League
(Bostik League)
Division One South Central
Isthmian League
(Bostik League)
Division One South East
Promoted to Step 3 leagues: Champion of each league and 5 out of 7 winners of divisional play-offs.
Relegated to Step 5 leagues determined by NLS Committee: 2 clubs from each division.
5
Promoted to Step 4 leagues determined by NLS Committee: Total of 14 League champions.
Relegated: Arranged according to separate agreements with Step 6 leagues.
6
Promotion and relegation: Arranged according to separate agreements with appropriate leagues.

History[edit]

For the 2012–13 season, the FA announced a re-structuring of the National League System's lowest level, Step 7. It was split into three sub-categories, which were full Step 7 divisions, Step 7A and Step 7B. The categorisation depended on the ground facilities of the particular league's clubs. The required percentage of clubs to meet ground grade requirements for each of the categorisations were as follows:

  • Step 7: 100%;
  • Step 7A: 75%; and
  • Step 7B: 60%.

Step 7 – was awarded to leagues where 100% of their clubs met the Step 7 minimum ground grading requirements on 31 March and the league complies with all other requirements for Step 7 status.

Step 7A – was awarded to leagues where 75% or more of their clubs met the Step 7 minimum ground grading requirements after 31 March and the league complied with all other requirements for Step 7 status. (It was noted that in the 2011–12 season these leagues were referred to as provisional.)

Step 7B – was awarded to leagues where 60% or more of their clubs met the ground grading requirements after 31 March and the league complied with all other requirements for Step 7 status.

The sub-categories were removed in the 2016–17 season. In 2020–21, Step 7 was abolished altogether, with former leagues at this step instead being designated NLS Feeder Leagues, organised by county FAs.

Future[edit]

The areas covered by the 14 Step 5 leagues of the National League System.

In March 2018, representatives of the National League system confirmed that a pure pyramid in a 1-2-4-8-16 was the goal. This would mean the introduction of an eighth division at Step 4 and two further divisions at Step 5. The comments were made just prior to the introduction of the fourth division at Step 3 and the seventh at Step 4.[1] On 17 April 2019, it was clarified that there would be 17 divisions at Step 6, down from 19 in 2018–19 and that the two new divisions at Step 5 would be in the Midlands and the west London/Thames Valley areas.[2] On 24 April, it was announced that the Northern Premier League had been awarded the operation of the eighth division at Step 4.[3] Initially scheduled for implementation in 2020–21,[2] the FA postponed it to the 2021–22 season[4] due to the coronavirus disease pandemic in England which prematurely ended the remainder of the 2019–20 season for leagues at Steps 3 to 6 on 26 March 2020.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jones, Laurence (7 March 2018). "Football Matters: Step 3 and 4 restructure Q&A with The FA". The Non-League Football Paper (Interview).
  2. ^ a b Jones, Laurence (17 April 2019). "EXCLUSIVE: FA outline second phase of Non-League restructuring". The Non-League Football Paper (Interview).
  3. ^ "NPL to expand with additional division at Step 4 - The Evo-Stik League". www.evostikleague.co.uk. 24 April 2019.
  4. ^ "Update on non-league, women's & grassroots football seasons amid COVID-19 outbreak". TheFA.com. 26 March 2020. Retrieved 30 March 2020.

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