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A Guide to the English Football League

What Is The English Football League?

The English Football League comprises three leagues from England and Wales that compete in the 2nd to 4th tiers of professional association football. The Championship, English League One and English League Two are full of historic teams, including those that have won in the top flight, those that had legendary players; all with a strong local fan base.

These three leagues are just below the Premier League, in the English Football League Pyramid.

The English Football Pyramid Explained

A total of 72 teams play in the EFL across the three leagues, and all have the chance for promotion or relegation to get into a higher or lower level of club football.

The Championship

The Championship is the highest league in the EFL and the second tier of English football, there are 24 clubs that play in the league and have the chance for promotion to the Premier League.

The club that wins the league and the club that places second are both automatically promoted, clubs that come 3rd to 6th place in the standings will proceed to the playoffs.

The playoffs are a two round knockout contest, where in the first round, the club who finished 3rd plays the 6th and the club that finished 4th plays the 5th. These are played over two legs, both teams playing home and away. If the leg is finished in a draw, then there is no away goal rule, meaning that they will have to go to extra time and penalties at the end of the second match. The winners of the first round play each other in Wembley Stadium (as is the case for all playoff finals across the EFL) and the winner of the playoffs final will join the other two clubs in promotion.

At the bottom of the table, the three teams who place 22nd, 23rd and 24th are relegated to the League One.

English League One

The League One is the third tier of English football, the structure is similar to that of the Championship, with 24 teams competing and the top two getting automatic promotion, with those placing 3rd to 6th competing in the playoffs for a third promotion place. Promotion will see the teams move up to the Championship.

There are four places for relegation at the bottom of the table, who will be moved down to the League Two in the following season.

English League Two

The English League Two has one more place for promotion, the top three are automatically promoted and the playoffs are played between those clubs who place 4th to 7th. At the bottom of the table, two teams are relegated to the National League.

The National League is considered a “non-league” which means it is not in the top tiers of English football. Most non league clubs are amateur or semi-professional, the National League has mostly semi-professional clubs with some professional clubs that have fallen out of the EFL. The EFL currently only has professional clubs.

History of the EFL

The English Football League was, up until 1992, comprised the top four leagues of English football, in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Divisions.

The First Division was formed in 1888, by Aston Villa director William McGregor. In the beginning it only had 12 clubs in Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke (now Stoke City). The league was going to add additional members in 1892, but then it was decided by the FA that they should make two leagues.

The First Division was expanded to 16 teams, with the Second Division having 12 teams, including Nottingham Forest, The Wednesday (later renamed Sheffield Wednesday) and Newton Heath (later renamed Manchester United).

Over the subsequent years, the Second Division was expanded each year, with new members joining from regional leagues across the country including Middlesbrough Ironopolis and Newcastle United from the Northern League, Liverpool from the Lancashire League, Rotherham Town from the Midland League, and Woolwich Arsenal (who became Arsenal) from the Southern League.

The success of the new clubs from around the country gathered interest among clubs who were still only playing local leagues and regional friendlies. By 1905 there were twenty clubs in the First Division.

In the 1920s, the growing number of member clubs meant that there would have to be additional leagues to the top two, and the Third Division North and South were created. These leagues were eventually restructured to the Third and Fourth Leagues after the Second World War. This was due to the fact that both leagues had reached a maximum of 24 clubs and there were now 92 professional football clubs in the country.

In the 1980s the FA decided to change the points system in the league, to award three points for a win instead of two. This was to promote attacking football, and encourage teams to play more positively. The relegation and promotion rules were then developed into what the EFL and Premier League use today.

In 1992, 22 clubs resigned from the First Division. This scandal was due to the clubs wanting to have a league that would allow them to have control over broadcasting and sponsorships, giving the clubs more revenue. The Premier League was formed, and the top clubs started making enough profit to renovate their stadiums and start buying more expensive players.

The EFL was restructured to have three leagues, playing in the second to fourth levels of club football.

The top teams in the Premier League were criticized at the time for trying to turn the sport into a business, and with their model they could afford to buy out all the talent from the leagues below them. The disparity between the top tier and the rest has been said to be larger than that of the German Bundesliga or Spanish La Liga.

The Premier League has also been criticized because of clubs that are playing there only to receive their share of the television rights. The Premier League goals per game in the last decade have been 2.14, which is the lowest it has ever been.

In 2006, Birmingham City manager Steve Bruce said:

“The Championship is very entertaining at the moment because about 12 clubs think they can win it. In the Premiership you've got 12 clubs shit-scared of relegation, and that's the difference.”


The EFL is the most popular league out of top flight football, it has a huge grassroots fan base and has been the breeding ground of many of the Premier Leagues home talent.

There is plenty of excitement to be found with teams that yoyo up and down the divisions, with some that have played in all flights of the EFL and Premier League. There are teams that suffer second season syndrome, where they achieve promotion followed by a strong performance in the higher league, but then drop to relegation in their second season in the league. The final days of the season can be the make or break matches, with teams trying to inch a place in the playoffs or to survive relegation. The playoffs final in the Championship has been described as the most lucrative football game, with an expected financial bonus of £135 to £265 million pounds.

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