England’s vaunted soccer pyramid is a relatively recent phenomenon, at least in expanded form.
“League football” — the professional tiers, back in the days in which the FA maintained a clear distinction between “amateur” and “professional” — expanded to four tiers in the early 1920s. The League continued the practice of making its bottom clubs stand for re-election, while clubs from the “Non-League” ranks could apply to take their places.
After World War II, the door was nearly deadbolted. Four teams joined the League in a small expansion in 1950, then only seven more teams joined in the next 36 years. Six teams lost their spots; one (Accrington Stanley) resigned its League place midseason. Some teams from the patchwork Non-League landscape would run year after year and be denied. (Click the bottom divisions at footballsite.co.uk for year-by-year vote counts.) Two teams admitted in this period (Wigan, Wimbledon) reached the top division.
Here’s how everything changed:
1979: The Alliance Premier League collects the top non-League teams, putting forward only one candidate each year for Football League election rather than the vote-splitting five, eight, 10, umpteen each year. And yet, it doesn’t get any more teams promoted.
1986-87: The APL is renamed the Conference, and it gains one automatic promotion slot (assuming the first-place club meets League standards, which wasn’t a safe assumption).
2003-04: The Conference gets a second automatic promotion slot, this one settled in a playoff. The next year, Non-League soccer gets a full reorganization. The divisions are called “Steps” — the Conference is Step 1, Conference North and Conference South are Step 2, three leagues are Steps 3 and 4, then a whole bunch of feeder leagues are at Step 5. Raise your hand if you actually say “Step 3” rather than “seventh tier.”
So now we’re in the modern era, with the Conference as de facto fifth professional division and you can rest assured that the Wessex League Premier Division is two divisions ahead of the Leicester Senior League Premier Division.
Perfect time to do a little research to see how teams have fared as they pass through the League/Non-League gateway, right?
Naturally, I overcomplicated it. Every answer led to more questions. Some of the clubs that have gone down and/or up were reconstituted and may or may not be considered a new club. Digging back to see how far some clubs have climbed means figuring out which step the Kent League and Kent County League were in a given year.
But I came up with a few factoids of interest out of my muddled spreadsheets:
Dropped from first tier to fifth since 1987: Luton Town, Oxford United.
– Luton Town, the first employer of U.S. national team goalkeeper Juergen Sommer back in the early 90s, was in the first tier for a decade ending in 1992. Three successive relegations, the last prodded by a 30-point penalty for financial irregularities, saw the club drop from the Championship (2nd tier) to the Conference (5th). They were a nearly perennial playoff team in the Conference before winning their way back to League Two last year.
– Oxford United fell more slowly. The club last played in the top tier in 1988, last played in the second tier in 1999, last played in the third tier in 2001, and spent 2006-10 in the Conference. They’re back in League Two.
Other top-tier teams to drop out: Bradford Park Avenue, Carlisle United, Grimsby Town.
– Bradford Park Avenue is one of the the grand old names of English football, but that’s really all it is. The original club was in the top division just before and after World War I but was in the lower tiers from 1950 to 1970. The club finally folded in 1974. A phoenix club claiming the old history started in 1988 and was promoted three times to reach the sixth tier. It dropped twice more but is now back up in Conference North (sixth tier).
– Carlisle United barely qualifies for this list, having spent one season (1974-75) in the top tier and one season (2004-05) in the Conference.
– Grimsby Town was in the Football Alliance for its whole run: 1889-92. Like most Alliance clubs, it was assigned to the Second Division when the Alliance merged with the League. It had a couple of runs in the top division, most recently in 1948, and one season (1910-11) out of the League entirely. Relegations in 2003 and 2004 dropped them to the fourth tier (League Two), and their century of League football ended in 2010.
Dropped from second tier to fifth since 1987: Bristol Rovers, Cambridge United.
– Bristol Rovers was a perennial third-tier club with a couple of spells in the second tier, the last from 1990 to 1993. In 2001, they fell to the fourth tier (Division 3, then League Two). They went back up in 2007, back down in 2011 and finally out of the League in 2014. (They’re almost a sure bet to make the playoffs.)
– Cambridge United was one of the few teams to make it up into the League via election in the postwar years, getting the golden ticket in 1970. They had a couple of spells in the old Second Division, placing fifth in 1991-92 to come close to being in the Premier League in its first season. Then came a couple of drops, one bit of back-and-forth movement, then relegation to the Conference in 2005. The club also went into administration but stabilized in the fifth tier for nearly a decade before earning promotion via the playoffs in 2014.
On the way up: AFC Wimbledon, Crawley Town, Dagenham and Redbridge, Fleetwood Town, Yeovil Town
– AFC Wimbledon is the club you might know, rising out of protest when the original Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes. The new club was promoted five times in nine seasons, up from the ninth-tier Combined Counties League through two Isthmian League divisions and two Conference divisions up to League Two.
– Crawley Town spent decades in the Southern League, worked its way up to the Conference in 2004, then shot up with back-to-back promotions in 2011 and 2012 to reach League One.
– Dagenham and Redbridge formed in a 1992 merger in the Conference, dropped to the Isthmian Premier League in 1996, then returned for a long spell in the Conference before moving up in 2007. They’ve had one season in League One, the rest in League Two.
– Fleetwood Town is the bullet team of English football. They formed as Fleetwood Wanderers in 1997 but quickly changed to Fleetwood Freeport, playing in the 10th tier in the North West Counties Division One. The rest of the story: Promotion to the NWC Premier in 1999, changing the name to Fleetwood Town (previously used by two defunct clubs) in 2002, then going up in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014. The leagues: Northern Premier League First Division, Northern Premier League Premier Division, Conference North, Conference, League Two, League One.
– Yeovil Town was a founder member of the APL in 1979 and bounced between the fifth and sixth tiers until earning promotion to the League in 2003. They moved up to League One in 2005 and got all the way up to the Championship for one season (2013-14).
Gone since 1987: Aldershot Town, Chester City, Darlington, Halifax Town, Maidstone United, Newport County, Rushden and Diamonds, Scarborough
The good news? Most of these clubs have had phoenix clubs return in their place.
Here’s one of the spreadsheets in case you’d like to dive into more detail or tell me something that needs correcting:
http://www.fchd.info/indexa.htm (and all the other index pages)
And the wonderful site by the late, great Tony Kempster: http://www.tonykempster.co.uk/