Beyond Leicester City and Premier League: Understanding English football's pyramid

A guide to many tiers and levels of football in England.

By Jayanta Oinam | Last Updated: Jun 01, 2016, 11:41 AM IST

The unlikely emergence of Leicester as the champions in England has forced many football fans around the globe to sit up and ask – how many more teams are there which can challenge the traditional heavyweights?

There are not many.

In fact, the Foxes themselves survived the Premier League cut the previous season. A gritty rear-guard action in 2014-15, in which they won three and drew one of the five matches in the final stretch.

That alone made the Leicester story an incredible one, considering how the big spending clubs elsewhere, notably clubs from London and Manchester – have reduced the league to a procession of costly stars.

Credit should be given to the wily, old fox in Claudio Ranieri, and a hosts of self-assuring players. The 64-year-old's arrival at the King Power stadium heralded a new period in English football. Now, other clubs will be inspired by the Leicester story.

The former Chelsea manager agreeing to Leicester was first seen as a mere marriage of convenience between a fledgling, relegation fighting team and a seemingly irrelevant football coach. But, little did we know that they were plotting possibly the biggest coup in football.

For the promoted side, avoiding relegation was their sole target. But now, they are totally in an altogether different league, within the league and also beyond. They will compete with the biggest clubs in Europe, in the behemoth called UEFA Champions League, and also fighting to keep the domestic league title.

Their success also tells another story, that of vibrancy in EPL. Very few leagues can boast of an outsider challenging for the title, let alone winning it.

A similar story unfolded in English football in late 1970's with Nottingham Forest winning the league just after the promotion, and thereafter doing the unthinkable — by not only winning the continental title, but defending it successfully.

That incredible story can now be relived with award winning documentary "I Believe in Miracles". A poignant tale retold, just in the perfect moment of time when Leicester were creating their own miracle. And Brian Clough was no ordinary coach. So is Ranieri.

Stories of how these clubs rose through the ranks and managed to create magic are indeed astonishing. But for many of us, understanding the leagues in which they operate, the promotions and relegations to follow, require some effort.

Like a smoothly functioned 'pymarid' of any chain, 'competitions' in England has many layers, albeit an perforated one. Every season, clubs go pass these many layers through a collective and generalised system called 'promotion and relegation'.

Here's a brief guide to that pyramid, through which Leicester emerged as the champions of England. For our own comfort, this write-up will focus on the top six recognisable levels. Yes, there are many more levels – but not necessarily all of them competing on the national level.

Level 1: Sitting at top of the lot is probably the most popular league in the world — the Premier League. It has 20 clubs taking part every season, with the team with most points after 38 games becoming the champions of England. The top four teams usually represent England and Wales in the Champions League. And bottom three are relegated.

It's often considered a stand-alone tier with promotions coming from the Championship of the League. There are three levels or leagues in the second tier.

Level 2: The League Championship has 24 four teams competing, with top two clubs at the end of the season automatically getting promoted to the Premier League, and next four compete in the playoffs. The winner from the play-offs gain the third promotion spot. The bottom three clubs are relegated to the League One.

Level 3: League One has 24 clubs competing in it. Top three teams, once again, are automatically promoted to the Championship, and next four compete in playoffs for the fourth promotion spot. The bottom four clubs are relegated to League Two.

Level 4: League Two is similar to League One, except that two teams are relegated, not four.

The third tier is National League, formerly the Conference National. It's also the lowest nation-wide league system in England.

Level 5: National League is the highest level of the National League System. Unlike the Premier League and the leagues in League, only the champions are promoted automatically, with the next four clubs competing in playoffs for the second promotion spot. The bottom four clubs are relegated to either North or South division.

Level 6: It comprises of two divisions — National League North and National League South. Running in parallel with 22 teams each, the level sixth of English football have the champions getting automatically promoted. Next four teams from each division compete in playoffs, and the winners get second promotion spots. Each of the bottom three teams in each division is relegated to either Northern Premier League, Southern League or Isthmian League.

Level 7: Northern Premier League Premier, Southern Football League Premier and Isthmian League Premier are the three divisions running in parallel in the seventh level. 24 teams each compete in these leagues. The champions get automatic promotion. The next four teams compete in playoffs, with winners getting the second promotion spot. The bottom four clubs from each division are relegated to a level 8 division.

With two or more divisions running parallel, the promotion and relegation get sometimes confusing for those who are not into the system. That's the nature of football at its home, where every borough, every locality has a viable and self-sustaining club.

Besides the leagues, England has two prominent tournaments, FA Cup and League Cup, with teams from these various tiers competing for pride and recognition. These cups are for the true romantics of footballs, with smallest of clubs shocking, humiliating the world famous teams.

FA Cup is the world’s oldest football tournament in the world with hundreds of clubs competing in it. Manchester United won the latest edition for a record sharing 12th time, beating Crystal Palace in the final. The 2015-16 season had as many as 736 clubs vying for the prestigious trophy.

League Cup is also a knock-out tournament, but it is only for the 92 clubs in top four tiers of English football. In this regard, FA Cup is more complete and respectable, considering it is open to any eligible club down to level 10.