The absolute vast majority of us would agree that sport should be democratic, with no ceiling or limits on what a team can achieve. But that’s not always the way, and indeed English football has – at times – been un-democratic to say the least.
Once upon a time, the best-performing non-league club had to apply for membership to the Football League in a direct election against the worst-performing professional outfit – almost exclusively members would vote for their fellow pros, meaning that the Football League was once a closed shop for ambitious clubs seeking to rise up the ranks.
Other clubs have been barred from promotion due to the size or quality of their home stadium, so there have been times where English football has resembled a cartel of professional clubs protecting their own interests. These days, however, things have changed and now non-league teams do have a clear pathway into the Football League – allowing any club, no matter how big or small, to ascend the beautiful game’s pyramid from regional amateurism all the way up to the big time.
What Is the National League System?
The journey from local football to the top-tier of the non-league game requires a club to climb a pyramid that has six distinct steps.
The bottom tier of the National League System is a series of regional divisions. There’s the Eastern Counties League (comprising competitions in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex etc), the Midlands League, the South West Peninsula League and so on. All told, at the time of writing, this Step 6 is made up of 17 localised divisions.
There’s a similar set-up at Step 5, with the Premier Division of the regional leagues mentioned at Step 6 competing for a place on the next rung of the ladder. Although promotion is at the discretion of the National League System committee, it’s generally agreed that the winner of each of the 16 divisions at Step 5 will automatically ascend.
Business really picks up at Step 4. There’s eight regional leagues here, with the winner and play-off champion of each heading into what is a very good standard of non-league football at Step 3.
And, it’s onto Step 3 next, where the shape of the non-league football pyramid reveals itself. Some 32 teams get promoted from Steps 5 and 6, which narrows to 16 at Step 4 and then just eight from Step 3. The leagues are:
- Northern Premier League
- Southern League (Central)
- Southern League (South)
- Isthmian League
The four league winners – plus the quartet of play-off victors – gain promotion to Step 2, while those in the relegation places are demoted to Step 4.
Step 2: National League North & South
The pyramid gets even narrower at Step 2, where there’s just two divisions to play in: the National League North and National League South. Split into two divisions of 24 teams, the winner of each league gains promotion to Step 1, alongside the play-off winner from each (the teams finishing second to seventh engage in a knockout format until one remains).
Step 1: The National League
The very top tier of the non-league pyramid is Step 1: the National League. This is where things get interesting, with ultra-competitive clubs dreaming of Football League status doing battle with those that have been relegated from League Two and are desperate to get back into the FL72.
It’s worth noting that while the National League is a non-league competition, many of the clubs competing in it are professional – i.e. their players are paid a full-time wage and, for the most part, won’t have another job. It’s a long way from Step 6 to Step 1, but the rewards for climbing English football’s non-league pyramid speak for themselves.
Has a Team Ever Gone from Non-League to Premier League?
As it stands, no club has ever gone from non-league to the Premier League since the old First Division was rebranded in 1992. But there could be one in time for the 2023/24 season if Luton Town are promoted from the Championship. They were playing in the National League as recently as 2014.
There are, however, examples of clubs that have gone non-league to the old First Division. Remember when we said that non-league clubs had to be elected to the Football League? Wigan Athletic were in that position until they finally got the seal of approval to turn professional in 1978. The Latics never looked back, securing promotions in 1982, 1997, 2003 and 2005 to climb into the English top-flight for the very first time. They would stay for eight seasons before relegation would seem them drop into the Championship and later League One.
Wimbledon, the London outfit that would later be moved to Milton Keynes and renamed MK Dons, achieved the stunning feat of getting promoted from non-league to the First Division in just nine years. Their ‘Crazy Gang’ spirit lives on through phoenix club AFC Wimbledon.
Has a Player Ever Gone from Non-League to Premier League?
There are some amazing examples of players that started out in non-league before rising to the top of English football. One of the most popular examples cited is that of Jamie Vardy, who went from playing in the National League with Fleetwood Town to winning the Premier League with Leicester City in the space of just four years.
Joe Hart, Callum Wilson, Chris Smalling and Danny Ings have all gone from non-league to Premier League while winning England caps along the way, while perhaps the most rapid ascent from non-league to Premier League is that of Andre Gray.
In 2014, Gray was playing for the then non-league Luton Town. By August 2015 he had joined Burnley for a fee of £6 million, and by the summer of 2016 he was a Premier League player after helping the Clarets to promotion from the Championship, winning the Golden Boot award as top goalscorer.