Union jack football

Why Does the UK Have Different Leagues for England, Scotland and Wales?

Some of the true greats of the game have heralded from Wales and Scotland. Looking at the likes of Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Gareth Bale for Wales, and Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law and Graeme Souness of Scotland, the two nations have not been short of star quality. The glut of talent that has come from these nations has some asking why they did not play for bigger clubs in their native countries. All of these stars have starred for the likes of England’s Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham, but they are all fiercely patriotic, with the players always turning out with huge pride for their countries whenever they were given the opportunity.

After all, most of the best players to turn out for England have tended to ply their trade in the First Division or the Premier League. If so much of the best talent England, Scotland and Wales have played most of their football in England, why do the three nations not just have one unifying league? This would mean that the best players coming up from the grassroots systems in each country would then be plying their trade with the aim of reaching the top league, so why has this not happened? In this guide, we will look at why the nations have separate leagues, the rivalry between them and why one league would not likely ever work.

Why Do the Three Nations Have Separate Football Leagues?England Wales and Scotland flags

To answer this, we have to go back to the very beginning. The very first international football game was played between England and Scotland, with the two arch-rivals ensuring their battle would go down in history as the first in 1872. The sport of football had not really travelled all that far before then, meaning that the international matches we know and love today were not really an option for England, Scotland or Wales. This meant that football matches overseas were not quite as simple to organise, meaning games between the home nations were far more prevalent.

First International Game in 1872

In the years between the first international game in 1872 and the formation of FIFA in 1904, the home nations played each-other quite often. The new governing body for football decided to respect the fact that England, Scotland and Wales had been conducting their international football matches under their own name and flag. This meant that the trio were immediately seen as their own countries, rather than an amalgamated United Kingdom team.

Tennis & Rugby Also Divided

While there are sports in which teams and players battle under the banner of the United Kingdom, such as at the Olympics or in the tennis, this is not the case in many sports. Indeed, even in rugby union when the best of Britain travels to take on one of the southern-hemisphere powerhouses, they do so as the Lions, and not the United Kingdom. While this may be seen as just a synonym for the UK in rugby terms, it is important to note that there has always been the chance for the team to be called the United Kingdom, and it has not ever really been discussed.

The Rivalry

Whenever you talk to a Welsh, Scottish or English fan, they will likely tell you that nothing is worse than listening to your neighbour gloat about beating you in a football match. This is why games between the three are so hotly contested. Obviously, matches between Scotland and Wales are not quite as fierce as England and Wales or England and Scotland, but the historical context of the relationship between the two nations and England means there is a lot of bad blood there.

This quite often comes out on the football pitch, with both the Scottish and Welsh creating a siege mentality whenever England come to town. This has not been so relevant in recent years, especially as Scotland and Wales have both improved markedly in the last decade, while England still champion the ability to beat a top side one week before then somehow losing to a minnow or really struggling despite the talent they have at their disposal.

Barring any ugly scenes in the stadiums or on match-days between fans of the sides, the rivalry between the three is great for the game. England will take on Wales at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, and this will likely be a game that all involved will relish.

In the same way, England and Scotland’s 0-0 draw at Euro 2020 was one that lived up to the hype off the pitch, with the fans bringing passionate support to urge their teams on. Unfortunately, this did not transfer onto the pitch, with the two sides failing to inspire. Coupling the passionate rivalry in football alongside the butting of heads in socio-political matters over the centuries, it does not take a genius to work out why the nations have not joined together in one unified football league structure.

Distance Does Not Make the Heart Grow Fonder

The old idea that being apart can make people or relationships stronger is not one that holds true in this sense. The three nations would likely have to travel hundreds of miles for many match days if teams from Wales, England and Scotland all played in the same league. This is not as much of a problem in a Champions League or World Cup match as it is part and parcel of the experience. If you want to watch Manchester City play every single Champions League group game, the chances are you will have to visit any of Spain, France, Germany and more.

Physical Distance of the Three Nations

Great Britain mapHowever, this is not something many will sign on for in a league match. This would likely see revenue for these games decrease, while the teams and those in charge of the league will not want to see excessive amounts of empty seats. From a player’s point of view, playing in front of a half-full stadium will not provide quite as much of an atmosphere to try to perform in when comparing this to a sold-out event. The distance alone is probably enough to ensure the three nations will not form one single league structure.

That is not to say no Scottish or Welsh sides have ever played in an English competition. In fact, Scotland’s Queens Park played in the FA Cup, reaching the semi-finals in 1872. However, after a 0-0 draw with the Wanderers in the last four, they had to forfeit the replay as they did not have the money to make their return to London to play in the second match.

Impressively, Queens Park were the side that had come the closest to snatching the FA Cup from English hands as they made it to the final of the 1884 competition, but they were beaten 2-1 by Blackburn Rovers in that game. The Scottish FA would ultimately ban all Scottish participation in the FA Cup in 1887 onwards.

Which Welsh Teams Have Played in England?

While Queens Park are the Scottish side that have excelled the most in English competition, Welsh sides have fared markedly better. At the time of writing, there have been a total of 15 Welsh sides that have played or are playing in English leagues, with these including Swansea City, Cardiff City, Newport County and Wrexham, who are now owned by Hollywood megastars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.

Swansea City

The most well-known and successful sides from Wales are Cardiff City and Swansea City. Cardiff is the capital of Wales and have enjoyed short stints in the Premier League. However, the most successful of the pair is Swansea City. As the bitter rivals of Cardiff, Swansea enjoyed a long stint in the top-flight between 2011 and 2018. In that time, they showcased their brilliant passing game as they drew comparisons with the best in the league and Europe for how they looked to play possession based football with players that simply loved to pass the ball.

They are perhaps best known for their exploits in the 2013 League Cup, which they were able to lift by hammering Bradford City 5-0 in the final at Wembley. While Cardiff and their fans will always claim to be the biggest club in Wales, they will have to go some way to eclipse what Swansea have achieved.

Are English Teams Better than Teams from Wales & Scotland?

Celtic vs Rangers
Celtic vs Rangers (Tom Brogan / Flickr.com)

Even the hardiest of Welsh and Scottish fans will find it difficult to argue that their teams are better than the top teams in the Premier League. For Wales in particular, it is clear that they lag some-way behind the best in England. Both Swansea City and Cardiff City face another season in England’s second league next year after failing to gain promotion to the Premier League. Indeed, Swansea finished in 15th in the table with 61 points, 29 short of Fulham at the top, while Cardiff finished in 18th, 37 short of the Championship’s top side.

Even when the pair were in the Premier League, their triumphs against the best were few and far between, with neither ever able to crack the top-six. Of course, many established and strong English sides are unable to break into the top six, but it still shows that, even at their best, the two Welsh sides were someway short of England’s best.

Celtic & Rangers

For Scotland, this question is a little more difficult to answer. Celtic and Rangers boast an array of trophies and stunning European and domestic nights between them, but neither has played in England’s top league. Indeed, the only sample size for how good they are comes from games in the Champions League or Europa League.

The only problem with this is that a big Champions League night at Celtic Park is different to a 3pm Saturday kick-off. Whenever an English side has played Celtic, the score has tended to be quite tight, but this has usually seen the English team dominate. The reason we bring this up is because the level of intensity a side can hit in the biggest knock-out competition in Europe will be vastly different to just a standard league game.

When the conversation of whether Celtic and Rangers should join the Premier League comes up, attention immediately turns to where in the league structure they should go. Many cite that as with any new team, they should start at the bottom. This forces them to work their way up the leagues, giving them a greater appreciation of playing in the upper echelons of the English football league system.

Others cite that they should be given an automatic berth in the Premier League. It is unlikely that this would ever happen as both sides moving over to England’s top league would have to see only one side from the Championship promoted, otherwise the league would swell to 22 teams. If the above situation were to ever happen, people would always question whether either Scottish side could lock horns on a weekly basis and avoid relegation, let alone crack the top six. Ultimately, a switch for any Scottish side to the Premier League looks very unlikely right now.