The term non-League is used to describe football leagues which are lower in the football pyramid than the main professional leagues. It is a term used primarily in English football, and in the case of England, it refers to the divisions below England’s four main professional Football League divisions.
A change to professional status for many clubs
Generally, in the past, non-League clubs have been semi-professional or amateurs. However, in recent decades many non-League clubs have turned professional, with the majority of clubs in the top level of the non-League structure, the National League, now professional.
There are a few reasons cited for this change. One of the reasons is that former Football League clubs have dropped into the non-League system and have continued to operate in a similar way to the way they did in the Football League.
The other factor is an influx of wealthy owners into non-League clubs. Many owners buy into non-League clubs with the hope and dream of moving their club into the Football League.
Professional status means that the top players in the National League can often earn bigger wages than some of their Football League counterparts. Reportedly, some National League stars earn more than the lowest earners at League One clubs.
How does English non-League football work?
The structure below the English Football League is known as non-League. The non-League football pyramid has. Despite the name, the divisions below the English Football League are still in a league format, with the National League at the top of the non-League structure.
For over a century, clubs were elected to join the Football League from the non-League system. The clubs at the bottom of the fourth tier of the English game were required to re-apply for their place in the division. At the same time, the top non-league clubs could apply to join the league at the expense of the struggling fourth-tier clubs.
The Football League member clubs conducted the election process. More often than not, this led to the clubs already in the Football League preserving their status due to the clubs wanting to preserve the status quo. In fact, in the history of the election process from the non-League to the Football League, only 13 non-League clubs were successful with applications to join the Football League.
However, in 1986, a revolution took place with the decision that the team that finished top of the non-League pyramid would replace the team that finished bottom of the fourth-tier table.
The team’s promotion depended on the club meeting specific criteria regarding facilities and finances. The now-defunct Scarborough F.C. was the first team to win promotion from non-League to the fourth tier, replacing Lincoln City, who dropped into what was then the Conference.
Unfortunately, Scarborough F.C. was wound up in 2007 due to financial difficulties. However, a phoenix club Scarborough Athletic F.C. were formed in 2007 to replace its predecessor.
The scenario changed again in season 2002/2003 when it became two teams earning promotion from non-League to the Football League.
For example, currently, the top National League teams earn promotion to League Two. The top team wins automatic promotion, while the other promotion spot is earned via a play-off tournament of four teams. They replace the two teams that have finished in the bottom two positions of League Two.
The FA Trophy
Many non-League clubs dream of causing big upsets in the FA Cup, but winning the famous old competition is virtually impossible for the minnows. However, in 1969 the FA introduced the Football Association Challenge Trophy to allow the non-League clubs to win FA silverware.
How is non-League football structured in other countries?
Although England has a big non-League culture, mainly due to some of the clubs and competitions spanning over a century, other nations have similar set-ups.
For example, in Germany, there is a similar setup. However, their non-League clubs are referred to as unterklassig (literally “under-class”). The clubs below the top three tiers of the professional game, the Bundesliga, 2. Bundesliga, and 3. Liga play in regional leagues called Regionalliga.
In Scotland, teams outside the nation’s top-four professional leagues are referred to as non-League. Like in Germany, these divisions are set up on a regional basis and are a part of the Scottish football pyramid.
The Republic of Ireland is similar to its Scottish counterparts. The term non-League is applied to the teams below the top two divisions that play in competitions based on the province in which they are located.
Spain has a somewhat different way of doing non-League football. They describe the clubs outside the professional leagues as fútbol modesto, which is a literal translation of modest football.