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"Hansen's eyebrows they go up and down,They go up and they go down, down, down!"
Up and down,
Up and down,
Hansen's eyebrows they go up and down,
—"Hansen's Eyebrows", 2006 British football song
Football in Europe, and Britain in particular, is organized in a series of leagues from which it is possible to be promoted to a higher league by finishing in the top positions one season; similarly, teams are relegated to a lower league by finishing in the bottom positions.
The following description applies to England. Similar structures exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although with fewer professional levels. For the sake of clarity, this article will focus more on the history of Football in England and the Football League in general. For information about the top flight, refer to the English Premier League.
The Football League is one of the oldest professional sporting competitions in the world, and was the first such competition for association football when it was founded back in 1888, just a few years after professional football was legalized. Initially it was only made up of one division but a second was quickly added. The league expanded greatly and a third division was added after World War I. Between 1888 and 1992 it was the only professional football league in England. At this time the FL consisted of 92 clubs in four national divisions called Division One, Division Two, Division Three, and Division Four (added just prior to 1960, when Division Three was divided into North and South leagues). The best teams got promoted to Division One, the worst got relegated to Division Four, and if they were particularly bad they might get thrown out of the FL altogether (although this was rare at that time, and was mostly caused by the clubs going out of business). The clubs that finished at the bottom of Division Four had to apply for reelection to the FL (usually succeeding).
In 1992 the 22 clubs in Division One decided that they could do better by themselves, and broke away to form The Premiership, sometimes referred to outside England as the English Premier League, and quickly amassed an eye-watering amount of sponsorship money, which has lately ensured that the Premiership is the world's richest football league and the fourth richest sports league in the world.
The remaining Football League renumbered Divisions 2, 3, and 4 as 1, 2, and 3, and later renamed them again to The Championship, League One, and League Two respectively.
Despite the organisational split between the Premiership and the Football League, relegation and promotion still takes place between the Premiership and the Championship - the bottom three teams in the Premiership get relegated to the Championship each year; the top two teams in the Championship, and the winners of the playoffs between the 3rd-6th placed teams in the Championship get promoted to the Premiership. The Championship playoff final is often called "the most valuable football match in the world" as it can be worth about £50 million (US$100 million) to the winning club, even if they get relegated from the Premiership the next year (as often happens) - even the lowest-placed team in the Premiership receives £30 million in TV rights money (2007-08 season). Relegated teams receive "parachute payments" from the Premiership for two years to buffer the shock of having to transfer to a much poorer league. However, getting sent down still causes major problems - casual fans don't turn up as much and many of the players (with national side places, pay cheques and glamour model girlfriends decide that they would prefer top-flight action. There is much criticism leveled at the gulf between established clubs in the Premiership and the Football League due to the huge difference in revenues making it extremely difficult to stay in the top flight for more than one or two seasons. This wasn't helped by a deal the FL made with ITV Digital during the early 2000's to try and increase their own revenue, only for ITV Digital to go out of business and leave several clubs in debt. The effects of this are still being felt today in a few clubs.
Since 1990 there has been relegation from what is now League Two to the lower level Conference and promotion from the Conference into the Football League. Even though the Conference is itself a league (and itself has three divisions - Conference National, and below it Conference North and Conference South), and there are many regional semi-professional and amateur leagues below the Conference, confusingly only teams in the Premiership and the three divisions of the Football League are referred to as "League clubs" or as playing "League football" - all lower-ranked clubs are described as "non-League clubs" or as playing "non-League football". This is perhaps due to the top divisions being referred to as 'The Football League', hence non-league meaning not in the Football League. In fact, all together there are a stonking 21 levels of leagues in the current English system, with each league becoming more regionalised going down the pyramid - from professional clubs to semi-professional to amateur to Sunday-league status. No other league system in the world is as complex as England's, which tells you something about how popular the sport is. There are literally hundreds and thousands of leagues, clubs, cups and players. This means that the pub side that only showed up with 9 players because one has retired to Eastbourne and another is stuck on the A34 is in the same competition as some of the most valuable sports franchises in the world.
In theory it is possible - with sufficiently good players, a stadium which meets the standards of the higher league, lots of money and a modicum of luck - for a team from the lowest league to in time be successively promoted to the highest level of the Premiership. In practice, the lowest level team which has made it to the Premiership came from what is now the level of the Conference National (Watford FC). However this can bring additional problems with rapid promotion. Wimbledon FC are the classic example of a clubs rise up the divisions; they ended up beating Liverpool against all odds in the FA Cup final. However, they didn't have a big enough stadium to attract a steady income and were in an area of London dense with clubs, meaning they lacked a big enough fanbase, and eventually went out of business in 2004. This caused them to be renamed the Milton Keynes Dons shortly after, although the practise of "Club Branding" which is more popular in the USA was quickly outlawed after that.
The best current example of a team rising through the divisions is the Scottish team, Gretna F.C.; the club was founded in 1946 and for most of the time until 2002 it played in the English non-League divisions (the town of Gretna is very near the English border). In 2002 Gretna was elected into the Scottish Football League at the third attempt (following the bankruptcy of Airdrieonians F.C.); after three years, Gretna won the SFL Division Three title in 2005, the SFL Division Two title in 2006, and the SFL Division One title in 2007, meaning that in the 2007/08 season they were playing in the Scottish Premier League against the likes of Celtic FC and Rangers FC. This meteoric rise was largely achieved through the ownership of millionaire Brooks Mileson, who has pumped money into the club, including the construction of a stadium to Scottish Premier League standards (minimum seating capacity of 6000, despite the entire population of Gretna at the 2001 census being only 2705!). Of course, for every meteoric rise there has to be a meteoric fall - Mileson's illness resulted in his surrendering of ownership, and the club folded and was ejected from the league at the end of the 2007/08 season.
Gretna is not the only club to have a history of playing in a "foreign" country's league. The English team Berwick Rangers plays in the Scottish League; the Welsh teams Cardiff City, Swansea City, and Wrexham play in the English leagues; until it went bankrupt in 2003 the English team Oswestry Town played in the League of Wales; the Northern Irish team Derry City plays in (and in 2006 won) the Republic of Ireland's league.
Since Football is the most popular sport in the United Kingdom, the wide variety of clubs in the Football League and indeed in the various leagues in Scotland, Wales and Ireland means that football at those levels has become a viable alternative for fans who feel they have been priced out of attending matches in the Premier League due to the increase in prices at that level. Indeed, while it may not have the glamor of the top flight, it can provide a much tighter-knit and more passionate atmosphere, where one can feel closer to the team and fellow supports. Such is the variability of the Football League that glory or failure can be only a few points away, and the prospect of taking a club up the ladder to success has attracted many a football supporter.
The League provides examples of:
- Big Game: Arsenal vs Liverpool at Anfield in 1989. A textbook case of Down to the Last Play.
- Crowning Moment of Heartwarming: The nation's response to Hillsborough; it's considered by many that this and Anfield '89 was the start of the revival of Football in England.
- Diabolus Ex Machina: Again, Anfield '89 when Arsenal score a literally last-minute goal to secure the title. Brian Moore said this legendary piece:
"Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack. A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith, for Thomas, charging through the midfield. Thomas, it's up for grabs now!"
- Loads and Loads of Characters: As has been mentioned, there are thousands of clubs and players. The Football League contains 72 of them and used to have 92 before the Premier League was founded.
- The full 21 levels of the league system contains 140 leagues over 480 divisions with roughly 7000 clubs taking part.
- Money, Dear Boy: The Football League clubs all signed up to the ITV Digital package, expecting the increased exposure would generate more revenue. When that fell through most of the smaller sides were left with big debts.
- Having said that, despite the dire predictions of most experts, not a single club went out of business as a result of the ITV Digital fiasco. Scarborough, Halifax Town and Chester City all went out of business near the end of the decade, but they died due to ownership problems rather than any lingering issues caused by ITV Digital.
- Spin-Off: What the Premier League became, although the Football League is still going strong.
- Underdogs Never Lose: A rarity, although occasionally a smaller team will triumph against larger sides in the cups.