English football is back, my friends, and not a moment too soon. Oh sure, the new Premier League season doesn’t start for another eight days, but today is the start of the 2016-17 season in the English Football League. And it starts with a bang as Fulham (remember them?) host Newcastle (yeah, we definitely remember them) later today.
Maybe you’re a recently-found fan of Newcastle or Aston Villa and you’re not sure how to follow your club now that they’re out of the Premier League. Maybe you saw some no-name English club while playing FIFA and you want to check them out in real life. Maybe that same no-name club knocked your favorite Premier League team out of the FA Cup last season. Maybe you heard about that one player who’s built like an NFL linebacker. Or maybe you just want to see what English football is like outside of the bright lights at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.
Fear not! We put together a brief primer for you on the lower reaches of the English game. And when your League Two club ends up in the Premier League in five years, you can say you were into them before it was cool.
For years, association football in England was a largely ad-hoc thing. Clubs arranged fixtures with each other on their own and organized competition was mostly limited to the FA Cup and inter-county tournaments. After the FA overturned its amateurism mandates and allowed players to be paid for their service, the need for more reliable revenue streams became apparent. A handful of clubs, led by Aston Villa, met at Anderton’s Hotel in Fleet Street in London to sketch out a double round-robin tournament that would run a full season and overlap with the various cup competitions. And in April, 1888, at the since-demolished Royal Hotel in Manchester, the Football League was founded. The league had just 12 member clubs to start with: Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke (who changed their name to Stoke City in 1926), West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. It was the first domestic club league for soccer in the world.
The old First Division— now known as the Football League Championship— used to be the top flight in England. But throughout the 80s and early 90s, the biggest clubs in England clashed with the league over television revenue sharing. In their push to get bigger slices of the pie, several of the top teams threatened to leave the Football League if their demands weren’t met. Finally they just said “screw it” and followed through on their threat, with 22 clubs resigning and forming a break-away league competition— the Premier League. The FA stepped in to mediate an amicable split (and to ensure there was a promotion & relegation agreement in place) but it effectively knocked the Football League down the ladder and unmistakably changed the landscape of English football forever. But not everything changed— the winners of the Championship receive the same trophy that was formerly awarded to the winners of the First Division title.
The Championship is the richest lower-rung football division in the world, with £548 million in revenue for the 2014-15 season. It’s the most-watched second-tier league in the world, just slightly ahead of 2.Bundesliga. There are several credible explanations for this but one stands out: the competition and drama in the Championship centers around promotion to the Premier League, which is one of the most lucrative prizes in football by some distance. Add in clubs that already have large established fanbases like Aston Villa and Newcastle and you have a recipe for some entertaining football.
Ticket prices at Premier League clubs continue to rise even as television revenue skyrockets. Fans continue to protest what they feel is the pricing-out of middle- and working-class fans. In the Football League, this is less of an issue; most League One and League Two clubs sell tickets for £20 or less, and even Championship clubs are very affordable compared to their Premier League counterparts.
English players tend to have a hard time breaking into the first team in the Premier League. Higher-ups in English and European football generally agree that this is A Problem, and have implemented various homegrown player quotas for clubs to satisfy in order to avoid fines. Further down the English football pyramid, this is less of a problem. Football League clubs often take in young English players from Premier League senior squads and academy set-ups, either on loan or permanently, to beef up their rosters. The players who show the most promise often end up going back to the Premier League (assuming they don’t lead their clubs to promotion to the top flight).
In the 2014-15 season the average League Two player earned £40,350 per year. That’s more than the average UK worker (a little over £26,000 per year in that same period), but not that much more. League One players raked in an average of £69,500 per year and Championship players took in £324,250 per year on average. Again, more than average UK workers, but not enough to put them in a totally different socio-political ecosystem. (Premier League players, on average, earned £1.7 million per year.) While most Manchester United players live in a wholly different world, you’re entirely likely to run into your favorite player from Leyton Orient at Tesco.
After the advent of the Premier League, the Football League kept the names for their divisions— the First Division, Second Division, and Third Division. The league rebranded for the 2004-05 season, thus making it so the country’s fourth tier was called League Two, the third tier called League One, and the second tier called the Championship. Don’t worry, it’s not just you, it really does make zero sense. We all just kind of go with it.
So here’s a fun little tidbit you can whip out the next time Ted Westervelt yells at you on Twitter: promotion and relegation in England wasn’t always a hard-and-fast rule. The Football League always had pro/rel within its own divisions, but for nonleague clubs the path to the top was less clear. For a long time there was no promotion-relegation agreement with semi-pro and amateur divisions below them, and clubs that wanted to move up had to be elected to the Football League. The means by which clubs could secure election was fairly opaque, and it’s a bit of an open secret that horse-trading and graft was involved. Eventually that was changed and standardized, and now it’s possible to start a club at the very bottom of the English football club and work your way up to the Football League. In fact, one club did exactly that. And on that note…
Across England, fans are wresting control of their clubs away from wealthy, mercurial owners. AFC Wimbledon are perhaps the most famous example of these supporter-owned clubs, but they’re not the only one in the Football League. Exeter City, Wycombe Wanderers, and former Premier League outfit Portsmouth are all clubs whose fans control a majority stake in them. With several other clubs suffering at the hands of incompetent or malfeasant ownership— Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers come to mind— don’t be surprised if more fans start taking matters into their own hands.
The Football League organizes two cup competitions in addition to league play. The League Cup is basically the FA Cup’s dorky younger brother; teams from all three Football League divisions clash with Premier League clubs in midweek fixtures that, for bigger clubs, primarily serves as a way to give fringe and academy players a run out. They also organize the League Trophy, open only to League One and League Two clubs.
In the US, Championship games air on beIN Sport. Not every cable provider carries it, but it’s also available as a subscription streaming service. American fans of League One or League Two teams, however, pretty much only get to see their side on television during the FA Cup. That said, pretty much every club produces their own in-house radio broadcasts for home and away games, which you can listen to on desktop or mobile devices. They typically run less than £5 per month, which is about $7-8 depending on exchange rates.
Extensive history, fierce rivalries, affordable ticket prices, standing terraces, route one attacking, old-school songs, muddy pitches, dodgy pies, local sponsors, squads full of English players, and an indomitable sense of community spirit. If the over-commercialization and hype surrounding the Premier League ever bums you out, the Football League can be a refreshing tonic.
And really, seeing him in action is worth £20.