Professional football was first officially introduced in England in 1885. The rules of the game had only been confirmed in 1865 by the Football Association that had been created in 1863, and the first FA cup final was held in 1872. The situation between 1872 and 1885 was unusual as the game was supposed to be amateur yet many of the sides shamelessly ignored the rules and would pay their star players. As soon as the game became professional it wasn’t long before the top sides in the country go together and formed the Football League and its first competition that was held in the 1888/89 season. The league consisted of 12 sides from the north and the midlands. Of the twelve founder team’s only one, Accrington, no longer exist, nine are still playing in the Football League, while Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion currently compete in the separate Premier League.
The popularity of the league increased rapidly. Football is seen as the working man’s sport, and a lot of the top sides emerged from towns and cities that had grown rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. After a week’s hard work in mainly the manufacturing sectors of employment, people would look forward to their Saturdays and the prospect of being able to go and support their local team. The first few seasons involved the sides playing each other both home and away with two points being awarded for a win and one for a draw. The winners of the league would be the side with the most points at the end of the 22 match season.
The 1892 season saw the first division increase in size to 16 clubs and there was an addition of a second division which contained 12 clubs. The 1893/94 season saw the second division increase in size to 15 clubs with Woolwich Arsenal being the first southern based team to join the league. In 1905 both divisions increased in size to 20 clubs and more southern clubs started to join the league. However, the strength of the sport was found in the north and the midlands and it wasn’t until 1931 that Arsenal became the first southern based club to win the Football League.
In 1920 a third division was introduced which in 1921 became known as the Third Division South, and there was also the creation of the Third Division North. In 1946 the league resumed after the Second World War and there were now 24 sides in both third divisions bringing the total number of sides in the Football League to 92. In 1958 the league was once again revamped with the sides from the top halves of the regional two third divisions forming the new national third division, and the other sides being left to compete in the new fourth division. In 1987 it was decided that the bottom side of the Fourth Division would be replaced by the top side from the National League. Prior to this date any side who had finished at the bottom of the league had to apply for re-election back into it. Generally they were successful which meant that teams in the National League could be champions for many seasons without ever gaining promotion into the Football League.
This change has meant that there is a National League system. This contains 7 levels below the Football League which incorporates 86 different league competitions. There are 1600 clubs in the league of which only a few are fully amateur. The top tier is the Vanarama National League and all of these sides contain full time professional players. It is now possible for a side to start in the lowest tier, such as the Wiltshire League, and within 12 seasons find themselves, through successive promotions, playing in the Premier League.
In 1991 the sides from the First Division resigned on mass from the league and entered into the new Premier League. The Premier League is now a separate company from the Football League but it has not changed the league format and this structure is the one that is found today.