The Rise of England’s Fifth Tier

The National League. A division that didn’t have a playoffs system as little as 20 years ago. A division that was once known for the semi-pro teams it boasted. A division that once wasn’t close to TV. Fast forward twenty years and that has changed massively.

In the last twenty years, this division has turned from irrelevant to noticeable in amongst the English league system. It’s now a division dominated by former Football League teams looking to get back to where they belong. As of this season, the league has got more popular than ever before, but why?


The obvious factor. The first live televised football match on Sky Sports took place 25 years ago between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool. This match began a new era for football. Football was to become dominated by the television, well, the Premier League anyway. It’s no secret that the Premier League has become more popular in this country and around the world due to television. Viewing figures and television money have soured throughout the years. The 2016 Championship Play-Off final, commonly known as the richest game in football, was worth £170m. But how does this relate to Non-League? In August 2006, Setanta Sports signed a five-year deal with the National League, known as the Conference at the time. From the 2007-08 season, Setanta would show 79 Non-League games every season, including the playoffs. Setanta went bust in 2009 and Sky Sports broadcast the 2010 Conference Play-Off Final. However 2013 was really when Non-League TV changed. In 2013, BT Sport announced a deal with the National League. To this day, BT Sport still shows National League fixtures. Although some fans are against TV companies changing fixture times, and thus affecting attendances, you can’t deny that BT Sport has raised the popularity of this league.

credit wonker

The FA Cup:

Oh where to begin… If you asked a fan who only watched the Premier League and the FA Cup, “Name a team who plays in the National League”, I guarantee you that they would say Sutton United or Lincoln City. The FA Cup is magic, no one can deny it. Lincoln City became the first non-league team in the modern era to reach the Last 8 of the competition. Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United are all in this round, alongside little old Lincoln City. That’s magical. Another huge story was Sutton United who bowed out in the fifth round to Arsenal, who will play Lincoln in the Last 8. This raises awareness for the league, the FA Cup run has seriously improved Lincoln’s attendances and they sold out their away section in the Emirates in less than a day, sensational. The FA Cup is a huge factor for the success of this division.

The Playoffs and Non-League finals day:

At the end of the 2015-16 season, the first ever Non-League finals day was played out at Wembley Stadium. It involved the FA Trophy final and the smaller FA Vase final. This raised huge popularity for Non-League football, as kids could get into the final for a pound. The stadium wasn’t full, as expected, but it certainly was atmospheric and was a good day out for those first experiencing Non-League football. Alongside that, the National League has a playoff final played out at Wembley, in which the winner is promoted to League Two. It is a rare occasion for a team in Non-League to play at Wembley, and so it shows how this league as developed over time into what it is now.


So as you can see, several factors have resulted in the rise of the National League. Trust me, it won’t stop any time soon. I love this league, the loyal fans who support their local team, week in and week out also love it. The quality of football in Non-League deserves the widespread coverage it gets, it truly is a completely different story to the league it was 20 years ago.