History of Premier League top tier of English football
Premier League Roll of Honour
A total of 49 clubs have played in the Premier League since its inception, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Man Utd, and Spurs participating in every campaign to date.
Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town are the most recent clubs to have played in the league.
At the end of each season, the bottom three clubs are relegated, with three promoted clubs from the Football League’s Championship replacing them.
The only exception to this was in the 1994/95 season when the League decided to reduce the number of clubs to 20. As a result, Crystal Palace joined Norwich, Leicester City and Ipswich in being relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 1994/95 season, with only two clubs replacing them from Division One, as the Championship was known then.
Between 1993 and 2016, each season of the Premier League had a title sponsor. From the 1993/94 season, it was known as the FA Carling Premiership, before the sponsorship changed in 2001 to Barclaycard until 2004.
The title of the competition then changed to the FA Barclays Premiership. It became the Barclays Premier League from the 2007/08 campaign.
The 2015/16 season was the final one having a title sponsor, with the competition becoming the Premier League from 2016/17.
Manchester United were the first winners of the competition, finishing 10 points clear of Aston Villa, and have been PL champions on 13 occasions in total. Blackburn won the title once, in 1994/95, while Arsenal triumphed in 1997/98, 2001/02 and 2003/04.
Chelsea became the fourth club to win the PL, in 2004/05, and have since gone on to claim the title four more times: 2005/06, 2009/10, 2014/15 and 2016/17.
Man City have won the title four times, securing the trophy in dramatic fashion in 2011/12 with a goal in stoppage time of the final day, and again in 2013/14.
Leicester became the sixth club to win the Premier League, completing a remarkable title triumph a year after a late but successful battle against relegation.
The most successful manager in the competition is Sir Alex Ferguson, who has guided Manchester United to all their Premier League successes. He also holds the record for being the longest-serving manager in the Premier League, spending 21 years at Old Trafford since its inception in 1992 before retiring at the end of the 2012/13 season.
Ryan Giggs participated in every title-winning year for Manchester United and the Welshman amassed 632 appearances, behind only Gareth Barry’s 653 for Premier League appearances.
Former Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers and Southampton forward Alan Shearer is the Premier League top scorer with 260 goals He is one of only two players to surpass the 200 mark – along with Wayne Rooney.
From the 2001/02 season, clubs who finish in the top four places qualify for the UEFA Champions League, while the team ending the campaign in fifth get to play in the UEFA Europa League. Further places can become available to teams in sixth and seventh depending on whether teams in the top five win the EFL Cup or FA Cup.
There has been an increase in English representation in Europe since the start of the Premier League, when, in the opening season, only the champions qualified for the UEFA Champions League, with the second and third-placed clubs entering the UEFA Cup, as the UEFA Europa League was then known.
Then the Old First Division.
The English Football League (EFL) is a league competition featuring professional association football clubs from England and Wales. Founded in 1888 as the Football League, the league is the oldest such competition in world football. It was the top-level football league in England from its foundation until 1992, when the top 22 clubs split away to form the Premier League.
The three leagues below the Premier League are known as the Championship, League One and League Two, normally with 24 clubs in each division (72 in total; in the 2019–20 season, League One was reduced to 23 following the expulsion of Bury). Promotion and relegation between these divisions is a central feature of the League and is further extended to allow the top Championship clubs to exchange places with the lowest-placed clubs in the Premier League, and the bottom clubs of League Two to switch with the top clubs of the National League, thus integrating the League into the English football league system. Although primarily a competition for English clubs, clubs from Wales – currently Cardiff City, Swansea City and Newport County – also take part, while in the past Wrexham, Merthyr Town and Aberdare Athletic have been members.
The Football League was associated with a title sponsor between 1983 and 2016. As this sponsor changed over the years the league too has been known by various names. Starting with the 2016–17 season, the league has moved away from having a title sponsor, rebranding itself as the English Football League (EFL), in much the same way the Premier League is known as the “EPL” internationally.
The English Football League is also the name of the governing body of the league competition, and this body also organises two knock-out cup competitions, the EFL Cup and the EFL Trophy. The operations centre of the Football League is in Preston, while its commercial office is in London. The commercial office was formerly based in Lytham St Annes, after its original spell in Preston.
Addition of the Second Division
The Aston Villa team in 1897, after winning both the FA Cup and the Football League.
A new Second Division was formed in 1892 with the absorption of the rival Football Alliance. Alliance clubs Nottingham Forest, The Wednesday (later Sheffield Wednesday) and Newton Heath (later Manchester United) were added to the new First Division, and Darwen were reallocated to the new Second, bringing the First Division total to 16 clubs. With the addition of Northwich Victoria (from The Combination), Burslem Port Vale (later Port Vale, from the Midland League) and Sheffield United (from the Northern League), the Second Division started with 12 clubs, as Alliance club Birmingham St George’s disbanded at that point. The bottom clubs of the lower division were subsequently required to apply for re-election to the League at the end of each season.
Accrington F.C. were relegated from Division 1, however chose to resign from the Football League rather than play in the 2nd division. Bootle were dissolved because of financial problems. The Second Division increased to 15 clubs for season 1893–94. Instead of three clubs expanding the division, five were added to make the number to fifteen. The additional clubs were Liverpool from the Lancashire League, Middlesbrough Ironopolis and Newcastle United from the Northern League, Rotherham Town from the Midland League, and Woolwich Arsenal (later Arsenal), who became the first team from the South of England to compete.
For the following season 1894–95, the third season of the division, there was a net increase to 16 with the addition of Bury from the Lancashire League, Leicester Fosse (later Leicester City) and Burton Wanderers (who later joined with existing Second Division club Burton Swifts to form Burton United) from the Midland League along with Lincoln City FC, while Northwich resigned and Middlesbrough Ironopolis disbanded.
Both Liverpool and Bury won the division at the first attempt.
In 1895 Loughborough replaced Walsall Town Swifts. In 1896 Blackpool from the Lancashire League and Gainsborough Trinity from the Midland League replaced Burslem Port Vale and Crewe Alexandra. In 1897 Luton Town from the United League replaced Burton Wanderers.
Automatic promotion and relegation for two clubs was introduced in 1898 when the previous system of test matches between the bottom two clubs of the First Division and the top two clubs of the Second Division was brought into disrepute when Stoke and Burnley colluded in the final match to ensure they were both in the First Division the next season. At this point both Divisions of the League expanded to eighteen, with the addition of Barnsley from the Midland and Yorkshire Leagues, Burslem Port Vale, Glossop from the Midland League, and New Brighton Tower from the Lancashire League to the Second Division.
Early 20th century
After a few years other northern clubs began to catch up, with the likes of Newcastle United and Manchester United joining the League and having success. From 1900, Aston Villa (1899–1900, 1909–10), Liverpool (1900–01, 1905–06), Sunderland (1901–02, 1912–13), The Wednesday (1902–03, 1903–04), Newcastle United (1904–05, 1908–09), Manchester United (1907–08, 1910–11) and Blackburn Rovers (1911–12, 1913–14) all won two titles prior to the outbreak of the First World War, while Everton added a second title to their much earlier success in the last season, 1914–15.
It was not until the early years of the 20th century, and the expansion of both Leagues to 20 clubs (in 1905), that further southern clubs such as Chelsea and Clapton Orient (1905), Fulham (1907) and Tottenham Hotspur (1908) established themselves in the League. There would be a further wait until 1931 before a southern club, Arsenal, would win the League for the first time.
Unlike in most other Leagues in Europe, no single English club managed to remain an ever-present in the division during the one hundred and four years of its existence as the top division in the country. Everton come closest, missing just four seasons through relegation, and remain one of only three clubs in England to have played over 100 top-flight seasons, along with Aston Villa and Arsenal.
Post-First World War
The League was suspended for four seasons during the First World War and resumed in 1919 with the First and Second Divisions expanded to 22 clubs. On resumption West Bromwich Albion (1919–20) and Burnley (1920–21), both original 12 clubs, won their first-ever titles (in Albion’s case their only title to date).
In 1920, leading clubs from the Southern League joined the League to form a new Third Division, which in 1921 was renamed the Third Division South upon the further addition of more clubs in a new Third Division North. One club from each of these divisions would gain promotion to the Second Division, with the two relegated clubs being assigned to the more appropriate Third Division. To accommodate potential difficulties in this arrangement, clubs in the Midlands such as Mansfield Town or Walsall would sometimes be moved from one Third Division to the other.
Following this burst of post-war growth, the League entered a prolonged period of relative stability with few changes in the membership, although there were changes on the pitch. In 1925, a new offside law reduced the number of defending opponents between the attacking player and the goal from three to two, leading to a large increase in goals, and numbers on shirts were introduced in 1939.
Between 1923 and 1926, Huddersfield Town were the first team to win three consecutive league titles (and never won another one, though they finished as runners-up for the following two years). This was equalled by Arsenal between 1932 and 1935, during a period from 1930 to 1938 in which they won five titles out of eight.
Manchester City (1936–37) became the only other club to be added to the list of Football League winners prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the fourteenth club to achieve the feat since 1888–89.
In the 1938-39 season Everton won the title for the fifth time, but suffered the same fate as in 1915, being champions when football was suspended due to the World War.
Post-Second World War
The League was suspended once more in 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War, this time for seven seasons. The Third Divisions were expanded to 24 clubs each in 1950, bringing the total number of League clubs to 92, and in 1958 the decision was made to end the regionalisation of the Third Divisions and reorganise the clubs into a new nationwide Third Division and Fourth Division. To accomplish this, the clubs in the top half of both the Third Division North and South joined together to form the new Third Division, and those in the bottom half made up the Fourth Division. An earlier suggestion that the Third Division South should become the Third Division and the Third Division North become the Fourth Division on the basis of better attendances and that they tended to fare better when promoted was rejected. Four clubs were promoted and relegated between these two lower divisions, while two clubs exchanged places in the upper divisions until 1974, when the number increased to three.
Clubs to win their first League titles in the quarter-century following the Second World War were Portsmouth (1948–49 and 1949–50), Tottenham Hotspur (1950–51 and 1960–61), founder members of the League Wolverhampton Wanderers (1953–54, 1957–58 and 1958–59), Chelsea (1954–55), Ipswich Town (1961–62) and Leeds United (1968–69).
Tottenham Hotspur became the first club in the 20th century to win the League and F.A. Cup ‘Double’ in 1960–61, a season after Wolverhampton Wanderers had come within a whisker of achieving the feat themselves (Wolves won the 1959–60 F.A. Cup and were runners-up to Burnley in the League by a single point).
Post-Second World War changes in league football included the use of white balls in 1951 and the first floodlit game (played between Portsmouth and Newcastle United) in 1956, opening up the possibility of midweek evening matches.
By far the biggest change for league clubs during this era was a new cup competition open to all the members of the League, the Football League Cup, which was held for the first time in 1960–61 to provide clubs with a new source of income. Aston Villa won the inaugural League Cup and, despite an initial lack of enthusiasm on the part of some other big clubs, the competition became firmly established in the footballing calendar, although it was not until the dawn of the 1970s that all 92 Football League clubs regularly participated in the competition season after season.
Substitutes (1 per team per match) were first allowed for injured players in 1965, and for any reason the next year.
The first ever Sunday EFL game was held on 20 January 1974 (11:30 kick off) and was played between 2nd Division rivals Millwall and Fulham at The Den. Millwall won 1-0. The first ever Sunday top flight game was between Chelsea and Stoke a week later.
Beginning with the 1976–77 season, the clubs finishing level on points began to be separated according to goal difference (the difference between goals scored and goals conceded) rather than goal average (goals scored divided by goals conceded). This was an effort to prevent unduly defensive play encouraged by the greater advantage in limiting goals allowed. In the event that clubs had equal points and equal goal differences, priority was given to the club that had scored the most goals. There has been only one season, 1988–89, when this level of differentiation was necessary to determine the League champion, and this was the occasion of one of the most dramatic nights in League history, when Arsenal beat Liverpool 2–0 at Anfield in the last game of the season to win the League on this tiebreaker – by a single Michael Thomas goal in the final minute of the final game of the season. Both teams would finish with the same amount of goal difference, but Arsenal scored more goals during the season.
Two clubs won their first League titles during the 1970s: founder members of the League Derby County (1971–72 and 1974–75) and Nottingham Forest (1977–78), both clubs managed by Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Nottingham Forest’s title in 1977–78 turned out to be the last occasion that a first-time champion won the First Division title during The Football League era, before the First Division clubs formed the Premier League in 1992. The next first-time League champion club would be Leicester City in the 2015–16 season, the first such during the Premier League era.
Another important change was made in 1981, when it was decided to award three points for a win instead of two, a further effort to increase attacking football. (This scoring rule was not added by FIFA to the World Cups until the 1994 cup after the perceived dominance of defensive play at Italia 90.)
The early 1980s also saw a significant decline in league attendances as a result of the recession and the ongoing problem of hooliganism. This did no favours for the financial position and league standing of numerous clubs, and several – including Wolverhampton Wanderers, Swansea City and Middlesbrough – were almost forced out of business as a result. The fortunes of the First Division clubs suffered a fresh blow in 1985 when all English clubs were banned from European competitions as a result of the Heysel disaster, where rioting involving Liverpool fans at the European Cup final in Belgium resulted in 39 spectator deaths.
In a similar vein, playoffs to determine promotion places were introduced for the 1986–87 season so that more clubs remained eligible for promotion closer to the end of the season, and at the same time to aid in the reduction over two years of the number of clubs in the First Division from 22 to 20. For the first two seasons, the playoffs were contested between the lowest placed team to avoid automatic relegation and three highest placed teams to miss out on automatic promotion in the division below, before it was altered from the 1988–89 season to include just the four clubs who had missed out on automatic promotion in the Second, Third and Fourth Divisions. 1986–87 was the first season of the decade where Football League attendances increased, helped by improved economic conditions and falling unemployment nationally.
At the same time, automatic promotion and relegation between the Fourth Division and the Football Conference was introduced for one club, replacing the annual application for re-election to the League of the bottom four clubs and linking the League to the developing National League System pyramid.
Emblematic of the confusion that was beginning to envelop the game, the number of clubs at the top of the league would return to 22 for the 1991–92 season, which increased competitiveness in the 1990–91 season as four teams would be promoted from the Second and Third Divisions instead of the normal three (with seventh place being the minimum position for the playoffs), while in the Fourth Division an unprecedented five promotion places were up for grabs, with eighth place being high enough for the playoffs. The end of the ban on English clubs in Europe also helped boost interest in English football. However, the economy was now in another recession, and added to that the clubs in the top two English divisions were faced with the requirement of having all-seater stadiums by 1994–95 to comply with the Taylor Report that followed the death of 96 Liverpool fans as a result of the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989.
The League also expanded to 93 clubs for the 1991–92 season and planned to raise the number again to 94 clubs for 1992–93, but after Aldershot and Maidstone United both went out of business within a few months of each other in mid-1992, this plan was abandoned. The issues creating the uncertainty in the game all centred on money.
The increasing influence of money in English football was evident with such events as the first £1m transfer in the game, that of Trevor Francis from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest in February 1979. The first £2million player transferred between English clubs was Tony Cottee, who moved from West Ham United to Everton in July 1988 – although several players had already been sold by English clubs to foreign clubs for even higher fees.
Before the formation of the FA Premier League, the highest transfer fee paid was £2.9million for the transfer of Dean Saunders from Derby County to Liverpool during the 1991 close season. The first £3million player was Alan Shearer, who moved from Southampton to Blackburn Rovers in July 1992, the summer before the first Premier League season. At the close of the 1991 season, a proposal for the establishment of a new league was tabled that would bring more money into the game overall. The Founder Members Agreement, signed on 17 July 1991 by the game’s top-flight clubs, established the basic principles for setting up the FA Premier League. The newly formed top division would have commercial independence from the Football Association and the Football League, giving the FA Premier League licence to negotiate its own broadcast and sponsorship agreements. The argument given at the time was that the extra income would allow English clubs to compete with teams across Europe.
1992: Foundation of the Premier League
During the 1991–92 season, the First Division clubs resigned from the Football League en masse and on 20 February 1992, the Premier League was formed as a limited company working out of an office at the Football Association’s then headquarters in Lancaster Gate. This meant a break-up of the 104-year-old Football League that had operated until then with four divisions; the Premier League would operate with a single division and the Football League with three. There was no change in competition format; the same number of teams competed in the top flight, and promotion and relegation between the Premier League and the new First Division remained on the same terms as between the old First and Second Divisions.
The 1991–92 season had ended with 92 clubs in the Football League, with the 93rd club, Aldershot, having been declared bankrupt and forced to resign from the Fourth Division a few weeks before the end of the season. Colchester United, the GM Vauxhall Conference champions, were promoted to the new Division Three as the 71st members of the reorganised Football League. However, this number would soon drop to 70 due to the closure of Maidstone United at the beginning of the 1992–93 season, and the Football League abandoned its expansion plan. This meant that there would once again be 92 clubs in the highest four divisions of English football.
1992–2004: Three divisions
There were few major changes to the structure Football League in the 12 seasons which followed the breakaway that created the FA Premier League, perhaps the only notable changes being an expansion to 72 clubs from 70 for the 1995–96 season after the Premier League was streamlined to 20 clubs from 22, and the introduction of a second relegation place to the Football Conference from the end of the 2002–03 season.
However, following the formation of the Premier League, it became increasingly difficult for newly promoted clubs to establish themselves in the top flight. Whereas newly promoted teams had once normally survived for at least a few seasons in the old First Division, it was now the norm for at least one newly promoted club to be relegated straight back from the Premier League to Division One. In the nine seasons that followed the formation of the Premier League, at least one newly promoted club suffered this fate – and in the 1997–98 season it happened to all three newly promoted teams. There were exceptions, however; including Blackburn Rovers, who were promoted to the Premier League on its formation and were champions three years later, and Newcastle United, who were promoted in 1993 and finished in the top six for the next four seasons, finishing Premier League runners-up twice.
The trend of relegated clubs to win an instant promotion back to the top flight continued, however. In the 12 seasons following the formation of the Premier League, there were just three seasons where none of the newly relegated sides failed to win an instant return to the Premier League.
The widening gulf between the top two divisions of English football can largely be put down to the increased wealth of the Premier League clubs, and the wealth gained by these clubs – combined with parachute payments following relegation – has also made it easier for many of them to quickly win promotion back to the top flight.
In spite of the economic prosperity between 1992 and 2004, many Football League clubs did run into financial problems during this time, although none of them were forced out of business. These include Oxford United, Luton Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Portsmouth, Bradford City and Leicester City. Some of these clubs were faced with financial problems as a result of the lost revenue resulting from Premier League relegation and a failure to return to this level, as well as the collapse of ITV Digital in 2002.
Just after the end of the 2001–02 season, South London based Wimbledon were given permission to move to Milton Keynes, some 70 miles from their traditional home. A relocation on this scale was unprecedented in English football, and led to the majority of the club’s fans switching their support to a new fan-formed club, AFC Wimbledon, who joined the Combined Counties League. The club’s move to Milton Keynes was completed in September 2003, when they became tenants of the National Hockey Stadium until a new permanent home was completed four years later, and the club’s name changed to Milton Keynes Dons in June 2004.
Football League logo, 2004–2016
2004 Football League rebranding
2004–05 was the first season to feature the rebranded Football League. The First Division, Second Division and Third Division were renamed the Football League Championship, Football League One and Football League Two respectively. Coca-Cola replaced the Nationwide Building Society as title sponsor.
The Football League’s collection of historic materials is held by the National Football Museum.
On 12 November 2015, The Football League announced that it would be officially renamed the English Football League, with the abbreviation EFL to be emphasised, effective from the beginning of the 2016–17 season. The rebranding would include a new logo consisting of a circle composed of three swathes of 24 smaller circles each. The three swathes are to represent the three divisions and the 24 circles in each swathe (making a total of 72 circles) represent the 72 clubs in the league system. Each club is to be presented with its own bespoke version of the logo. Football League Chief Executive Shaun Harvey said:
The new EFL name rightly emphasises the central role our clubs play at the heart of English professional football. In an increasingly challenging global sports market, it is absolutely essential that sports properties can project a modern identity that not only resonates with their regular audience but is also easily recognisable to a broader audience of potential fans, viewers and commercial partners. We believe the EFL name and brand will give our competitions an identity that is new and distinct, while at the same time retaining our unique heritage. As such, it will be something that all fans can identify with – whether they be young or old, at home or abroad.
2019 review of EFL financial regulations
The EFL expulsion of Bury and the threatened expulsion of Bolton Wanderers after both League One clubs became insolvent during the summer of 2019 prompted the EFL to commission an independent review of its regulations concerning the financial sustainability of member clubs.
Football records in England
English football sponsorship
Since 1983 the League has accepted lucrative sponsorships for its main competition. Below is a list of sponsors and the League’s name under their sponsorship:
Years Sponsor Name
1983–1986 Canon Canon League
1986–1987 Today newspaper Today League
1987–1993 Barclays Barclays LeagueA
1993–1996 Endsleigh Endsleigh League
1996–2004 Nationwide Nationwide Football League
2004–2010 Coca-Cola Coca-Cola Football League
2010–2013 npower npower Football League
2013–2016 Sky Bet Sky Bet Football League
2016–2019 Sky Bet EFL Sky Bet Football League
A Upon the breakaway of the First Division in 1992 to form the Premier League, Barclays became a secondary sponsor in the newly formed top division, becoming the primary sponsor from 2001 until 2016.
After the formation of the Premier League the newly slimmed-down football League (70 clubs until 1995 and 72 clubs since) renamed its divisions to reflect the changes. The old Second Division became the new First Division,
the Third Division became the Second Division, and the Fourth Division became the Third Division. The financial health of its clubs had become perhaps the highest League priority due to the limited resources available. However,
there were some promising signs for the future, as the League planned to announce new initiatives beginning with the 2004–05 season, coinciding with the start of a new sponsorship agreement with Coca-Cola.
The first of these changes was a rebranding of the League with the renaming of the First Division as The Championship, the Second Division as League One and the Third Division as League Two. The League’s cup competitions have had different sponsors.
The current sponsor Sky Bet commissioned a suite of trophies for the league from silversmith Thomas Lyte.