England is the home of the game’s most venerable league and cup competitions, both dating from the late 1800s. Today 92 clubs play in four professional leagues, and a main cup tournament consists of 16 rounds and about 750 clubs.
In its current, money-spinning format, the top-flight Premier League is the world’s most watched, generating some £1.56 billion of collective TV revenue for its 20 clubs in 2013-14.
Apart from the astronomical fees involved – 60% up on 2012-13 – last season was unusual in that the dominant club since 1992, Manchester United, had their worst campaign in living memory.
The club whose mantle they assumed, Liverpool, the major power of the 1970s and 1980s, came closest to the title for the first time since 1990.
Both originated from great manufacturing and trading hubs of Victorian Lancashire, both rose with the post-war football boom – and both have been at their iconic grounds for over a century. Both, however, are now under US ownership. With 38 titles between them, England’s two biggest clubs are global brands, as recognisable as any British pop group or film star.
London, home of the national stadium of Wembley, remains a soccer mecca. Of its six Premier League clubs, Arsenal are by far the most successful. While financing a new stadium, the Emirates, and sticking with the same manager, Arsène Wenger, the giants of the pre-war game have been the most consistent in modern times.
Funded by a Russian oligarch, Chelsea bought the best to successfully challenge Manchester United’s dominance.
With players mainly taken from these top six clubs in the world’s most lucrative league, as a national team England have badly failed at recent World Cups.
Station to station
England has airport hubs from Plymouth to Newcastle – six serve London alone.
The Eurostar train also shuttles between London, Paris and Brussels.
Rail transport in England, dreadfully overpriced and unreliable, is run by several private companies – even the rail track itself. Try not to travel on a Sunday if possible. For schedules and the best advance fares, the train line is your best bet.
Buses are usually far cheaper than trains – National Express is the most prominent company.
Tables & trophies
Having broken away from the Football League in 1992, Premier League now consists of 20 clubs who are its shareholders.
The bottom three of the Premier League drop down to the 24-team Football League Championship, or simply ‘Championship’.
The top two in the Championship automatically come up. Those finishing three to six play off, in two two-legged semi-finals. The play-off final, at Wembley, is for the most lucrative prize in sport: a place in the Premier League, and all its TV revenue.
The bottom three of the Championship drop down to the third-flight, 24-club League One, whose top two clubs go up automatically. As for the Championship, sides finishing three to six play-off in two two-legged semi-finals, and a final at Wembley for third place.
The bottom four of League One drop down to fourth-flight, 24-club League Two, the lowest division in the professional Football League.
The top three of League Two go up automatically to League One – those finishing four to seven play off in two two-legged semi-finals and a final at Wembley for fourth place.
The bottom two of League Two go down to the semi-professional, 24-team Conference Premier, whose top club goes up automatically. Clubs finishing second to fifth play off in two two-legged semi-finals, and a final at Wembley.
The Football League runs the three professional divisions below the Premier League, as well as England’s second major knock-out tournament, the League Cup. Only the 92 clubs in the four main divisions, including the Premier League may enter. After two two-legged semi-finals in January, the final takes place at Wembley in late February or early March.
Founded almost 90 years before, the FA Cup is entered by some 750 clubs, right down to village teams. Clubs from Leagues One and Two join in the first round proper, in November.
Championship and Premier League clubs join in the third round in early January. Drawn games go to a replay, then extra-time and penalties if required.
The two semi-finals take place at a neutral stadium, often Wembley. The tie is settled on the day, with extra-time and penalties if required. Similarly, the final at Wembley in May decides the cup winners, with no replays.
Winning the Premier League title, FA Cup and League Cup is considered the treble – the league and FA Cup alone the double.
The weekend starts here
The Premier League kicks off mid August and runs until mid-to-late May. There is no winter break – Christmas, in fact, is a busy schedule.
The Football League divisions usually start a week earlier. The Championship, Leagues One and Two finish in early May, with play-offs stretching over ten days or two weeks, the Championship play-off final a week after its counterpart fixtures for Leagues One and Two.
The traditional kick-off time of 3pm on a Saturday is no longer sacrosanct – for the Premier League at least/ Invariably there’s an early kick-off on Saturdays, at 12.45pm, with another game to follow the final whistle around the country, at 5.30pm. Then there are two or three games on a Sunday, often at 1.30pm, and almost always at 4pm. The Monday night game is at 8pm.
The Championship rarely has games on a Sunday, but almost always a Friday evening fixture at 7.45pm or 8pm.
If they’re available, you can buy tickets on the Premier League website. Nearly all clubs offer online sales, usually by registering your details – you need to look for ‘general sale’ on their websites, usually a few days after tickets are offered to members.
You can usually choose your seat online too.
You’ll pay at least £35, maybe £45 for a reasonable view, £50 plus for a decent seat at a big club.
Note that clubs can reduce prices dramatically for the cup competitions – but the bigger ones usually field near reserve teams in the earlier rounds.
Re-sale agency viagogo deal in tickets for many Premier League clubs.