About England Southern League Premier
The Southern League is a semi-professional football tournament that showcases clubs from East Anglia, the South and Midlands of England, and South Wales. It forms levels seven and eight of the English football league system, along with the Northern Premier League and the Isthmian League. Since its establishment in 1894, the Southern League’s structure has undergone several changes. Presently, there are 84 clubs, divided into four divisions.
The English Southern League Premier comprises two feeder divisions, the Central and South Divisions, which are at step 3 of the National League System (NLS). They mainly feed into the National League South but also into the National League North. The Premier Divisions are fed by two regional divisions, Division One Central and Division One South, which are at step 4 of the NLS. These divisions are further fed by various regional leagues. The administrative head office of the league is located in Eastgate House in the City of Gloucester.
In Southern England, the development of professional football and other professional sports was slower than in the North. The Football Association sanctioned professionalism as early as 1885. However, when The Football League was established in 1888, its member clubs were situated entirely in the North and Midlands, as the county football associations in the South were firmly against professionalism.
In 1891, Woolwich Arsenal (now Arsenal) became the first London club to turn professional. They were one of the driving forces behind an attempt to establish a Southern League, mirroring the existing Football League in the North and Midlands. However, the London Football Association opposed the idea, leading to the venture’s failure. Instead, Woolwich Arsenal became the only representative south of Birmingham in the Football League in 1893. Another amateur league, the Southern Alliance, was founded in 1892, with seven clubs from the region, but it folded after an incomplete season.
Despite this, another attempt was made to create the Southern League, which proved to be successful. In 1894, a competition for both professional and amateur clubs was established under the initiative of Millwall Athletic (now Millwall). Initially, only one division was planned, but the idea garnered so much enthusiasm that two divisions were eventually formed. The sixteen original founder members were: 2nd Scots Guards withdrew before the first season began, and Southampton St Mary’s replaced them. Woolwich Arsenal attempted to include their reserve side in the second division, but the club’s existing membership of The Football League meant that the application was denied.
Success of the Southern League
The Southern League proved to be a highly successful competition in Southern and Central England and quickly emerged as the dominant league below The Football League. By the turn of the century, a few Southern League teams had begun to seriously rival those in The Football League in the FA Cup. In fact, a preview of the 1900-1901 season in the Daily News described the Southern League as “now, without a doubt, second only in importance and the strength of its clubs to the Football League itself. With the exception of Woolwich Arsenal, who preferred to remain members of the Second Division of the Football League, all the best professional teams in the South are now enrolled in the ranks of the Southern League.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, two Southern League clubs, Southampton (in 1900 and 1902) and Tottenham Hotspur (in 1901), made it to the final of the FA Cup. Tottenham Hotspur remains the only club from outside The Football League (and since its inception, also the Premier League) to have won the FA Cup.
During this period, several of the best players in England moved from The Football League to the Southern League because of the restrictions on their freedom of movement and wages implemented by The Football League between 1893 and 1901. The Association Footballers’ Union (the AFU) made failed efforts to relax these restrictions. It was not until 1910 when the League came to a reciprocal agreement with The Football League that this situation was resolved.
The champions of the two leagues met annually in the Charity Shield. However, out of the six meetings, only one was won by the Southern League champions – Brighton & Hove Albion, in 1910, and this remains their only top-level national honour. The league also organised several representative ‘inter-league’ matches against the Football League XI and the Scottish Football League XI before World War I. They won the inaugural inter-league equivalent of the British Home Championship in 1910, defeating the Football League 3–2, Scottish League 1–0 and the Irish League 4–0.
In 1907, the league accepted Bradford, a northern club newly-converted-to-Association and future Football League club, as a member, reflecting its senior position at the time. Stalybridge Celtic and Stoke also joined before the First World War.
In 1920, virtually the entire top division of the Southern League was absorbed by The Football League to become the new Third Division. A year later, the Third Division was expanded and regionalised. The Third Division clubs from the previous season became the Third Division South, with the addition of the Third Division North.
Six of the original founder members, Gillingham (formerly New Brompton), Luton Town, Millwall, Reading, Southampton and Swindon Town, went on to become Football League clubs.
Sponsorship has played a significant role in the history of the Southern League, with various companies stepping up to support the league over the years. Beazer Homes was the first sponsor of the Southern League and held that position from 1987 to 1996. They were succeeded by a succession of sponsors including Dr Martens (1996–2004), British Gas (2006–2009), Zamaretto (2009–2011), and Evo-Stik (2011–2013).
In 2013, Calor Gas took over the sponsorship for a single season, before Evo-Stik reclaimed the position from 2014 to 2019. Most recently, BetVictor served as the sponsor during the 2019-2020 season. Currently, the Southern League is proudly sponsored by Pitching In, a grassroots sports investment program created by Entain. The announcement was made in 2020, during which Entain was still known as GVC Holdings.
The partnership with Pitching In has resulted in the Southern League being promoted as one of the Trident Leagues, along with its Isthmian and Northern Premier counterparts. This designation underscores the league’s importance and influence in the world of football, as well as its commitment to supporting grassroots sports.