The Southern Football League (founded in 1894) is one of the regional men’s football leagues in England which sits directly below the National League featuring semi-professional clubs. Geographically, the league covers the South West, South Central and Midlands of England and South Wales.
Together with the Northern Premier League and Isthmian League it forms levels seven and eight of the football league system in England.
Professional football (and professional sport in general) developed more slowly in Southern England than in Northern England. Professionalism was sanctioned by The Football Association as early as 1885, but when The Football League was founded in 1888 it was based entirely in the north and midlands with the County Football Associations in the South being firmly opposed to professionalism.
Woolwich Arsenal (nowadays simply Arsenal) were the first club in London to turn professional in 1891 and were one of the prime motivators behind an attempt to set up a Southern League to mirror the existing Northern and Midlands based Football League. However, this venture failed in the face of opposition from the London Football Association and Woolwich Arsenal instead joined the Football League as its only representative south of Birmingham in 1893.
Nonetheless, an attempt was made to form the Southern League, and this time it was successful. A competition for both professional and amateur clubs was founded in 1894 under the initiative of Millwall Athletic (now simply Millwall). Initially only one division was envisaged, but such was the enthusiasm, that eventually two divisions were formed of sixteen teams.
The Southern League soon became the dominant competition below The Football League in Southern and Central England. By the turn of the century a few of the Southern League sides began to rival the Football League in the FA Cup but overall it was still regarded as the equivalent to the third level of English football.
Two Southern League clubs, Southampton (in 1900 and 1902) and Tottenham Hotspur (in 1901) reached the final of the FA Cup around the turn of the century. Tottenham Hotspur are the only club from below the 2nd level of English football to have won the FA Cup.
In May 2017, the FA chose the Southern League to add an additional division at step seven and eight as part of another restructuring in the national league system.
The league now consists of two Premier Divisions (South and Central) of 22 clubs and two Division One’s (South and Central) of 20 clubs.
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