Non-League football describes football leagues played outside the top leagues of a country. Usually it describes leagues which are not fully professional. The term is primarily used for football in England, where it describes football played at a level below that of the Premier League (20 clubs) and the three divisions of the English Football League (EFL; 72 clubs). The term non-League was commonly used well before 1992 when the top football clubs in England all belonged to The Football League (from 2016, the EFL); all clubs who were not a part of The Football League were therefore 'non-League' clubs. The term can be confusing as the vast majority of non-League football clubs in England play in a type of league. Currently, a non-League team would be any club playing in the National League and below and therefore would not play in the EFL Cup.
The "League" (with a capital 'L') in "non-League football" refers to the English Football League, rather than leagues in general -- "non-League" clubs play most of their football in league competitions. There are many leagues below the level of the EFL, and some, such as the Northern League, are almost as old as the EFL itself. The most senior of these leagues are loosely organised by The Football Association, the sport's governing body in England, into a National League System (NLS). The NLS has seven levels or steps, and includes over 50 separate leagues, many with more than one division.
Prior to the 1986-87 season, there was no automatic promotion and relegation between The Football League and the leagues of non-League football. The bottom clubs of The EFL were required to apply for re-election to the League at the end of the season, but this was in most cases a mere formality. The system ensured that Football League membership remained relatively static, with non-League clubs having little chance of joining.
However, a major change came in 1986 when automatic promotion and relegation of one club between The Football League and the Football Conference, the top league in non-League football, was introduced, subject to the eligible club meeting the required facility and financial standards. Scarborough became the first non-League club to win automatic promotion to The Football League, and Lincoln City became the first League club to be relegated to the ranks of non-League football. Since the 2002-03 season, two clubs from the Conference, now National League (the champions and the winners of a play-off) have been promoted at the end of each season.
The entire English football league system includes the Premier League, the EFL, the NLS leagues, and any local leagues that have feeder relationships with an NLS league.
Many non-League clubs enter the FA Cup, where they hope to become "giant-killers" by progressing from the qualifying rounds, and first and second rounds proper, to meet and beat opposition from the Premier League or EFL Championship. Since the end of the Second World War, nine non-League clubs have reached the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, and only one (Lincoln City in 2016-17 season) reached the quarter-final stage. The only non-League team to have won the competition since The Football League started is Tottenham Hotspur in 1901, although at that time The Football League had only two divisions, consisting almost entirely of Northern and Midland clubs. The leading clubs in the South played in the Southern Football League, which then ran parallel to The Football League, were of a comparable standard to the League clubs. From its inaugural match in 1908 until 1912, the FA Charity Shield was contested between the champions of The Football League and the Southern Football League.
The Football Association Challenge Trophy was introduced in 1969 to offer semi-professional non-League clubs a realistic chance of winning an FA competition. Amateur clubs could enter the FA Amateur Cup until 1974 when the Football Association abolished the distinction between professionals and amateurs. The Amateur Cup was replaced by the FA Vase in 1974 which is currently contested by clubs at Step 5 of the NLS and below while the Trophy is contested by clubs at Steps 1-4.
In Scotland, "non-League football" refers to leagues outside the top four divisions of the national Scottish Professional Football League. These consist of a number of regional senior leagues which are part of the Scottish football pyramid system, as well as the separate regional Junior leagues.
It is also used throughout Europe, although in Germany non-professional leagues are known as Regionalliga, as the leagues are all regional depending on the location of the town or city the team represents, unlike 1. Bundesliga, 2. Bundesliga and 3. Liga all being national leagues. Until 1974, it was the second tier of the league system before being disbanded. The Regionalliga was then re-introduced as the third tier of the system in 1994. Upon introduction of the 3. Liga in 2008, it was demoted to the fourth level of the pyramid, in the same way every league below the fifth step of the English pyramid was moved a step down due to the introduction of the Conference North and South, now National League North and South.
In the Republic of Ireland, football outside the top two divisions consists of regional senior leagues based on which province the club comes from; although again these leagues are commonly referred to as 'non-League'.