League One is the current third tier of English football’s league pyramid system.
With football activities back in full swing following the Great War and after over a decade of proposals and debates, the campaign for third division of the Football League reached a successful conclusion at the League’s Annual General Meeting on 1 May 1920.
The 22-team section that lined-up for the 1920-21 was largely formed of clubs from the Southern League which had been formed in 1894. Their entry was not as straightforward as their more encouraging advocates anticipated though.
The potential for expansion was obvious as the game recovered its pre-war status and increased its popularity. Attendances had never been higher and the League’s own finances were very healthy.
However, although the management committee believed a third division was viable, they thought a northern section would not be strong enough in terms of playing strength and finances.
The Southern League clubs were duly accepted in to the Football League, but as associate members without the right to vote at meetings of the Football League and with no voice in the management of the organisation.
It was agreed that consideration would be made for the forming a northern section, with a decision to be made in February 1921.
In preparation, Burnley chairman and management committee member Charles Sutcliffe advised interested clubs to “put their houses in order, mould their purpose, centralise their aims and ambitions and work to make themselves worthy of acceptance.”
The northern section duly saw the light of day in 1921-22 with conditions of the associate membership that was identical to those of their southern counterparts.
The northern section was capped at 20 clubs for the first two seasons prior to matching the south’s 22-club division from 1923-24.
To keep numbers equal in each of the northern and southern section, having taken promotion and relegation into account each season, some midlands clubs would swap sectors.
Both sections were increased to 24 clubs in 1950-51 as the Football League expanded its membership to 92 clubs.
When he became Football League president in 1957, Joe Richards’ first act was to propose the long-awaited formation of a fourth division. It was decided that it would come in to operation in 1958 to give the Third Division clubs a year’s notice as to how they would be split.
The arrangement would be that the top twelve clubs from each in 1957-58 formed the Third Division and the bottom twelve, the Fourth Division. So a 24-club allocation in the two divisions was maintained.
There was a notable change to the third tier’s promotion and relegation format though.
Previously, only the champions of each section were promoted to the Second Division while the bottom two in each had to apply for re-election.
With the 1958 reorganisation, the top two in the Third Division would be promoted while the bottom four would be relegated to the new national Fourth Division.
The third tier has remained as a 24-club competition and was renamed League One following the Football League rebranding in 2004.
Football League chairman Brian Mawhinney claimed that the point of the new division names was fundamentally commercial, to create a vibrant new brand that was no longer associated with the collapse of the disastrous ITV Digital deal and the disparity in income caused by the success of the Premier League.
Due to the formation of the Premier League as England’s top division in 1992, for the purposes of clarity on this web site, the third tier (which therefore then became the second level of the Football League) is described, as follows:
- 1920-21 to 1957-58 – Division Three (South)
- 1921-22 to 1957-58 – Division Three (North)
- 1958-59 to 1991-92 – League Division Three
- 1992-93 to 2003-04 – League Division 2
- 2004-05 to date – League One
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