Flags of England, Scotland, Wales and the UK

Why Do England, Scotland And Wales Have Different Football Leagues?

In events such as Eurovision and the Olympics, the British home nations come together to compete as one single team, but when it comes to football it’s a totally different story. In fact, in football, there’s a bit of a rivalry, to say the least, especially so against the English; with Scotland regarding their southern neighbours as the ‘Auld Enemy’. But just why do the home nations of the United Kingdom hold such a rivalry, why don’t they just get along and have one united national team, and a combined British league?

Early Foundation of Football Associations and Leagues

When discussing the reasons behind the British nations having different leagues and national teams, it’s important to look back to 1863 when the first football association was founded, and the rules of football where officially standardised.

English Football League

3D Map of England Within UKThe first football association was founded following an 1863 meeting in London’s Freemason’s Tavern, where football took its first step to becoming the game we all know by seeing its rules formalised. At the same time the Football Association was officially created.

A few years later, in 1871, the oldest national football competition in the world was created; the FA cup. Although largely aimed at the English clubs, the 1884 and 1885 finals featured the Scottish club Queen’s Park, whilst Rangers made an appearance in the 1886/87 semi-final. Other Scottish clubs appearing in the FA cup in these formative years included Partick Thistle and Heart of Midlothian, but in 1887 the Scottish FA banned their members from any further involvement in England’s FA Cup.

The first league competition was created in 1888 and this was called the Football League. When established, Scottish founder William McGregor, who had moved to Birmingham and was connected with Aston Villa, made sure to avoid any inclusion of the word ‘English’ in the name of the newly created league.

He did this in the hope that Scottish, Welsh and Irish teams would also join this new league system. Whilst no Scottish or Irish teams ultimately ended up joining McGregor’s system, several Welsh clubs did, including the likes of Wrexham, Swansea City, Cardiff City and Newport County. It is not officially known why Scottish and Irish teams opted not to join McGregor’s Football League, although it is thought that travel concerns were a major issue.

Football began as a working man’s game and certainly in this period was nothing like the cash-rich sport we see today. Moreover, transport was slower and less reliable and so there seems little doubt that the idea of teams from the far north of Scotland, or Ireland, playing in England, even in the north, would not have been especially well received. So, whilst we cannot be sure, it certainly seems likely that convenience was a big factor in why it was decided to organise league systems within a more nationally localised catchment area.

Scottish Football League

3D Map of Scotland Within UKAt the time of the Football Association being formed on English soil, there wasn’t a clear geographical distinction as to what parts of the world this new football body served. Was it just England? The whole of the UK? The British Empire or even the World?

An answer to this question was brought in 1873 when a second national association was founded; the Scottish Football Association. Following rapid growth of the game in Scotland, the lack of a formal structure meant matches were organised in chaotic fashion. As in England, there was no set structure to fixtures and games were too easily abandoned or called off, leaving clubs without a game.

To try and rectify this and create a more formal structure to the game north of the border, eight clubs came together in 1873 and formed the Scottish FA. For around 15 years, clubs who joined the SFA played in friendly matches, Scottish Cup ties and local cups, for example, the Glasgow Cup. Unlike the English FA Cup, the Scottish Cup has never featured an English club, although a competition created later, the Scottish Challenge Cup, went on to feature several clubs from Ireland, Wales, and England as recently as 2019. The likes of Solihull Moors, Connah’s Quay Nomads and Waterford have all made an appearance.

Two years after McGregor’s creation of the Football League in England, the Scottish FA got to work and formed the Scottish Football League. As well as creating more regular and guaranteed fixtures, this also helped to deal with the high levels of Scottish players moving across the border to English League clubs and draining the talent pool. Scotland creating their own league system put an end to McGregor’s hopes of seeing Scottish clubs joining his new system, and since then UEFA and FIFA have declared that any prospect of Scottish clubs joining England’s football league system will not be possible without the home nations merging internationally.

Welsh Football League

3D Map of Wales Within UKThe third oldest national association in the world, the Football Association of Wales were first founded in 1876 during a meeting at the Wynnstay Arms Hotel in Wrexham, North Wales. Inspired by the English Association’s FA Cup, the Welsh Association set up the FAW Welsh Cup in 1877. Until 1995, English clubs were also invited to play in this cup; and clubs such as Hereford United, Bristol City and Shrewsbury Town would go on to lift the trophy.

Meanwhile, despite other home nations founding their own football leagues, it wasn’t until 1992 that the Welsh Association created their own league set-up; the League of Wales. Having spent over 100 years without their own national league, many Welsh clubs without a national league to call their own ended up joining the English League system.

Wrexham A.F.C, who joined England’s Combination League in 1890, were the first example of a Welsh club playing in a league outside of Wales. From then, clubs such as Cardiff City and Swansea City followed Wrexham’s path, and in 1992 when the Welsh League was established, these clubs ended up staying in the English league system. They did so against the hopes of the Welsh FA, with a High Court case aiming to coerce these clubs into joining the new league ending in defeat for the Welsh FA, therefore keeping the Welsh clubs in England.

At the time of writing there are a number of Welsh clubs plying their trade in the various English divisions. This includes all of the biggest ones, such as Swansea and Cardiff, as well as Wrexham, Newport and Merthyr Town. All of these clubs are eligible to enter the FA Cup but not the Welsh Cup. Interestingly Cardiff are the only non-English club to have ever won the FA Cup, beating Arsenal 1-0 in the final in 1927.

British League Proposals

Footballer Against UK Flag

Politicians such as Tony Blair have expressed their thoughts about the need for a ‘British Football League’, with Blair believing that a unified British League would strengthen the bond between England and Scotland and therefore quell the Scottish argument for independence.

Meanwhile, football managers have also expressed their thoughts on the matter, with David Moyes having advocated for a British league in the wake of the European Super League’s demise. A strong believer in a Premier League reform, Moyes asked “Could we have a situation where we do invite Rangers and Celtic to Premier League II? Why can we not unite the UK? Why do we have to be England and Scotland and not unite it?”.

The prospect of other British clubs uniting with the English league, and especially Rangers and Celtic, has been a topic of conversation for a long time but has so far failed to gather much traction. Reports were made however, after the European Super League’s collapse, of talks for a British Super League, negotiations reportedly heavily involving both Old Firm clubs. It was added that unlike the ESL, the move would have the backing of FIFA, UEFA and the UK government. However, only time will tell if there’s any truth behind these newspaper stories, but it wouldn’t be a major surprise.

British Cup

UK Flag Trophy Icon

Another suggestion made by former Celtic player Moyes is a revamp of the English League Cup (also known commercially as the Carabao Cup as of the 2021-22 season). Amidst calls for the competition to be scrapped in light of its current state of being regarded as competition for fringe players, Moyes proposed a revamp in the form of a ‘British Cup’ featuring teams from the other home nation countries.

The 1902 Ibrox disaster led to the one-off holding of a British League Cup format, raising funds in aid of a disaster which had killed 25 people, and left 517 injured. The competition featured both Old Firm clubs, who were joined by Sunderland and Everton, and Celtic would go on to win the tournament 3-2 in a final against Rangers.

Future one-off British club cup formats included the ‘Empire Exhibition Trophy’ in 1938 where Celtic beat Everton 1-0 in the final, and the ‘Coronation Cup’ in 1953 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, with Celtic beating Hibernian in the final.

The 1970s saw the creation of the Texaco Cup, featuring clubs from England, Scotland and Ireland who had not qualified for European competition, although the Irish and Northern Irish clubs withdrew after 1972 in light of political pressure. The Texaco Cup changed into the Anglo-Scottish Cup in 1975, but would only last six years due to declining interest.

Despite this lack of interest, legendary manager Brian Clough cited Nottingham Forest’s 1977 Anglo-Scottish trophy win as a key springboard for their future success. Since the Anglo-Scottish Cup’s end in 1981, there has not been any cup competition created to unite British clubs . Only time will tell if Moyes can get his wish of a newly created British League Cup but it would certainly be an interesting way to revamp the League Cup.

Why Is There No British National Team?

Vintage Brown Leather FootballThe reason for there being no British national team is connected to the early formation of football associations and also due to the unique structure and political history of the British Isles and the UK. England and Scotland, the first two national teams created in football’s history, played the earliest recorded international football match in 1872.

Following this, a rivalry quickly developed between the two sides. Eventually they’d be joined by the Welsh and Irish national teams, and the four sides then regularly scheduled games before ultimately creating the first international tournament in football’s history in 1884, the British Home Championship.

Essentially, the premise of national teams and international competitions in football was a British creation, and therefore the idea of the British home nations each being their own individual national teams competing against each other was an idea practically set in stone right from the start.

As the sport expanded internationally, and other countries entered the international stage, 1904 saw the formation of football’s international governing body, FIFA, who respected Britain’s set-up of having four different national teams. Although some countries believe it is outrageous that Britain has four separate football teams, it is unlikely the system will ever change.

All four home nations carry great power in the form of a permanent seat each on the International Football Association Board. This is a board which has just eight seats in total, meaning the four seats held by each British association greatly enhances their authority.

Whilst some Brits might get behind the idea of a British super team uniting the likes of Gareth Bale, Marcus Rashford and Billy Gilmour, the national pride towards the different international sides probably means too much for many people to even consider a unified team. So much so, that if Scotland were forced to unite with the other British home nations and be part of a collective team, it would probably be enough to convince most of Scotland to vote for independence!

Team GB Olympic Football Team

Team GB Women's Team in 2012
Image: Gary Howden, flickr

Tokyo 2020 saw a somewhat usual occurrence; Team GB fielding a women’s football team featuring Scottish, Welsh, and English players (no Northern Irish players were picked). Seeing a Team GB side in Olympic football is a great rarity. Although featuring as hosts in 2012, the last time before then that a Team GB side entered a football pitch as Olympians was in 1972 (and only men’s teams were allowed).

It wasn’t until 2012 that a Team GB woman’s side featured in an Olympics, with London having hosted the games that year. It was also hoped that a Team GB side could be fielded for 2016’s Rio Olympics, but opposition from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football associations ended hopes of such plans. It would take until 2018 for the home nations to come to an agreement to field an Olympic team, giving the green light for Tokyo 2020. Featuring in the Tokyo Olympics, Team GB ultimately bowed out against Australia in the quarter-finals.

In regards to the men’s side, although they featured in the Olympics from 1908 up to 1972, and briefly returned for the home 2012 games, the prospect of a Team GB men’s team ever returning is highly unlikely. After Team GB’s 2012 quarter-final elimination against South Korea, players such as Ryan Giggs expressed their enthusiasm regarding fielding GB teams in future Olympics.

In 2015 Gareth Southgate outlined the Olympics as a key experience builder for underage players, prompting the English FA to advise the other home nations of their wish to field a GB team for the Rio Olympics. However, the suggestion was quickly opposed by the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish associations, meaning Rio 2016 saw no Team GB football team. Despite further backing from the likes of Sam Allardyce, opposition from the home nations continues to linger, making the possibility of a united GB men’s side highly unforeseeable. The biggest opposition is that it could lead to the formation of a full British side and the end of the home nations as individual entities, with the picture very confused and complex as far as UEFA and FIFA are concerned.

Clubs Who’ve Crossed The National Border

As we have already alluded to, whilst by and large English clubs play in the English Football League, Welsh ones in their home league and so on, there are a number of obvious exceptions.

Club Formed Location League
Swansea City 1912 Wales England since 1912
Cardiff City 1899 Wales England since 1920
Berwick Rangers 1884 England Scotland since 1905

Swansea City

Founded in 1912 as Swansea Town, Welsh club Swansea City entered England’s Southern League in their debut season. Eventually being admitted into England’s Football League after its expansion to three divisions in 1920, they’d eventually win the Third Division South title in 1925. Their first major piece of silverware came in 2013, winning the English League Cup final 5-0 against Bradford City. Resultantly qualifying for the next season’s Europa League, they were eventually knocked out by Napoli in the round of 32.

Cardiff City

Founded in 1899, Cardiff City started life in the ‘Cardiff & District’ league, before crossing the border into England’s ‘Southern League Second Division’. Eventually they would go on to join the Football League system in 1920, entering the Second Division. In 1927 Cardiff became the first club outside of England to win the English FA Cup, 1-0 in a final against Arsenal. Although subsequently appearing in the 2008 FA Cup final, and the 2012 League Cup final, Cardiff City have so far been unable to add further major English silverware to their trophy cabinet.

Berwick Rangers

Based in the English town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Berwick Rangers were officially established in 1884 and played their first match against another Berwick team. However, despite the fact of their home matches being played in an English town, they are unique for their affiliation to the Scottish Football Association. This is a long and historic affiliation, starting in 1905, when they entered the Scottish Border League, and then later the Border Amateur League.

These leagues, however, weren’t part of the Scottish Football League set-up, and it wouldn’t be until 1951 that Berwick Rangers would be admitted to a Scottish Football League division; the Second Division. There’s not an officially cited reason for Berwick opting to play in the Scottish system, but taking into account their relatively close proximity to most Scottish towns and cities, it’s a good guess that it may have been a logistical choice in order to avoid lengthy and likely costly journeys to English cities such as Plymouth and Exeter.

Why Are There Separate Leagues in Britain?

So, why do England, Scotland and Wales have different football leagues? It’s just the way football was established and evolved, one of the many quirks of the unusual history and politics of these isles.

Beginning as a working-class sport, it made sense to cut travel expenses by creating leagues with a more localised approach, and therefore each British nation ended up forming their own individual football associations and league set-ups. Welsh clubs in English leagues are an exception, but what choice did they have when their native association hadn’t yet established a league system of their own? Then, once established in the far more lucrative and glamourous English system it is easy to see why big clubs such as Cardiff and Swansea did not want to revert to their home leagues.