The Southern League is an English football league for semi-professional and amateur teams.
Professional football (and professional sport in general) developed more slowly in southern England than was the case in the north. 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, the establishment and county FA's in the south being firmly opposed to professionalism.
Nonetheless, the Southern League, a competition for both professional and amateur clubs, was founded in 1900 and soon became the dominant competition outside the Football League in southern and central England. Whilst still a Southern League club, Tottenham Hotspur became the first and so far only team to win the FA Cup after the establishment of the league as a non-league club; this happened in 1901, although Southampton reached the final in 1900 and 1902 showing the strength of the Southern League. The relative strengths of the two leagues was during this period elucidated through the annual Charity Shield. In 1920, virtually the entire top division of the Southern League was absorbed by the Football League to become that league's new Third Division. A year later this became the Third Division (South), the delay in the incorporation of the Third Division (North) being due to the lack of an overall coherent structure in the North outside of the Football League.
For the next six decades, the Football League and Southern League would exchange a limited number of clubs as a result of the older league's re-election process. From 1920 on, the Southern League's status as a semi-professional league was firmly established.
With its clubs seeking a more regular means of advancing to the Football League, in 1979 the Southern League became a feeder to the new Football Conference along with the Isthmian League and the Northern Premier League, and the top Southern clubs of the day joined the new league. In turn, the Conference would eventually succeed in become a feeder to the Football League. The league lost more of its top clubs in 2004 when the Conference added two regional divisions below the existing Conference National.
The league structure has changed several times over the years, and currently consists of a Premier Division at step 3 of the pyramid, and Division One West and Division One East at step 4. The winners of the Premier Division, together with the winners of a playoff, will be promoted to the new Conference North or Conference South divisions, depending on their location.
Clubs relegated from the Southern League can be placed in any of the fifteen leagues below, but in practice it is likely to be one of the following (based on geography):
- Division One West:
- Division One East:
Premier Division teams (2004-05)