Brief History of the Isthmian League

10 months ago

The Isthmian League has been around for more than 100 years after its formulated in 1905. Initially the Isthmian League was deemed an amateur league.

The league was born after a meeting between officials of Casuals FC, Civil Service FC, Clapton FC, Ealing Association, Ilford FC and London Caledonians FC. The meeting was to address the situation that clubs in the area could only compete in cup competitions.

Amateurism was a key driving force behind the inception of the league on March 8th, 1905 to the extent that winning teams did not even receive medals or trophies for their efforts.

Things are different today, the league covers London, the East of England and South-East England and runs on a semi-professional basis.

Membership was originally by invitation only, but it is now part of the football pyramid, operating three divisions. The three divisions are the Premier Division and two feeder divisions – the North and South divisions. These, with the Southern League and the Northern Premier League, form the seventh and eighth tiers of the English Football League.

By 1922, the league had fourteen clubs which has now increased to 24 in each division for a total of 72 for the 2017-2018 campaign.

The league remained amateur level until the 1970s when money became a part of the organisation. 1973 saw the formation of a second division of 16 clubs before a third division was created four years later.

Another decade passed before the Isthmian League champions were allowed to be promoted to the Football Conference in 1985. That same conference, had recently been renamed from the Alliance Premier League.

Further FA restructuring occurred on a regular basis in the 2000s. Now, the Isthmian League is firmly established in the National League System, with the Premier League running parallel with the Southern League and Northern Premier League.

Promotion is to the National League South which feeds into the Vanarama National League. Successful clubs are then given the opportunity of professional league football in League Two.

More changes are planned for the 2018-19 season. The FA is restructuring the National League System and adding a ‘Step 4’ division to the Isthmian League, which will reduce all leagues to 20 teams.

For now, the league remains at 24, with Billericay Town the current league leaders ahead of Dulwich Hamlet and Leiston F.C.

Hendon and Harrow Borough complete the top five. The four sides directly below the leaders will feature in the play-offs for a place in the National League South, while the bottom four sides are relegated.

Grounds tend to be small and compact and attendances vary. This mirrors the professional leagues, with Billericay pulling in close to 2,000 spectators while Tooting & Mitcham’s recent 4-3 victory over Worthing was witnessed by just 265 fans.

Many clubs that have graced the Isthmian League have gone on to play in the professional leagues. Wimbledon FC, who were regular winners of the league in the 1960s, famously beat Liverpool to lift the FA Cup in 1988.

They were regular participants in the Premier League before suffering relegation in 2000 and have now morphed into MK Dons and play their football in League One.

Wycombe Wanderers were Isthmian League winners in the 1986-87 season and are now a League Two outfit, while Yeovil Town, who won the title the following year, also operate in the fourth tier of the English game.

Stevenage Borough were 1993-94 winners and ply their trade in League Two, while Dagenham & Redbridge enjoyed one season in League One in 2009-10 but are currently placed in the National League.

Sutton United, 1993–94 champions, are best known for their FA Cup ‘giant killing’ exploits after taking down then top-tier side and defending champions Coventry City 2–1 in the third round back in the 1988-89 campaign.

Therefore, it is clear to see that the league has been a stepping stone to greater things for many clubs. Those currently fighting it out will hope to emulate their predecessors.

Teams in the Isthmian League Premier Division are generally centred around the Greater London area, with the likes of Tooting & Mitcham United, Wingate & Finchley and Kingstonian. Clubs do also have to travel to both the south coast and Suffolk coast for their fixtures.

Lowestoft Town is the furthest east, with Leiston just a short trip down the coast. Needham Market is one of the most remote clubs in the middle of the county.

Lowestoft’s longest trip is to Worthing, while Folkestone Invicta and Margate are other coastal clubs in the league. Dereham Town of the North Division are the most northerly and play in Norfolk.

Due to the regionality of the league, it is inevitable that there are many local derbies as clubs just a few miles apart.  Tilbury and Grays Athletic are in close proximity while Hendon and Wingate & Finchley are also on each other’s doorstep.

Several top players have their roots in the Isthmian League. West Ham United’s Michail Antonio started at Tooting & Mitcham United while Newcastle United goalkeeper Rob Elliot spent time on loan at Bishop’s Stortford.

Former England striker Peter Crouch enjoyed a stint in the Isthmian League, spending time on loan at Dulwich Hamlet in 2000 and scoring one goal in six appearances.

The current Stoke City hitman then signed for the likes of Aston Villa, Southampton, Liverpool and Tottenham before ending up in the Potteries.

While the riches on offer in England’s top-flight mean that clubs generally look overseas for their new recruits, there is always the odd gem lurking in non-league football.

Leicester City and England striker Jamie Vardy is an excellent example proving that the competitive nature of the Isthmian League is the perfect platform for rising stars to showcase their talents.

It has survived for 112 years through many changes, with other planned, and will continue to flourish as the bedrock of the English football.

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Written by Ciro Di Brita

Ciro Di Brita is a football fan and fanatic of all things Naples – not least Napoli. A published author and novelist based in Ireland, Ciro will happily turn his hand to writing on any topic but will always try to work in a reference to Napoli wherever possible.