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"Fourth Division" redirects here. For usage of the term in the military, see 4th Division.

The Fourth Division (or Division Four) of The Football League was the fourth-highest division in the English football league system from the 1958–59 season until the creation of the FA Premier League prior to the 1992–93 season. Whereas most fourth tiers are regionalized and their teams are amateur or reserve-level, the Fourth Division was the only nationwide fourth tier professional league in the world, an achievement that remains in force today with its successors.



The Fourth Division was created in 1958 alongside a new Third Division by merging the regionalised Third Division North and Third Division South. The original economic reasons for having the two regional leagues had become less apparent[1] and thus it was decided to create two national leagues at levels three and four. The 12 best teams of each regional league in 1957-58 went into the Third Division, and the rest became founder members of the Fourth Division.

Original members of Fourth Division were:

The Fourth Division was also known as Division Four, or informally as the "basement division" of English football, a moniker retained by its successors. Before 1987, the top four teams would be promoted to the Third Division and the bottom four teams were subject to a re-election vote by other league clubs to determine whether they would remain in the league. Clubs who went out of the league include Barrow, Bradford Park Avenue, Gateshead, Southport, and Workington, along with Accrington Stanley who were relegated to the Fourth Division in 1961.

Automatic relegation to the Conference was not introduced until 1987, the same year the fourth promotion place began to be decided through a play-off.

Ins and outs

Automatic relegation between the Fourth Division and the Conference was introduced for the 1986–87 season, when Lincoln City were relegated and replaced by Conference champions Scarborough.

A year later, Lincoln regained their place at the expense of Newport County.

1989 saw Darlington drop into the Conference to be replaced by Maidstone United.

Darlington regained their Fourth Division place in 1990 and in the process they crossed paths with Colchester United.

There was no relegation from the Fourth Division in 1992, but the division was reduced from 23 clubs to 22 when Aldershot went out of business and resigned from the league on 25 March. Colchester United returned to the Football League to take the membership of the newly-named Division Three to 23 clubs for the 1992–93 season. But the number of Division Three clubs soon reverted to 22 when debt-ridden Maidstone United resigned from the league without starting the season.

Fourth Division members who went all the way

Of the founding clubs, Coventry City, Crystal Palace and Oldham Athletic had been in the upper tiers before, and later recovered well enough to co-found the Premiership. Many others, however, were relative newcomers to professional football and had to build their own stories of success from the fourth level:

  • Northampton Town, founder members of the Fourth Division in 1958, were the first former members of the division to reach the First Division when they completed their five-year climb up the league in 1965. By 1969, they were back in the Fourth Division.
  • Carlisle United, another former Fourth Division club, reached the top flight in 1974 and were top of the league 3 games into their first top flight season, but were back in the Fourth Division by 1987. Since then they have wavered between the third and fourth tiers often, with their most recent promotion into the third flight in 2006.
  • Watford won promotion from the Fourth Division in 1978 and five seasons later they were in the First Division. They stayed at this level for six years, and made headlines by finishing league runners-up in their first top flight season and reaching the FA Cup final a year later.
  • Swansea City completed a four-season rise from the Fourth Division to the First Division in 1981, and finished sixth in their first campaign at the highest level. But a rapid decline saw them fall back into the Fourth Division in 1986. Along with Millwall they were victims of the second season syndrome that would become more frequent in the Premiership.
  • Oxford United, elected to the Fourth Division in 1962 to replace the dying original Accrington Stanley, rose to the Second Division in 1968. Despite being relegated in 1976, they were promoted again in 1984 and earned a successive promotion into the First Division in 1985. They were relegated from the top flight in 1988 and experienced a decline that took them down to League Two (the renamed Fourth Division) by 2001. In 2006, they were relegated from the Football League altogether and, ironically, a reborn Accrington Stanley took their place.
  • Wimbledon's rise from the Fourth Division was perhaps the most amazing. They finished top of the Fourth Division in 1983, reached the First Division in 1986, were the league's sixth-highest team in 1987 and were FA Cup winners in 1988 - just 11 years after being elected to the Fourth Division. As with Oxford (although their stay at the top flight was longer), they later endured a decline that saw the club wound up in 2004 and replaced by Milton Keynes Dons.
  • Wigan Athletic, which currently compete in the Premiership, have so far been the only club to break this trend. They were elected to the Fourth Division in 1978 to replace Southport, and were promoted to the Third Division in 1982. Despite being relegated from the now-renamed Second Division in 1993, they rebounded and were promoted back in 1997, reaching the Championship in 2003 and the Premiership in 2005.

Some so called 'yo-yo clubs' who were in upper tiers but made the top flight only after passing through the Fourth Division include Millwall, Brighton & Hove Albion, Swindon Town, Reading, and more recently Hull City. Oldham and Luton Town went from the First to the Fourth and back.

A graveyard for fallen giants

Northampton Town, Carlisle United and Swansea City all completed rapid rises from the Fourth Division to the First Division and back again, but a number of once-great clubs fell into the Fourth Division after a period of decline:

  • Preston North End, winners of the first two Football League championships in the late 19th century, fell into the Fourth Division in 1985. They had to apply for re-election in their first season at this level, having finished in the bottom four of the division, but were promoted the following year.
  • Burnley, league champions as recently as 1960, fell into the Fourth Division at the same time as Preston North End, and two years later narrowly avoided automatic relegation to the Conference. But several seasons of steady progress followed and in 1992 they won the last-ever Fourth Division championship. They were promoted to the Premier League in 2009.
  • Cardiff City, which are the only Welsh club to reach runner-up position in the English system and to win the FA Cup, also fell into the Fourth Division at the same time as Preston North End (Cardiff lost First Division status a year after Preston did), and as Preston, it has never competed in the Premiership so far, despite recovering.
  • Sheffield United were relegated to the Fourth Division in May 1981 after losing their final game of the 80/81 season to Walsall. Six years earlier the Blades had finished 6th in Division One and missed a UEFA Cup spot on goal difference. Sheffield United's average attendance of 14892 is the highest recorded average in the Fourth Division. Indeed, the Blades also attracted crowds of 20000+ for big matches against promotion rivals Wigan, Bradford and Peterborough. The Blades were Champions of Division Four in 1982. They did recover and unlike Preston and Cardiff, it has competed in the Premier League between 1990-1994 and 2006-2007.
  • Wolverhampton Wanderers completed a relegation hat-trick in 1986 which had seen them fall from the First Division to the Fourth with successive relegations. They spent two seasons in the Fourth Division before going up as champions and becoming the first team to win the championship of all four divisions. Burnley equalled this feat in 1992, and in the renamed system, Preston did the same in 2000. Wolves has competed in the Premier League in 2003-2004 season and will do so again for 2009-10 along with Burnley.

Other fallen giants to fall to the Fourth Division include former League champions Huddersfield Town and Portsmouth, former FA Cup holders Barnsley, Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Bradford City, Bury and Notts County, and former First Division contenders Bristol City.

History of the de facto Fourth Divisions after the creation of the Premiership continues at Football League Third Division and Football League Two.

Previous League champions

See List of winners of English Football League Two and predecessors.

Play-off winners

See Football League Two Play-offs.




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