A Guide to the Leagues and Cups of English Football

For even more about English soccer,
check out the new site for my upcoming book:
An American’s Guide to English Soccer

English football leagues and cups
The Trophy Cabinet at Manchester United suggests there are a lot of things to win in English football.

The leagues and cups of English football were utterly mysterious to me for years. And they may still be for many Americans.

Recently I heard a TV announcer from Britain say something that you would never hear an American announcer say: that a team (in this case Manchester City) play their next four games in four different competitions! Specifically, what he said was their next four games are in the League this weekend, the League Cup, then the FA Cup, then in Europe for the Champions League.

English football leagues and cups
Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium is a mighty busy place this year, as City compete in four competitions.

Now, I’ve watched enough soccer to know what he means by that, but would the Pittsburgh Steelers ever play in different competitions, including two tournaments and another “league” in a different country?

I now offer consulting services to folks wanting to watch soccer in England.

Check it out!

So it occurred to me that this might be a good time to write a guide to the various leagues and “cups” in English football.

Premier League: Top of the Pyramid

When Americans think of English soccer, they usually think of teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, and so on. Those teams are in what is now called the Premier League – and for a guide to how to pronounce that word, go here and scroll down to Premier. This used to be called the First Division, but the allure of TV money and marketing power created a “re-branding” back in the early 90s.

English football leagues and cups
The Barclay’s Premier League Trophy, in Manchester City’s museum (they won it in 2012)

The Premier League, with 20 teams, is really the top of a massive pyramid of clubs, and the best way I can explain it is through analogy: imagine if every professional baseball team in America was an independent entity. In other words, if the Memphis Redbirds were, instead of the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, a completely independent team that’s been playing in Memphis for more than 100 years. And imagine if, all the way down to the local firefighters’ union putting together a baseball team and paying them part-time wages, it was all connected into one massive pyramid of leagues. That’s more or less what English football looks like.

Determining Champions

A major difference between English football and every sport in America is how they determine the champion. Americans insist on a “regular season” follow by “playoffs.” The English, and pretty much everybody else in the world, do it another way: Everybody in the league plays everybody else in the league, home and away. You get three points if you win and one if you tie. At the end of the season, whoever has the most points wins. (The first tiebreaker is “goal differential.”)

The most exciting finish ever was when Manchester City won the league by scoring a goal with about two and half minutes left in the very last game of the year — taking it away from their rivals Manchester United to win it for the first time in 46 years. It’s basically the greatest thing that ever happened in English football … unless you’re a United fan.

Going Up, Going Down

Now, there’s another crucial thing to understand: the system of promotion and relegation. Imagine if, for example, the San Diego Padres had a crappy year and finish last in the Major Leagues, then had to spend the entire next season playing in AAA. And meanwhile, let’s say Memphis finished with the best record in AAA; they would move up to the “big leagues” for the whole next season. In English soccer terms, we’d say the Padres got relegated and Memphis was promoted.

In England, it’s the bottom three clubs at each level of the sport that get relegated for the next season, and the top three get promoted. For example, in the 2012-13 season, Queens Park Rangers (a team in West London) spent the season playing the heavyweights like Man U and Liverpool, but finished in the bottom three and are now playing the likes of Reading, Charlton, and Birmingham. I like to mention this because I support Fulham, which is a few miles away from QPR, their bitter rivals, and still (barely) in the Premier League.

Sometimes it comes down to the very last day – when the whole league plays, all at the same time – to determine who goes up and who goes down. A classic example was the West Bromwich Albion “great escape” of 2005. You can skip ahead to about 13 minutes on this, but West Brom won their game, then had to wait to see if Charlton tied Crystal Palace about two minutes later.

The English Football League

English football leagues and cups.
Bramhall Lane, home of Sheffield United, currently in League One of the Football League.

The huge, multi-league level below the Premier League is called the Football League — as of 2016-17, it’s actually called the English Football League, or EFL, as if there was any confusion. Basically it’s the old league system without the top level, which broke off to call itself Premier. The top level of the Football League – where QPR and Fulham are now – is called The Championship, with 24 teams. This is confusing to some Americans, because being “relegated to the Championship” doesn’t sound right, but in fact it’s very, very costly to a club. (Imagine selling tickets for the Man U game vs. selling tickets for the Wigan game.)

The next level below the Championship is League One, another odd name since it’s the third level of English football. League One has 24 teams, almost all of whom Americans will never have heard of. Ever heard of Leyton Orient, Chesterfield, or Scunthorpe?

Below League One is League Two, with another 24 teams. Among the current members are Morecambe, Crawley Town, and Luton Town. And just for a little perspective, Morecambe is a town of 35,000 people, their stadium holds 6,000 people, and their nickname is the Shrimps.

This, by the way, is one of the things I think Americans will love about English soccer: fairly small stadiums, fairly close to each other.

A quick note on Football League promotions: in all three leagues, the top two teams get automatically promoted, while the next four have a little playoff to determine which one goes up. These finals are played at neautral sites (often Wembley in London) and make for some pretty dramatic stuff. Imagine a one-game playoff between two AAA teams at Yankee Stadium, with the winner going to the Majors for the whole next season.

The Football Conference

Okay, so that’s it for the Football League. We’ve now covered the top 92 teams in English football, but we’re hardly a quarter of the way done! But we’ll go faster, because it gets so confusing from this point on that I don’t know what to say.

The pyramid levels just below the Football League are collectively called the Football Conference, and they are divided into three levels: Conference Premier, Conference North, and Conference South. I’ll defer to Wikipedia for a moment:

Around half the Conference Premier clubs are fully professional, whilst most Conference North and Conference South clubs are semi-professional. The Conference Premier is the fifth and lowest of the five nationwide football divisions in England, below the Premier League and the three divisions of the Football League, and is the top tier of the National League System of non-League football. The Conference North and Conference South form the sixth tier of English football.

There a total of 68 teams in the Conference: 24 in the Conference Premier and 22 each in North and South.

Below the Conference

Okay, now we’ve covered the top 160 teams in English football, but wait, there’s more! The seventh tier is made up of – brace yourselves – the Northern Premier League Premier Division, the Southern Football League Premier Division, and the Isthmian League Premier Division.

The eighth tier has six leagues – three sets of pairs that feed, through promotion and relegation, to the three leagues in the 7th tier.

And … right there I will quit trying. There are, incredibly, 24 levels of English football with an estimated 7,000 teams, but that number changes from year to year. If you really want to dig into this, I defer once again to Wikipedia.

And here’s a good visual presentation of the whole thing so far, via shiresoccer.com:

English Football Pyramid
Make sense now?

The Cups

English football leagues and cups.
The FA Cup. Actually, this is a replica of the 1911 Cup, in the National Football Museum in Manchester.

Okay, still with me? Probably not, but I need to write this for my book. So on I trudge.

“Cup” is what the English call a tournament, and these go on throughout the year. Every country has at least one domestic Cup, and in England, the biggest and best of them all is the FA Cup. (FA being “Football Association.”) The beauty of the FA Cup is that it is open to the first nine levels of English football described above; this year, there were 737 teams entered!

The other beautiful thing is that the pairings are drawn at random, including where the games happen. And if a game ends in a tie, they replay it at the other stadium.

It starts out in August with some preliminary rounds, then four rounds of qualifying, then the “proper” rounds start in November. That is when the League One and League Two teams enter – but again, remember that it’s unseeded and totally random. So you might be sitting third in League One, enter the FA Cup, and have to go play at some semi-pro team from the Isthmian League. It’s crazy.

The Third Round Proper is when the teams from the Premier League and Championship come in, and that’s usually in early January. This is where most of the country starts to notice, because every year some Premier League team has to go play on some cow pasture of a field, and everybody is always rooting for the “minnows.” Recently, for example, Liverpool hosted (and beat) Oldham from League Two, and West Ham United of the Premier League got whipped 5-0 at Nottingham Forest of the Championship. You also get random tasty matches like Tottenham-Arsenal, two bitter North London rivals who happen to draw each other in the Cup, in addition to their two Premier League meetings each year.

In the Fourth Round Proper in 2014, played around January 24, Liverpool had to go play at Bournemouth’s 12,000-seat stadium, and Everton of the Premier League had to go to League Two Stevenage, whose stadium holds 6,722 people! Everton won, 4-0, but in 1997 Stevenage tied Newcastle at home and earned a lucrative replay at Newcastle, which they lost, 1-0.

The Sixth Round, typically in early March, is the quarterfinals. There are usually still several non-Premier-League teams involved, and The Magic of the FA Cup may flow.

All this leads up to the CA Cup Final, played almost every year since 1872, which now happens annually at Wembley in mid to late May. It’s like the Super Bowl on English football. One year, Wigan of the beat mighty Manchester City, 1-0, on a fantastic last-minute goal. Here are the highlights:

Interesting sidenote: Wigan became the first team ever to win the FA Cup and be relegated (from the Premier League to the Championship) in the same season. Then they went down again to League One!


Other Cups

So that’s the biggie, the FA Cup. The second one to know about is the League Cup, which is the same deal as the FA Cup but only for the Premier League and the three Football League divisions, so a total of 92 teams. The final is in early March at Wembley. The League Cup was re-branded in 2016 as the EFL Cup, but everybody calls it the League Cup.

The semifinals of the League Cup are played in two legs (collectively called a “tie”), one at each stadium, total goals win. It happens that during my English Soccer Tour, I saw the second leg of each semifinal. Manchester City won at West Ham, 3-0, to finish that tie 9-0! But the truly great game of my tour was the second leg of Sunderland vs. Manchester United. Sunderland won the first leg at home, 2-1, and then won the second leg in a penalty shootout at Manchester United – a game which I wrote about as “Sunderland’s Big Night at Old Trafford.” That’s the game that made me an Honorary Mackem.

Other Cups that get played during the season:

  • Football League Trophy (aka Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) for Leagues One and Two only.
  • FA Trophy for Levels 5-8
  • FA Vase for levels 9-10
  • Conference League Cup for levels 5-6
  • And a bunch of others.

European Competitions

English football leagues and cups.
Chelsea’s Champions League Trophy, which they won in 2012.

For clubs in the Premier League, “getting to Europe” is a major goal, usually reserved for the top five teams in the league.

The biggest of these is the Champions League, which takes top teams from every European domestic league and makes a tournament for the following season. In England, the top four teams go. The whole thing is 32 teams, divided into eight groups of four. The groups of four all play each other, home and away, with the top two advancing to the “knockout stage” where they play home-and-away ties. This goes on until the final, which is a single game on a neutral field. This year’s final is May 24 in Lisbon, Portugal.

The second European competition to know about is the Europa League, which is like the NIT to the Champions League’s NCAA. The fifth-place English team goes to this one, and it runs just like the Champions League, only hardly anybody really cares unless their team is in it.

Other than the money, the significance of these European competitions is in helping you attract big-time players. If you qualify for Europe for next year, you’ll find it easier to sign these guys, and of course with the TV and ticket revenue, you’ll have the money to pay them, as well.

World Cup, Etc.

Everything I’ve described so far is for clubs, not countries. Many Americans only know about the World Cup, but that’s countries playing each other. It’s every four years, and the next one is this summer in Brazil. Quickly, the world is split up into six regions, and each of these has their own championships, as well as qualifying tournaments to get into the World Cup. The European Championship, played every four years alternating with World Cups, is a really big deal. Spain has won the last two Euros and the last World Cup, leading many to call the current Spanish team one of the greatest of all time.

And in America …

America runs more or less the same; we have a league called Major League Soccer, and a cup called the Lamar Hunt Open Cup. MLS doesn’t have the single-table format and schedule everybody else uses, and there’s no promotion and relegation. Currently Sporting Kansas City is the defending league champion, and DC United won last year’s Open Cup. (They both beat Real Salt Lake in the final, by the way).

As for the quality of play in the MLS, my best guess is that if you took the top MLS teams and dropped them in England, they would struggle to stay in the Championship. I think most would wind up in League One or League Two.

So There You Have It

So, going all the way back to the start: How is it that Manchester City have four games coming up in four different competitions? Well, now you can sort of understand.

  • This Saturday they play(ed) Stoke City in the Premier League (actually, since this was written, they won that game, 1-0)
  • Sunday March 2 they play Sunderland in the League Cup Final at Wembley in London.
  • Sunday March 9 they play Wigan in the FA Cup Sixth Round
  • Wednesday March 12 they play at Barcelona in the second leg of a Champions League knockout tie.

They lost the first leg to Barcelona, 2-0, so they’re probably shot there. But they still have a chance to win a “treble,” which is winning three competitions in the same season. That’s what you get when your owner is a multi-billionaire oil sheik.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this little exercise. This is the kind of thing I want to help folks understand in my introduction to English soccer.

For even more about English soccer,
check out the new site for my upcoming book:
An American’s Guide to English Soccer

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(The “Bulletin” below also covers hiking, travel, and other stuff).

Helpful Terms to Know When Watching English Soccer

For even more about English soccer,
check out the new site for my upcoming book:
An American’s Guide to English Soccer

Watching soccer in England: How much does it cost?
The Hawthorns in Birmingham, home of West Bromwich Albion

My fellow Americans, here are some terms which you might want to know if you’ll be watching English football, aka soccer. This is all part of research for my 2017 book, An American’s Guide to English Soccer.

Not all of these are “footy”-related, but you’ll run into them, anyway, as I did.

Of course, it’s an ongoing process, so for you English folks reading, perhaps you can make suggestions for new ones and/or correct me where I’ve messed stuff up here.




  • December 1 with “at a canter,” Big Sam, “flatter,” “gutted,” “shocking,” and “suck the goal in.” Full update here.
  • May 20 with “park the bus,” “tactical masterclass,” and the Neville Brothers — full update here.
  • March 30 with “cricket score,” “hold your hand up,” “fortress,” “pearler,” “thrown teacups,” and “sweeper keeper.” Also “cup-tied,” “master class,” and “hit out at.”
  • Feb. 17 with several things.
  • Jan. 31: With “Hoof,” courtesy of Alex S on Google+

I now offer consulting services to folks wanting to watch soccer in England.

Check it out!


If Hull gets a guy sent off and then loses to Chelsea, then you would say Chelsea beat 10-man Hull. Funny thing is, the Hull man could be sent off in the 90th minute with Chelsea already ahead, 2-0, and commentators would probably say “10-man Hull.”


40 points

The supposed gold standard in points for staying in the Premier League. Lower and middling teams are always thought to be shooting for this first, then perhaps “climbing the table” and shooting for a “European place,” or else “making a Cup run.”


Added time

A half is 45 minutes, so if you spend two minutes dealing with an injured player, the ref adds two minutes to the end of the half. He also generally won’t stop the half during an attack by one of the teams.



Commercials: What all English people will all mention, rightly, with regards to watching the NFL. They will also generally say “bloody hell” when discussing our football. (There are no ads during soccer games, except at halftime)


Against the run of play

Let’s say that Aston Villa starts off well (brightly) and is dominating possession, “asking all the questions,” etc. — but then West Brom scores “from nothing.” Folks would say that goal came against the run of play.


All over the place

Playing like shit, especially on defense. This is funny to us Yanks, because if we say a defense, especially, is “all over the place,” it means they’re kicking ass and “swarming to the ball.”



Game played. You’ll hear “He had 21 goals in 60 appearances for club and country.”



In England a team is plural; that is, you’ll hear “Arsenal are really good.” In the States, we’d say “Arsenal is.”


At a canter

When I was headed to Sunderland to see them play Arsenal, my Sunderland friends assured me Arsenal would win the game “at a canter.” And the did, 2-0.


At sixes and sevens

Confused and dysfunctional, usually referring to defense. Apparently comes from some sort of dice game.


At the back

In defense, as in, “United are shit at the back”


Away to

How they say “at,” as in “Crystal Palace are away to Spurs this weekend.”


Back four

Defense – you generally have four guys back there.


Back room

This one throws off a lot of Americans; it refers to the support staff of a club, which Americans call the Front Office.



The thing they kick, of course, but also what they call a pass — as in, “That was a great ball from Gerrard.” American football is starting to use this, as well.


Looks like Big Sam will soon be throwing teacups. (via vrinsidesports.com)
Looks like Big Sam will soon be throwing teacups. (via vrinsidesports.com)

Big Sam

Sam Allardyce, currently the manager of West Ham United.



What we call shoes or cleats



The 18-yard penalty area which, sadly, many American announcers refer to as “the 18.” This needs to stop.


Boxing Day

The day after Christmas, when the whole league plays.



Two goals in a game



Doing well. You’ll even hear something like “Cardiff started the brighter in the first half.”


Busby Babes

In the mid 50s, Manchester United was winning league titles with a team that averaged about 22 years old, and their manager was Matt Busby. This would have made them famous enough, but eight of them were kill in the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, when the team plane crashed after a European Cup game.



An appearance for your national team; you used to actully get caps



A wonderful English term for surrender. “Fulham will be looking to rebound this week after their utter capitulation at Hull.”



An attempt to stop or tackle a player


Champions League

A tournament with all the top clubs from Europe playing against each other. In England, the top four teams go for the next season. This is possibly the greatest club competition in the world. Last English team to win it was Chelsea in 2012



A near goal, something which is “created” and, if not “taken,” is said to be “wasted.” There are also half-chances, where you kind of could have scored.



An opposing player who’s done something wrong, like getting (aka “acting”) hurt or trying to win the game



Most of us know that what we call fries, they call chips, and what we call chips, they call crisps. But you might not know that a fish and chips place could just be a chip shop, or a chippie. And if you want gravy on your chips (a popular option) you might order a gravy chippie. I should also point out that one of the most popular brands of crisps is Kettle Chips, from my home state of Oregon, and I have no idea how they reconcile this exception to the chip/crisp situation.



Any time you see or hear the word “City,” it almost certainly means Manchester City, who won the league in 2012 and 2014.



Skill. Same as quality, below.


Class of 92

Six players who came up together through the Manchester United youth system, made their debuts in 1992, and formed the core of their awesome teams in the 1990s: Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville Brothers. (Giggs just retired in 2014!) There’s even a movie about them:



Ran into, clumsily.


Clean sheet

What we call a shutout


Clear their lines

Get the ball the hell out of their end



Well done, as in a “clinical finish”



Complete, as in “A comprehensive 5-1 trashing.”



Late goal in a loss. You’re down 3-0, you get one with a minute to go, that’s a consolation goal


Cover himself in glory

Do really well — but always used in the negative/sarcastic way. A keeper lets one go through his legs and he “didn’t cover himself in glory there.”



Really good one. Could be a game or a shot.


Cricket score

Cricket, a game that I don’t think anyone truly understands, often ends with fantastic scores like “India 159/7 (20/20 ov); Australia 86 (16.2/20 ov).” I don’t know what the hell that means, but if two soccer teams with crappy defenses and/or unstoppable offenses play each other, you just might get a “cricket score.”



A ball from “out wide” that goes “into the box.” Also know generally as a delivery or service.



Say Sunderland is leading Newcastle 1-0 with five minutes to go in a pretty even game, and then Sunderland gets two more to win, 3-0. Commentators would say this scoreline was “cruel” to Newcastle. Sunderland fans would disagree.



Tournament. The championship game is called the Cup Final. Here’s my guide to all the leagues and cups in English football.



Let’s say you start the season with Southampton, and play for them in the FA Cup. Then you transfer to Newcastle, who are also in the FA Cup. No matter how long Newcastle stay in the Cup, you can’t play for them, because you can only play for one team each year in the Cup. So, while at Newcastle that year, you are “cup-tied.”



Lame or even mean-spirited, usally referring to a tackle where you’re just taking somebody out harshly.



Getting the ball to somebody in a scoring position, such as a cross. This is also called service generally.



Pronoucned “darby,” this means a local rivalry game like Man City vs. Man U.



A faked attempt to draw a foul, especially in the penalty area. Just Google “Luis Suarez dive” or “Neymar dive” to see what I mean


Do better

You get a free header, you don’t score, everyone will say you should have done better. Obvious meaning but common phrase



Lame or weak, usually used to refer to a keeper.



Winning two titles in the same season, say the League and FA Cup. Could also mean beating a league team twice in a year (league double) or, even better, beating your rivals twice (a derby double)



Two meanings: a tie (like 2-2) and also how Cup fixtures are determined. So the FA Cup fourth round draw is where they randomly select who is playing where in the fourth round.


End / stand

Most of their stadiums are in sections called ends (behind the goals) or stands.


End to end

A wide-open game, both teams “going for it,” is “real end-to-end stuff.”



Tie the game. The tying goal is also called the equalizer.


Eyeballs out

As Urban Dictionary puts it, this is a “more polite version of balls out.” It means really going for it.



Football Association, the governing body for all football in England.


FA Cup

A tournament involving pretty much every professional team in England. It is unseeded, and who plays where is totally random. Bigger clubs join later, but every year you’ll see somebody from the Premier League playing in front of 6,000 people on a field that looks like cows graze on it during the week. Possibly the greatest sports competition in the world. The Final is played in May at Wembley.


Fair result

This is something Americans would never say. Everton is better in the first half and gets a goal, then West Brom is better in the second and gets a goal, it finishes 1-1 with no real controversy … that’s a fair result.



Football Club; appears in the official name of just about every team. So Fulham is actually Fulham FC.


Fergie Time

Sir Alex Ferguson, legendary manager of Manchester United, was thought to intimidate the hell out of referees. Because of this, it was always alleged that they added more injury time for United and/or let them go beyond its end — and United had a way of scoring during this time, hence Fergie Time.


Festive period

From just before Christmas to just after New Years, there are a lot of league and Cup games



A comeback



Same as in basketball; the act of scoring



Healthy, as in injury-free. A guy gets back to being fit after an injury.



A scheduled game. Also called a match. Note that in the States, the home team on the schedule is listed on the bottom, but in England, the home team on the fixture list is at the top. So if Everton “are away to” Chelsea, it would be:





One time I saw Manchester City play at Southampton, and after an hour it was 0-0, an even and tough game. Then City scored, and they were still ahead 1-0 after 80 minutes. Southampton had to go for the equalizer, which left them open to counter-attacks, and City wound up winning, 3-0. There was general agreement that City weren’t really three goals better on the day, which means the scoreline was flattering to them.


Flatter to deceive

This is another of these fantastic English phrases that could appear nowhere else in the world. Let’s say a young starlet scores a bunch of goals for the youth team and arrives on the senior squad full of promise and hype – but then he is, as we say in the States, a bust. If you assume flatter means “give a better-than-realistic description of,” then the kid’s early performance was flattering but ultimately deceptive.




Your recent state of play; win three in a row, you’re in good form; lose three, you’re in bad form. Same for a player. Either way, if you’re doing well, you’re “in form”



How the players line up. They use numbers like 4-4-2, which is four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers or forwards. This gets incredibly complex, and I will never try to explain it any more than this, except I’ll add that the numbers always add up to 10, because you have 11 players (shown as XI) and the goalkeeper isn’t included in the formation.



When a team is unbeatable at home, you would call their home a fortress. 


Free header

Defender loses his man, the man gets to head it without being hassled; that’s a free header, which you’re expected to put in the back of the net, or at least “on target.”


From nothing

If your team hasn’t done crap the whole game, never even threatened the other team’s goal, and then all of a sudden you score when nobody saw it coming, that goal is said to have come from nothing.


Full Time

End of the game. When Americans see F (for final) on the scoreline, they know the game is Final. When English see FT, they know it’s Full Time.


Full Value

You pay a guy to play for you and he delivers, you got full value for him.






In the media, you get the impression a Geordie is just somebody from Newcastle, or a Newcastle FC fan. My friends in that area tell me a Geordie is officially somebody from certain parts of Newcastle, like a cockney is somebody from a certain part of London, not the whole city.


Get into the game

Stop playing like shit – but not in the “get your act together” command sense from America. More like, “Everton were asking all the questions for the first half-hour before Swansea started to get into the game.”



A little team that beats a big team in a cup


Goal return

A striker’s rate of return on investment. “We paid millions for that wanker, and his goal return is shit.”



A really amazing goal


Going forward

On the attack. As in “They have a lot of options going forward”


Great Escape

This means avoiding relegation when it looked like you were doomed. One of the more famous was by West Bromwich Albion in 2005; they won their last game at home, then had to wait several minutes for the score of another game to ensure they “stayed up.” Here are the highlights from that day on Youtube.



This is like saying “field” in the US but also kind of means stadium. It’s a little vague to me, but I think it’s like the stadium plus the pitch equals the ground.



Really bummed out.


Hair dryer

You sucked in the first half, so in the locker room your manager is going to deliver a lot of noise and hot air at you. That’s the hair dryer. Sir Alex Ferguson was famous for this. See also throwing tea cups.



Pete bumps into Joe and Joe falls down. Pete is whistled for a foul. Now, if you’re a neutral and you think it shouldn’t have been a foul, you’d say that was harsh. If Pete is on your team, Joe is a cheat and soft and needs to get the fuck up. If Joe is on your team, Pete should be sent off.


Hat trick

Three goals in a game


Head for the corner

There’s this really annoying thing teams do to kill time when they are winning late in a game: they dribble into the corner, then put the ball right by the corner flag and turn their backs on the field. When defenders come, the guy with the ball can hold them off, then bounce it off them and out of bounds for a throw-in. Or wait for a foul. Or just wrestle with them and waste time.

Hit out at

What they call a response to critics in the media. So if Manager A says Manager B is a fool, Manager B might “hit out at” Manager A in the next day’s papers. See Mourinho.

Hold your hand up

Admit that you screwed up. Usually this is literal, on the field. But one time a ref threw the wrong player out of a game, then apologized to the media afterwards. This was called “holding his hand up.”



Reigning Cup champions. They hold the cup, in other words


Hoof it

Just booth the ball high and upfield, towards your attackers. Part of “playing long ball,” an old but direct way of attacking the defense.


Hour mark

The 60th minute of game, when it’s very common to make substitutions.



A total fuck-up. Usually this is when a goalie lets in a pea-roller.


Impose themselves

Get into the game (quit playing like shit)


In packs

The way a team “on the front foot” is attacking.


Injury time

Same as injury time



Jersey or uniform. Most teams have three: home, away, and “third” which doesn’t even match the colors of the other two. It’s hard sometimes to even figure out who you’re looking at.



A small injury.


Know about

Let’s say you take a shot and the goalie doesn’t see it but it hits the post. Somebody would say the keeper didn’t know a thing about it and you were unlucky



A big section of seats behind a goal that hosts the most hard-core fans. Not all teams claim a kop; the most famous is at Anfield, the home stadium of Liverpool. The name, officially Spion Kop, comes from a hillside where British soliders fought in the Second Boer War of South Africa in 1900.


Lad (bloke-mate-chap-bird)

Near as I can tell, it’s like this: “This lad is me mate, that other is just some bloke.” Chap seems a bit less dismissive than bloke. Lads is often used to refer to the team, as well, like “Get behind the lads!” Bird is for a woman, a little like our “chick” but I think less respectful. This is extremely vague territory here.


League Cup

Another tournament that includes many teams from many levels of English football, but it’s second rate to the FA Cup. Yanks can think of it as the NIT, but a little better. Sometimes called the Carling Cup, since it’s sponsored by that beermaker.



In some competitions you play twice to determine the winner, like the League Cup semis. One game at each stadium, total goals wins. So each game is called a leg, and the whole thing is called a tie.



This one seems to have lots of uses — including “fart” — but in footy I see it used as getting away with something. Your defender falls down and the opposing striker misses the goal; that’s a let-off for you. And your defender, I guess.



The linesman, eternal object of abuse and the unfortunate soul charged with enforcing the offsides rule, which no Americans understand and no English people agree on.


Linked with

Rumored to be signed by. You know, like some sportswriters are sitting around saying Super Striker Pete may sign with Chelsea; well, Super Striker Pete has just been “linked with” Chelsea. Ignore all sentences that include the phrase “linked with.”


Long ball

Booting (or “hoofing” the ball up the pitch and hoping your guy wins it.



Somebody from Sunderland. Apparently it’s because they used to be a big shipbuilding area, and in their accent it’s “we mack-em.”


Man Manager

A really rather creepy way of saying the coach handles players’ egos well.


Manager vs Head Coach

I think a manager handles the strategy and the coach handles the players and skills, but this is unclear to me, and some teams I reckon. Often it’s the same guy, anyway



Guard a player.



In the States, we would just say huge, as in a huge game.


Master class

Really good, referring to a shot






When fans completely lose it in celebration, they have gone mental. Think “ape-shit.” And watch my video from Sunderland at Man United (in the League Cup) to see people going mental.



A term for Liverpool, which is on the side of the River Mersey. So the Merseyside derby is Liverpool vs. Everton.



A wonderful term for a really small team that dreams of being giant-killers in a cup



Apparently this refers to anything thrown from the stands onto the pitch. I mean, I assume there’s been no actual missiles …


MOTD/Match of the Day

A BBC program on Saturday and Sunday evenings that shows highlights and fools discussing them. It has an amazing ability, though; it manages to diss every single team in the league and never give them respect or proper air time. It might seem impossible, but just ask any single fan you meet how Match of the Day treats their team.



Jose Mourinho (JO-say mor-REEN-yo) is the manager at Chelsea, and the media follows him around like a bunch of groupies, reporting everything he says. I mention this because I bet that, right now, if you go to ESPNFC.com, you’ll see his name in the list of top stories, just because he spoke to someone in the media. Go ahead, try it.


Neville Brothers

I think it’s awesome that the name of the greatest band New Orleans ever produced occasionally pops up during discussions of crusty old Manchester United. Alas, these Nevilles aren’t leading us in Second Line processions to Cajun rhythms; they are Phil and Gary Neville, from the Class of 92, who led Manchester United to a host of trophies in the 1990s and onward.






Your team gets the ball and heads upfield with five or six players instead of one or two? You now have numbers going forward.


Off the line

The keeper missed it but a defender on the goal line cleared it “off the line”



What they yell at cheats or people who they think deserve a red card. Or at their own players when they play like shit.


On frame

At the goal

On the bounce

In a row, as in winning three games on the bounce. I think this is always positive; you don’t lose three on the bounce. Then you just “suck.”


On the front foot

A team going for it, having the momentum


One-way traffic

If one team gets somebody sent off, or just isn’t nearly as good as the opponents, then it’s going to be one-way traffic towards their goal all day long.


Open play

There are three ways to score a goal: a set piece like a corner kick or free kick, a penalty, or in open play, which is the rest of the game. Or a howler by the keeper.


Open up

When a game has been bogged down and then starts to flow, with lots of chances, it’s said to be opening up.



What London-area fans call fans from up north. This, or dirty northern bastards. After I’ve spent more time up north I’ll report on what they call Londoners.



This always refers to when your midfielders are getting their asses kicked by the opposing midfielders; they say “Your midfield is getting overrun.”





An effective way to snatch a point.
An effective way to snatch a point.

Park the bus

A derisive term meaning you’re not even trying to score, you’re just going for a 0-0 draw. Or it could mean you’re trying desperately to protect a 1-goal lead. What they mean is you’ve parked the team bus in front of your goal.


Pea roller

For you golfers, this is like a worm burner: a shot rolling along the ground. Also known as a daisy-cutter, grass-cutter, and so on.



A cracking good shot or goal.


Pegged back

If you have a lead and the other team equalizes, you’d say you’ve been pegged back.



What we call a trainer, the bloke that runs out with a case when somebody gets hurt



What Americans would call out edge out: “Arsenal pipped Spurs for the fourth spot in the table again.” (Spurs fans will now curse wildly.)





Pounds vs quid

It’s basically “dollars” vs “bucks.” You can say something costs 5 pounds or 5 quid. Or even one quid. Just not quids. Sometimes they sell kid tickets for 1 pound, which they call “Kids for a quid.”



The name of the top league. But you need to know how to say it. Americans say “pruh-MEER.” English say “PREH-meer.” Think “primer” with an “eh” instead of the i. They also call it the Premiership.



English football is basically a pyramid of leagues, all connected at least in theory, and binded by promotion and relgation. In the upper leagues, you get promoted or “go up” by finishing near the top of your league, and you get relegated (“go down”) by finishing near the bottom. Father down the pyramid, in the land of minnows, it gets confusing. From the Championship (second tier) to the Premiership, there’s a playoff.

Here is a whole post abut the leagues and cups of English soccer.



A “real” round of a Cup tournament, as opposed to a qualifying round. For example, the Fourth Round Proper of the FA Cup. They also use this for things like a “proper pie.”



Really fun, referring to a game. Manchester City beat Chelsea in a “pulsating affair.” Use of this word alone makes me love English football.


Purple patch

A fine run of form; doing well. I have no idea where this comes from!


Put in a shift

He worked hard, did his job, didn’t do anything spectacular for good or ill … he put in a shift.



Skill, as in “Man City has so much quality!” Or, “Come on lads, show some fucking quality!” More or less the same as class.



If your team is attacking and creating chances, then it’s “asking questions” of the defense.


Ran out

Finished the game, as in “Ran out 2-1 winners.” When it’s an away game in a derby, they probably run faster than usual.


Red card

Immediate expulsion from the game, which opposing players deserve every time one of your lads lands on his arse.



You know who he is, but this is also what they all yell when they want a foul to be called: “Referee!” If he doesn’t call it your way, you call him a wanker and tell him to fuck off.



The painful opposite of promotion (see above). Teams in the bottom three spots on the table are said to be in the “relegation zone.” Also known as “going down” to a lower league — except that going down frankly sounds like a lot more fun.








Save from

If Pete takes a shot and Alex makes a terrific save, then the English would say one of two things: Pete drew a fine save from Alex, and Alex’s save from Pete was exceptional.


Score goals for fun

Remember that year Tom Brady and the Patriots were called the “video game” offense because they were just scoring touchdowns for kicks, long after the game was settled? The English equivalent of that is “scoring goals for fun.”



Score. You might say West Brom beat Villa by a scoreline of 1-0. Also, they would print that West Brom 1-0 Aston Villa, with the home team coming first, no matter who won. If Hull wins 2-0 at Southampton, it would be Southampton 0-2 Hull.


Sent off

Got a red card



Same as delivery, above. “He’s got an eye for goal, but they’re not getting him any service.”


Set pieces

Free kicks or corner kicks



A wonderful term that refers to defense and means shitty.



Allowed a goal. Like, West Brom have shipped too many goals this season



A word for shit which, I guess, is supposed to be more acceptable. Apparently comes from the Scottish pronunciation. Also works in songs because it rhymes with different words than “shit” does.



Awful – not surprising, necessarily, which is how Americans would use it. English people would just say “That defending was shocking.”






A trophy you get for winning something like the League or a Cup



If you get a close-up shot and don’t even hit the target, then you have just missed a sitter. Search Youtube for “Fernando Torres” for lots of examples.


Skin him

Your lad has the ball in the other team’s end, facing one defender, and you want him to juke that fool and go past him? You would yell, “Skin ‘im!”


Small matter

A typical bit of English understatement that comes up often, as in, “There’s a full schedule of games this weekend, including the small matter of the Tyne-Wear derby at St. James Park.”



What Americans call the game which English people call football. I wrote a whole blog post about this one.



Probably shouldn’t have been called, as in “That was a pretty soft penalty.” Also means a wuss, as in, “Get up, ya wanker! Yer soft as shite.”



Similar to usage in American Football, as in a player getting into space. Basically means being unmarked


Special One

Jose Mourinho, currently the manager at Chelsea. His ego is bigger than London, and he actually once called himself a Special One. Needless to say, it has stuck.


Spot kick

A penalty kick, taken from the “spot” after the referee points to it to indicate a penalty.



A team in North London called Tottenham Hotspur FC. If you want to really sound American, call it “tott-en-HAM” or “the Spurs.” It’s “tott-num” and Spurs. Or, if you’re Arsenal, it’s just “that mob up the road.” For some entertainment along these lines, Google “American Coach in London.”



What they call our country.



Kind of an usher/security person at a game. Most obvious role is to line the section of away supporters to keep trouble from happening.



Verbal abuse, as in getting some stick from the opposing fans



No doubt about it. Generally used in regard to a “penalty shout.” If you think it was a clear foul in the penalty area, you’d say, “For me, that’s a stonewall penalty.”


Stoppage time

Another way of saying injury time or added time



A shot on goal


Suck the goal in

Occasionally, these terms cross over into the genuinely weird-sounding, but “sucking a goal in” refers to when the fans are so enthusiastic that they will their team to score.


A verb with obvious meaning, but also a noun meaning your collective support. A common song: “Your support, your support, your support is fucking shit!”


Surplus to requirements

No longer needed. Possibly my favorite English footy expression.


Sweeper keeper

A goalkeeper who plays away from his goal quite a bit, “sweeping up” messes that his defense makes. You have to be careful, though, else this happens.



Americans call this “the standings”



Your strategy for the game: who plays, what formation, how you go about it


Tactical masterclass

This would seem to mean “a manager doing a great job of developing a gameplan for victory,” but in reality you only hear it from the footballing media when a team managed by Jose Mourinho wins a game. Somehow, with him, it’s always a tactical masterclass.


Tails up

Same as being on the front foot. Don’t you just love that?


Take the piss

Crack a joke at somebody’s expense. Really important to say “the” here instead of “a.”


Teacups thrown

This is just impossibly old-school and charming. Apparently if a manager loses it in his halftime speech, they say “There will be some teacups thrown in the dressing room.” I wonder how long since somebody drank tea in a dressing room? (See also: Hair dryer)


Team selection

Teams have 25 or so players to choose from, so their starters plus the subs available for the day — that’s your team selection


Technical area

The area on the touch line where managers are supposed to stay. Allegedly they are spaced arms-width apart. If you want to see some fun in the technical area, search for “Mancini vs. Ferguson” on Youtube.


Three points

What you get for a win. If you lose, you get nothing. A draw is one point, and you’ve then “dropped points.”



  1. This is how they say a guy scored a goal, as in “Liverpool lead through Luis Suarez.” You hear that one a lot, actually.
  2. Past the defense and headed for goal; “Suarez is through and has to score here”!
  3. Advancing in a Cup tournament; “Suarez’s brace ensures Liverpool are through to the fifth round.”



Kind of a multi-match meeting. In the Champions League and Europa League, for example, a tie is two matches, home and away, in the “knockout stages” leading up to the final. In the FA Cup, it’s called a tie because if the first game ends in a draw, there’s a replay at the other stadium.



A style of play that uses lots of short passes, instead of crosses and “long balls.” Created by Barcelona and also used by the Spanish national team. Just Youtube it sometime and be amazed at whay they do in small spaces.


Top Four

The top four teams in the league get to play in the Champions League the following year, and for years this was always Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. Kind of like Ohio State and Michigan being the “Big Two” in the Big Ten. Lately Manchester City has replaced Liverpool in the Big Four because their owner has about 400 billion dollars.

Again, here’s my guide to all the leagues and cups in England.


Total football

A system of play, invented in Holland around 1970, in which presumably every player can play every position, other than the goalkeeper. The team that invented it, Ajax of Amsterdam, won every home game for two years and won five titles in one of those seasons.



When the ball arrives and you handle it well, that was a nice touch. Kick it too hard or whatever and lose it: poor touch. Some players are said to have a nice first touch.


Touch line

The sidelines



Winning three titles in the same season. Last done in England by Manchester United (League, FA Cup, Champions League) in 1999


Tyne-Wear Derby

Newscastle (Tyneside) vs Sunderland (Wearside), possibly the most bitter derby in English football. Apparently it goes back to the cities being on opposite sides of the English Civil War — in the 17th Century! They’ve been playing the derby since 1883.



A term generally for Newcastle, which is on the River Tyne, but also a “minefield” I am told, similar to Geordie, above.


Up top

At the front, meaning your forward or strikers.



A general fool



The City of Sunderland, home to Sunderland AFC, on the banks of the River Wear.



This refers to how hard a pass (or ball) was kicked. Too hard is a bit heavy, and too soft needed more weight.



The 90,000-seat stadium in London that’s home to all the tournament finals. So “going to Wembley” means playing for a title. A common song is “Que sera sera, whatever will be wll be. We’re going to Wem-buh-ley! Que sera sera.”


Wide / Narrow

If your wingers get the ball and send in crosses, you’re playing wide. If you just barrel down the middle of the pitch, you’re narrow. Nobody likes to be narrow except Barcelona, who simply dribble and pass through other teams using tiki-taka.



Of course, you win games, but you also win balls and headers, meaning take it away from the cheat on the other team who’s trying to get it



Like a golazzo. If it doesn’t go in, it’s still a wonder strike. We will now travel to my beloved Portland Timbers of MLS for a Wondergoal from Darlington Nagbe.



Meaning a player who could play anywhere in the world. Michael Jordan was world-class. A particular goal can be world-class, as well.



A world-class goal like a goalazzo, not used very often but a cool term



The number 11, which is how many players are on the pitch. But they use XI to say things like “They have a strong starting XI but their bench is shit.”


Yellow card

A warning; get two of them and you get a red card and you’re off. Also the worst punishment one of your lads ever deserves.

For even more about English soccer,
check out the new site for my upcoming book:
An American’s Guide to English Soccer

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subscribe to my all-soccer “GroundHopper” newsletter.

(The “Bulletin” below also covers hiking, travel, and other stuff).

English Soccer Tour, Stop 1: Heathrow Customs

Well, it didn’t take long for the first interaction of my English Soccer Tour. In fact, it happened in the customs line at Heathrow, before I had officially entered the UK.

The customs guy, about 30, asked why I was coming, and I said, “To watch football games.” He smiled and said, “Don’t you mean ‘soccer’?”

I was waiting for that one: “Actually, now that I’m out of American airspace, I am calling it football — and anyway, you English made up the word ‘soccer’!” Which is true.

He smiled again and asked who I’d be seeing. I told him Arsenal first, and he shook his head; this made me think he might be a Tottenham guy. But no: “Why does everybody want to see Arsenal,” he asked. “Their chairman is Russian, and they’re hardly even an English team anymore.”

“Well,” I said, “I follow Fulham, and they were just sold to a Pakistani.” I was showing him I know something, you see.

“Yes, and Fulham have a statue of Michael Jackson at their ground.”

Had a statue,” I corrected him. “And they used to have about half the US National Team playing for them. That’s why I chose them. Anyway, who’s your team?”

“QPR,” he said. And without missing a beat, I said, “Well, then I can’t talk to you anymore. But I’m afraid Fulham will be playing QPR again next year.”

He leaned back in his chair and said, “That’s a safe bet — and it’s nice to see Americans come through who actually follow the game.” He stamped my passport, handed it back and said with a smile, “Enjoy your stay — and worst of luck to your Cottagers!”

“And worst of luck to your Rangers!”

In that moment, my English soccer tour was on.

Now, if you’re reading this and wondering what it’s all about*, that’s why I’m writing this book! (Well, and I get to see a shit-ton of English soccer games) As the Premier League gets more and more popular in the US, I think more and more Americans (like me) will want to come over and see games. And they’ll want to know more than how to get tickets and what the hell offsides is about. They’ll want to know about the clubs, their history, their stadiums, their fans and songs and the pubs they go to before the games.

I am going to immerse myself into English soccer culture, attend a game at every Premier League ground, visit all the other league clubs around London, and produce the ultimate Americans’ guide to English soccer. Hell yes I am!

And now you’ve found my blog. Welcome!

*Quick summary: Fulham (who play in Craven Cottage and are called the Cottagers) and Queens Park Rangers are blood enemies; their stadiums are 3.1 miles apart in West London! Right now Fulham is in the Premier League and QPR a league below in The Championship. But Fulham is doing terribly and looks in trouble to get relegated for next year — in which case their ancient rivalry with the boys from Loftus Road will be back, twice a year. All of us in white hope that doesn’t happen!