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Can teams from Wales, Ireland and Scotland play in England’s Premier League?

There are four top flight league competitions in the United Kingdom but only clubs from two countries can play in the English league.

El Clásico de Escocia entre el Celtic y el Rangers, ambos de Glasgow.
Mark RunnaclesDiario AS

Founded in 1888, the English Football League is the oldest football league competition in the world. Within the United Kingdom, England’s neighbours were quick to set up leagues of their own - Scotland and Ireland formed their own leagues two years later in 1890 and Wales followed suit in 1904.

While a lot has changed in football in general over the past century, all four of the UK’s top flight league competitions are still in existence today - the Premier League (England), the Scottish Premiership (Scotland), the Cymru Premier (Wales) and the League of Ireland Premier Division (Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). However, only three are classified as being in Great Britain - i.e. on mainland Britain - England, Scotland and Wales.

Welsh clubs in the English league

Currently only five Welsh clubs are eligible to play in the eight-tier, English league system and of those, just two, Cardiff City and Swansea City, have managed to be promoted in the English top flight. Most of them applied to compete in the English league rather than the Welsh league from when they were founded.

Cardiff City were founded in 1899 and entered the old English Second Division in 1920 and were promoted in their first season. The Bluebirds have spent a total of 17 seasons in the English top flight, most recently in 2018–19 when they were relegated to the Championship.

Swansea City, founded in 1912, also applied to play in the English League in 1920 and started off in Division 3. Their first taste of life in the top flight didn’t come until decades later - John Toshack took the team up on an exhilarating ride from the Fourth to the First Division in just four years. Tosh’s Super Swans ended that debut season in a very respectable sixth place only to drop down a division the following year.

Newport County were invited to be part of England’s Third Division in 1920. They made the leap to the second tier in 1939 only for the competition to be interrupted for a few years by the Second World War. The Ironsides currently play in League 1, equivalent to the third tier.

Wrexham is the oldest Welsh football club. Founded in 1864, they entered the Birmingham and District League in 1905. They spent most the past 60 years bobbing between divisions four and two and presently play in the Vanarama National League, the fifth level.

Merthyr Town were formed in 1909 and their application to play in the English league was accepted in 1920. For the past decade they have played in the Southern League - level seven and eight.

Celtic fans during a pre-season friendly match between Celtic and Norwich City at Celtic Park.
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Celtic fans during a pre-season friendly match between Celtic and Norwich City at Celtic Park.Craig Williamson - SNS GroupGetty

The Old Firm in England?

For years, there have been suggestions and proposals for a reform of the Scottish Premiership - or at least  for the big two, Celtic and Rangers, to join the English Premier League - or maybe start off in one of the lower categories. Both clubs have a global fanbase of around nine million and both are prestigious enough, having been regulars in European competition for decades - in fact Celtic were the first British club to be crowned European champions, lifting Ol’ Big Ears in 1967.  But for the foreseeable future, it looks unlikely that either will play in the English league. EFL clubs voted against non-English clubs’ involvement in any restructuring when the ‘Whole Game Solution’ proposal was put forward in September 2016.

Curiously, while Scottish and Irish clubs cannot compete in the English league, three clubs from self-governing island territories do - even though they do not belong to the UK. They include two clubs from the Channel Islands. Guernsey FC, whose former chairman was Southampton and England legend Matt Le Tissier, compete in the Isthmian League - the seventh and eighth tiers of the English league system. Similarly, Jersey Bulls are currently playing in the Cherry Red Records Combined Counties League Premier Division South, which corresponds to the ninth level of the English league system.

Manx Ravens

The English League even has a Manx representative - Douglas-based Isle of Man FC were founded in 2019 and play in the North West Counties League - the nine tier of the English league pyramid, against rivals from the north west of England. For those that might not know, the Isle of Man is a British Crown Dependency located in the Irish Sea halfway between mainland Britain and Ireland. It’s more known for it’s famous, annual TT road race than its prowess on the football field.