succeeding Irish Premier League (2003) and
Irish Football League (1890)
|Number of teams||12|
|Levels on pyramid||1|
|Relegation to||IFA Championship 1|
|Domestic cup(s)||Irish Cup|
|League cup(s)||Irish League Cup|
|International cup(s)||Champions League (1 place)
UEFA Europa League (2 places)
|Current champions||Cliftonville (4th title)
|Most championships||Linfield (51)|
|TV partners||Sky Sports (6 live matches a season)
The IFA Premiership – formerly the Irish Premier League, and before that the Irish Football League–and still known in popular parlance simply as the Irish League, is the national football league in Northern Ireland, and was historically the league for the whole of Ireland. Clubs in the league are semi-professional. It should not be confused with the League of Ireland, which is the football league for the Republic of Ireland.
The League is currently sponsored by Danske Bank, who took over from Carling after the end of the 2011–12 season. The league is currently marketed as the Danske Bank Premiership. It is run by the Irish Football Association (IFA). At the end of the season, the champion club is presented with the Gibson Cup. Cliftonville are the current champions, winning the title on 13 April 2013.
The Irish Football League was originally formed as the football league for all of Ireland in 1890 (although initially all of its member clubs were in fact based in what would become Northern Ireland). It became the league for Northern Ireland in 1921 after partition, with a separate league and association (the Football Association of the Irish Free State – now called the Football Association of Ireland) – being formed for the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland).
In its first season, seven of the eight teams came from Belfast, and the league – and Irish football – continued to be dominated by Belfast clubs for many years. In 1892, Derry Olympic became the second non-Belfast side, but only lasted for one season. In 1900, Derry Celtic joined the league and, in 1901, a second Derry team, St Columb's Court, was added. St Columb's Court lasted just one season, before being replaced by the league's first Dublin team, Bohemians, in 1903. Another Dublin side, Shelbourne, was added in 1904. In 1911 Glenavon, from the County Armagh town of Lurgan replaced Bohemians, who resigned from the league, but were re-admitted in 1912. During 1912 there were three Dublin sides, with the addition of Tritonville, but, like Derry Olympic and St Columb's Court before them, they lasted just one season. Derry Celtic also dropped out in 1913, so that when the Irish League split in 1921, Glenavon was the only non-Belfast team left.
During the 1920s, however, the league expanded and soon achieved a wide geographic spread across Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it was not until 1952 that a team from outside Belfast (Glenavon) was crowned champions. Derry City, now of the League of Ireland, played in the Irish League from 1929 until 1972 and won the title in 1965, but eventually resigned during the Troubles after the League voted narrowly to continue a ban on their home ground imposed by the security forces, even after the security forces had lifted it.
From 1995–96 until 2002–03, the League was split into two divisions: the Premier Division and First Division. Since 2003, there has been a single division, albeit with relegation to intermediate leagues below.
In 2003, the Irish Football Association took direct charge of Northern Ireland's national league with the creation of the Irish Premier League (IPL). As in England and Scotland, the old Irish Football League retained a separate existence, but controlling only two feeder leagues: the First Division and Second Division. In 2004, the IFA took over control of the remaining IFL divisions and renamed them as the IFA Intermediate League First Division and Second Division, effectively winding up the Irish Football League after 114 years.
In 2008, the Irish League was re-organised again (see 2008 Reorganisation below) and renamed as the Irish Premiership. Teams were invited to apply for membership of the new league, which was reduced to 12 clubs, and places were awarded on the basis of a complicated points system combined with a "domestic licence" scheme.
The League's records from its days in operation as the league for all of Ireland stand as the records for Northern Ireland (as is the case for the Northern Ireland national football team).
Each team plays each other three times, making a total of 33 fixtures per team before the "split", when the top six teams play each other for a fourth time to settle the championship and European qualification issues, and the bottom six teams play each other to settle relegation issues. This makes a total of 38 fixtures. After the "split", teams in the top six cannot finish lower than 6th place, and teams in the bottom six cannot finish higher than 7th place, regardless of the results in the final 5 games. The League campaign begins in August and continues until the first Saturday in May. Most fixtures are played on Saturday afternoons, with occasional fixtures on Friday evenings, and some mid-week games, usually on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. Traditionally, there are Bank Holiday afternoon fixtures on Boxing Day, New Year's Day and Easter Tuesday.
Three points are awarded for a win, and one point for a draw. The team with the most points at the end of the season wins the championship. If two teams finish level on points, goal difference is used to separate them. If teams are still level on goal difference, then the team with the most goals scored is placed highest. Points can be deducted for breaches of rules: for example, fielding an ineligible player.
The League champions qualify to represent Northern Ireland in the following season's Champions League, and the runners-up and third-placed teams qualify for the new Europa League. If the Europa League place that is reserved for the Irish Cup winners (or runners-up, in the event that the Cup winners have also won the League championship) is taken by the team in second or third place, then the fourth-placed team is entered into the Europa League. In order to compete in any of these European competitions, however, clubs must possess a UEFA licence. In the event that a team qualifies without such a licence, lower-placed teams may take their place.
The four highest-placed teams in the Premiership also qualify automatically for the next season's all-Ireland Setanta Cup. The fifth- and sixth-placed teams may also qualify if either or both of the winners (or runners-up, in the event that the Irish Cup winners have also finished first or second) of the Irish Cup and League Cup have qualified via the League. (The League Cup runners-up cannot qualify.)
The bottom-placed team is relegated to IFA Championship 1 and the second-bottom-placed team must take part in a two-legged play-off match against the second-placed team in Championship 1, and is relegated if it loses. (In the event that the Championship 1 winners do not possess a domestic licence, there is no automatic relegation and, instead, the bottom-placed team takes part in the play-off against the second-placed Championship 1 team. In the event that neither the Championship 1 winners nor runners-up has a domestic licence, there is no relegation.)
The twelve Premiership teams also compete for the Irish League Cup: the second-most important cup competition after the Irish Cup.
UEFA coefficient and ranking
As of 26 July 2012, the IFA Premiership's UEFA coefficient points total is 3.083. It is currently ranked by UEFA as the 47th best league in Europe out of 53.
For the 2008–09 season, the League system for Northern Ireland was re-organised. It was renamed as the IFA Premiership, and reduced to twelve teams, included on the basis not only of their performance in the 2007–08 season, but in the previous two seasons, and other off-the-field criteria as follows. Each applicant club was assessed by an independent panel and awarded points against the following criteria:
- Sporting (maximum 450 points) – based on league placings, Irish Cup, League Cup and European performances in 2005–06, 2006–07 and 2007–08; with points also awarded for running youth teams, women's teams and community development programmes.
- Finance (maximum 200 points) – based on solvency, debt management and cash-flow projection.
- Infrastructure (maximum 150 points) – based on stadium capacity, changing provisions, sanitary facilities, field of play, floodlighting, existence and standard of control room, first aid room, drug testing room and media facilities.
- Business planning (maximum 50 points)
- Personnel (maximum 100 points) – based on qualification and experience of staff
- Attendances (maximum 50 points)
Premiership members for 2013–14
|First season in
|First season of
current spell in
in top division
|Ards||1st in IFA Championship 1||1923–24||2013–14||77|
|Warrenpoint Town||2nd in IFA Championship 1||2013–14||2013–14||1|
List of champions and runners-up
Irish Football League
Irish Premier League
(number of titles)
|2003–04||Linfield (45)||Portadown||Lisburn Distillery||Glenn Ferguson (Linfield)||25|
|2004–05||Glentoran (22)||Linfield||Portadown||Chris Morgan (Glentoran)||19|
|2005–06||Linfield (46)||Glentoran||Portadown||Peter Thompson (Linfield)||25|
|2006–07||Linfield (47)||Glentoran||Cliftonville||Gary Hamilton (Glentoran)||27|
|2007–08||Linfield (48)||Glentoran||Cliftonville||Peter Thompson (Linfield)||29|
(number of titles)
|2008–09||Glentoran (23)||Linfield||Crusaders||Curtis Allen (Lisburn Distillery)||19|
|2009–10||Linfield (49)||Cliftonville||Glentoran||Rory Patterson (Coleraine)||30|
|2010–11||Linfield (50)||Crusaders||Glentoran||Peter Thompson (Linfield)||23|
|2011–12||Linfield (51)||Portadown||Cliftonville||Gary McCutcheon (Ballymena United)||27|
|2012–13||Cliftonville (4)||Crusaders||Linfield||Liam Boyce (Cliftonville)||29|
Bold indicates Double winners – i.e. League and Irish Cup winners
Italic indicates Treble Winners – i.e. League, Irish Cup and at least one other national trophy
Performance by club
Clubs in italics either no longer exist (Belfast Celtic, Queen's Island) or no longer compete for the title (Derry City).
||1890–91, 1891–92, 1892–93, 1894–95, 1897–98, 1901–02, 1903–04, 1906–07, 1907–08, 1908–09, 1910–11, 1913–14, 1921–22, 1922–23, 1929–30, 1931–32, 1933–34, 1934–35, 1948–49, 1949–50, 1953–54, 1954–55, 1955–56, 1958–59, 1960–61, 1961–62, 1965–66, 1968–69, 1970–71, 1974–75, 1977–78, 1978–79, 1979–80, 1981–82, 1982–83, 1983–84, 1984–85, 1985–86, 1986–87, 1988–89, 1992–93, 1993–94, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2003–04, 2005–06, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2009–10, 2010–11, 2011–12|
||1893–94, 1896–97, 1904–05, 1911–12, 1912–13, 1920–21, 1924–25, 1930–31, 1950–51, 1952–53, 1963–64, 1966–67, 1967–68, 1969–70, 1971–72, 1976–77, 1980–81, 1987–88, 1991–92, 1998–99, 2002–03, 2004–05, 2008–09|
||1899–1900, 1914–15, 1919–20, 1925–26, 1926–27, 1927–28, 1928–29, 1932–33, 1935–36, 1936–37, 1937–38, 1938–39, 1939–40, 1947–48|
||1895–96, 1898–99, 1900–01, 1902–03, 1905–06, 1962–63|
||1989–90, 1990–91, 1995–96, 2001–02|
||1905–06, 1909–10, 1997–98, 2012–13|
||1972–73, 1975–76, 1994–95, 1996–97|
||1951–52, 1956–57, 1959–60|
†Including one shared title in 1905–06
Total titles won by town or city
Twelve clubs have been champions, and the overwhelming majority have been from Belfast.
|Town or city||Number of titles||Clubs|
||Linfield (51), Glentoran (23), Belfast Celtic (14), Distillery (6)†, Crusaders (4), Cliftonville (4)†, Queen's Island (1)|
||Derry City (1)|
†Including one shared title in 1905–06
History and trivia
The first Irish League champions were Linfield, and the first runners-up were Ulster. After the first season, the league expanded to ten clubs, but shrank after only one season to six clubs for the 1892–93 season. Only four clubs competed in 1892–93 and 1893–94, then six clubs for the following season, until a membership of eight was achieved for the 1901–02 season. With the exception of one season (1912–13) in which there were ten clubs, membership stayed at eight until the southern clubs resigned in 1920, anticipating the formation of the separate League of Ireland in what would become the Irish Free State. (The League was suspended from 1915 to 1919 because of the First World War.) Only five and six clubs competed in 1920–21 and from 1921–23 respectively, but expansion began with the admission of four new clubs in 1923, another two in 1924 and a further two in 1927, giving a membership of fourteen from 1927 until the League was suspended in 1940 because of the Second World War. When the League resumed in 1947 it was reduced to twelve clubs, and stayed at this number until 1983 when membership was increased to fourteen. In 1990, a further two clubs brought the membership to sixteen, and the League was divided into two divisions (the Premier and First Divisions) of eight in 1995, with promotion and relegation between the two. In 1996 the results from the Premier Division and the First Division started to be featured on the Press Association vidiprinter. In 1997, membership increased again to eighteen, with ten in the Premier Division and eight in the First Division. Between 1999 and 2003, the League had a record twenty clubs in membership. From 1999 to 2002, ten clubs each competed in the Premier and First Divisions and in 2002–03 there were twelve in the Premier Division and eight in the First Division. In 2003, with the creation of the Irish Premier League, the senior league was reduced to a single division of sixteen clubs, although for the first time with relegation to, and promotion from, a league below (a rump Irish Football League in 2003–04 and subsequently the IFA Intermediate League). In 2008, with the creation of the IFA Premiership, the league was reduced to twelve.
Three clubs – Cliftonville, Glentoran and Linfield – have retained membership of the League since its inception in 1890: 124 years and 113 seasons (due to eleven suspended seasons). All the League members from 1890 up to and including the 2013–14 season (Irish Football League 1890–2003, Irish Premier League 2003–08, IFA Premiership 2008 to present) are as follows:
Bold – a current member
Italics – a club no longer in existence, or no longer competing in Northern Irish football
† Includes membership of Irish Football League First Division (1995–2003)
|Club||From||Seasons in League||Years|
|Lisburn Distillery[note 1]||Ballyskeagh[note 2]||112†||1890–2013|
|Ards||Newtownards[note 3]||77†||1923–2006, 2013–|
|Newry City[note 4]||Newry||45†||1923–1940, 1983–2011|
|Belfast Celtic[note 5]||Belfast||38||1896–1920, 1924–1949|
|Carrick Rangers||Carrickfergus||21†||1983–2003, 2011–12|
|Armagh City||Armagh||7†||1999-2003, 2005–2008|
|Donegal Celtic||Belfast||5||2006–2008, 2010–2013|
|North Staffordshire Regiment||Army team||3||1896–1899|
|King's Own Scottish Borderers||Army team||1||1903–1904|
|Lancashire Fusiliers||Army team||1||1891–1892|
|Royal Scots||Army team||1||1899–1900|
|St Columb's Court||Derry||1||1901–1902|
Before goal difference was introduced, if the top two teams finished the season with the same number of points, the championship title was decided by a play-off. Nine such championship play-offs took place over the years as follow:
|1937–38||Belfast Celtic||2–2||Derry City|
|Replay||Belfast Celtic||3–1||Derry City|
In the 1992–93 season, Linfield became the first club to win the championship on goal difference, when they finished level on 66 points with Crusaders, but eight goals better with a +34 goal difference to Crusaders' +26.
A total of 12 different clubs have won the championship, Linfield holding the record for the most wins (51).
From 1890 to 1921, when the Irish League was an all-Ireland competition, no southern clubs (from what would become the Irish Free State and later the Republic of Ireland) ever won the championship. During this period, three southern clubs participated in the League: Bohemians, Shelbourne and Tritonville. The highest place achieved by any of these clubs was second, by Shelbourne in 1906–07.
No club from outside Belfast won the League championship until Glenavon took it to Co. Armagh in 1951–52. In 1957–58, Ards became the first team from Co. Down to win the League, and in 1964–65, Derry City were the first Co. Londonderry club to do so. Of the 111 championships, the title has only been taken out of Belfast on ten occasions. The most successful provincial club is Portadown, with four championships.
In the early years, Army regiments stationed in Ireland participated in the League: the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1891–92; the North Staffordshire Regiment for three seasons from 1896–99; the Royal Scots in 1899–00 and the King's Own Scottish Borderers in 1903–04.
The longest gap between Irish League championships was 77 seasons (excluding the 11 suspended seasons) between Cliftonville's wins in 1909–10 and 1997–98.
Historically, with relatively few league fixtures each season, the Irish League organised a number of other competitions for its members. While some of these enjoyed considerable prestige over the years, they have been phased out over recent seasons due to fixture congestion caused by the expansion of the league and reduced spectator interest. These competitions were: the City Cup; the Gold Cup; the Ulster Cup and the Irish League Floodlit Cup.
In addition, clubs still compete in their respective regional cup competitions: the County Antrim Shield (for clubs within the jurisdiction of the North-East Ulster F.A., also known as the County Antrim & District F.A.); the Mid-Ulster Cup (for clubs within the jurisdiction of the Mid-Ulster F.A.); and the North West Senior Cup (for clubs within the jurisdiction of the North-Western F.A.).
In 1961–62, Linfield famously achieved the feat of winning seven trophies: the Irish League; Irish Cup; City Cup, Gold Cup; Ulster Cup; County Antrim Shield; and North-South Cup. This was a repeat of a similar feat in 1921-22, when Linfield won the Irish League; Irish Cup; City Cup, Gold Cup; County Antrim Shield; Belfast Charities Cup and Alhambra Cup.
On the following occasions, teams have completed a league campaign unbeaten:
|Season||Team||Number of games played|
Relegation and promotion history
Between 1995–96 and 2002–03, the league was split into two divisions, with promotion and relegation between the two as follows.
|Season||Relegated to First Division||Promoted to Premier Division|
|1999–2000||Lisburn Distillery||Omagh Town|
At the end of the 2002–03 season, the league was reformed as the single-division Irish Premier League. Four clubs were relegated to intermediate football, and thereafter there has been relegation and promotion between the senior Irish League and the top intermediate league below (now IFA Championship 1).
|2010–11||Newry City||Carrick Rangers|
|2011–12||Carrick Rangers||Ballinamallard United|
- Changed name from Distillery to Lisburn Distillery in 1999.
- Moved from Belfast to Ballyskeagh in 1980.
- Sold home ground in Newtownards in 2002, and subsequently played in Carrickfergus, Belfast and Bangor.
- Changed name from Newry Town to Newry City in 2004.
- Changed name from Celtic to Belfast Celtic in 1901.
- Northern Ireland Football Lines Up On Sky Sports
- "Irish League gets TV deal". BBC News. 2002-09-03.
- "Danske Bank are new title sponsors of the Premiership". BBC Sport.
- "DANSKE BANK UNVEILED AS PREMIERSHIP SPONSOR". IFA Premiership.
- "Portadown out of Premier League". BBC News. 2008-05-13.
- Irish Premier League Website
- Irish Football Club Project
- Irish FA Website
- Irish League Forums
- BBC Irish Football