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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 Irelandmarker, and has historically been the league for the whole of Irelandmarker. It should not be confused with the League of Ireland, which is the football league for the Republic of Irelandmarker. At the end of the season, the champion club is presented with the Gibson Cup - on 2 May 2009 it was awarded to Glentoran, the current holders.

The IFA Premiership was sponsored by JJB Sports for season 2008/09 and was marketed as the JJB Sports Premiership. For three seasons from 2009/10 it will be sponsored by Carling and marketed as the Carling Premiership. It is run by the Irish Football Association (IFA).


The Irish League is the second-oldest national league in the world, being formed a week earlier than the Scottish Football League. Only the Football League in Englandmarker is older.

The Irish Football League was originally formed as the football league for all of Irelandmarker 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 Irelandmarker 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 Irelandmarker) in the south and west.

In its first season, seven of the eight teams came from Belfastmarker, 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 Dublinmarker team, Bohemians, in 1903. Another Dublin side, Shelbourne, was added in 1904. In 1911 Glenavon, from the County Armagh town of Lurganmarker 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 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). The 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 re-named 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).

Glentoran are the current champions, finishing one point ahead of Linfield in the 2008/09 final standings, and winning the IFA Premiership title for the 23rd time in their history, and the first time since 2005. Goals from Dean Fitzgerald, Kyle Neill and Mattie Burrows secured a 3-1 victory for Glentoran, on a tense final day of the league season, against Cliftonville at the Oval on 2 May 2009. On the same day, runners-up Linfield beat Crusaders 5-0 but the result turned out to be academic.

League format

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. 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 Irelandmarker 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 two highest-placed teams in the Premiership also qualify automatically for the next season’s all-Ireland Setanta Cup. The third- and fourth-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 the IFA Championship and the second-bottom-placed team must take part in a two-legged play-off match against the second-placed team in the Championship, and is relegated if it loses. (In the event that the Championship 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 team. In the event that neither the Championship 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.

2008 reorganisation

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)

Portadown were relegated to the IFA Championship as a result of submitting their application for the IFA Premiership 29 minutes past the deadline for consideration.

Premiership members for 2009/10


Finishing position

in 2008/09
First season in

top division
First season of

current spell in

top division
Total seasons

in top division
average attendance

Ballymena United 8th 1928/29 1928/29 71 958 (17 games)
Cliftonville 6th 1890/91 1890/91 109 732 (17 games)
Coleraine 5th 1927/28 1996/97 75 774 (16 games)
Crusaders 3rd 1949/50 2006/07 60 736 (16 games)
Dungannon Swifts 12th 2003/04 2003/04 7 468 (17 games)
Glenavon 9th 1911/12 2005/06 87 700 (16 games)
Glentoran 1st 1890/91 1890/91 109 1454 (16 games)
Institute 6th 2002/03 2007/08 7 547 (13 games)
Linfield 2nd 1890/91 1890/91 109 2345 (16 games)
Lisburn Distillery 4th 1890/91 2002/03 103 396 (17 games)
Newry City 10th 1923/24 1998/99 41 328 (13 games)
Portadown 1st in IFA Championship 1924/25 2009/10 78

List of champions and runners-up

Irish Football League

Season Champions Runners-up
1890-91 Linfield Ulster
1891-92 Linfield Ulster
1892-93 Linfield Cliftonville
1893-94 Glentoran Linfield
1894-95 Linfield Distillery
1895-96 Distillery Cliftonville
1896-97 Glentoran Cliftonville
1897-98 Linfield Cliftonville/Glentoran
1898-99 Distillery Linfield
1899-1900 Belfast Celtic Distillery/Linfield
1900-01 Distillery Glentoran
1901-02 Linfield Glentoran
1902-03 Distillery Linfield
1903-04 Linfield Distillery/Glentoran
1904-05 Glentoran Belfast Celtic
1905-06 Cliftonville/Distillery (shared) -
1906-07 Linfield Shelbourne
1907-08 Linfield Cliftonville
1908-09 Linfield Glentoran
1909-10 Cliftonville Belfast Celtic
1910-11 Linfield Glentoran
1911-12 Glentoran Distillery
1912-13 Glentoran Distillery
1913-14 Linfield Glentoran
1914-15 Belfast Celtic Glentoran
1915-19 no competition due to First World War
1919-20 Belfast Celtic Distillery
1920-21 Glentoran Glenavon
1921-22 Linfield Glentoran
1922-23 Linfield Queen’s Island
1923-24 Queen’s Island Distillery
1924-25 Glentoran Queen’s Island
1925-26 Belfast Celtic Glentoran
1926-27 Belfast Celtic Queen’s Island
1927-28 Belfast Celtic Linfield
1928-29 Belfast Celtic Linfield
1929-30 Linfield Glentoran
1930-31 Glentoran Linfield
1931-32 Linfield Derry City
1932-33 Belfast Celtic Distillery
1933-34 Linfield Belfast Celtic
1934-35 Linfield Derry City
1935-36 Belfast Celtic Derry City
1936-37 Belfast Celtic Derry City
1937-38 Belfast Celtic Derry City
1938-39 Belfast Celtic Ballymena United
1939-40 Belfast Celtic Portadown
1940-47 no competition due to Second World War
1947-48 Belfast Celtic Linfield
1948-49 Linfield Belfast Celtic
1949-50 Linfield Glentoran
1950-51 Glentoran Linfield
1951-52 Glenavon Coleraine
1952-53 Glentoran Linfield
1953-54 Linfield Glentoran
1954-55 Linfield Glenavon
1955-56 Linfield Glenavon
1956-57 Glenavon Linfield
1957-58 Ards Glenavon
1958-59 Linfield Glenavon
1959-60 Glenavon Glentoran
1960-61 Linfield Portadown
1961-62 Linfield Portadown
1962-63 Distillery Linfield
1963-64 Glentoran Coleraine
1964-65 Derry City Coleraine
1965-66 Linfield Derry City
1966-67 Glentoran Linfield
1967-68 Glentoran Linfield
1968-69 Linfield Derry City
1969-70 Glentoran Coleraine
1970-71 Linfield Glentoran
1971-72 Glentoran Portadown
1972-73 Crusaders Ards
1973-74 Coleraine Portadown
1974-75 Linfield Coleraine
1975-76 Crusaders Glentoran
1976-77 Glentoran Glenavon
1977-78 Linfield Glentoran
1978-79 Linfield Glenavon
1979-80 Linfield Ballymena United
1980-81 Glentoran Linfield
1981-82 Linfield Glentoran
1982-83 Linfield Glentoran
1983-84 Linfield Glentoran
1984-85 Linfield Coleraine
1985-86 Linfield Coleraine
1986-87 Linfield Coleraine
1987-88 Glentoran Linfield
1988-89 Linfield Glentoran
1989-90 Portadown Glenavon
1990-91 Portadown Bangor
1991-92 Glentoran Portadown
1992-93 Linfield Crusaders
1993-94 Linfield Portadown
1994-95 Crusaders Glenavon
1995-96 Portadown Crusaders
1996-97 Crusaders Coleraine
1997-98 Cliftonville Linfield
1998-99 Glentoran Linfield
1999-2000 Linfield Coleraine
2000-01 Linfield Glenavon
2001-02 Portadown Glentoran
2002-03 Glentoran Portadown

Irish Premier League

Season Champions Runners-up
2003/04 Linfield Portadown
2004/05 Glentoran Linfield
2005/06 Linfield Glentoran
2006/07 Linfield Glentoran
2007/08 Linfield Glentoran

IFA Premiership

Season Champions Runners-up
2008-09 Glentoran Linfield

Performance by club

Team Wins Last win
1 Linfield 48 2007/08
2 Glentoran 23 2008/09
3 Belfast Celtic 19 1947/48
4 Lisburn Distillery 5 + 1 shared 1962/63
5 Crusaders 4 1996/97
= Portadown 4 2001/02
7 Glenavon 3 1959/60
8 Cliftonville 2 + 1 shared 1997/98
9 Ards 1 1957/58
= Coleraine 1 1973/74
= Derry City 1 1964/65
= Queen's Island 1 1923/24

Irish Football League First Division

Season Champions Runners-up
1995-96 Coleraine Ballymena United
1996-97 Ballymena United Omagh Town
1997-98 Newry Town Bangor
1998-99 Distillery Ards
1999-2000 Omagh Town Ards
2000-01 Ards Lisburn Distillery
2001-02 Lisburn Distillery Institute
2002-03 Dungannon Swifts Ballymena United

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.

Four clubs – Cliftonville, Glentoran, Linfield and Lisburn Distillery – have retained membership of the League since its inception in 1890: 118 years and 107 seasons (due to eleven suspended seasons). All the League members from 1890 up to and including the 2009-10 season (Irish Football League 1890-2003, Irish Premier League 2003-08, IFA Premiership 2008 to present) are as follows (current members shown in bold):

Club From No. of seasons Years
Cliftonville Belfastmarker 109 1890-
Glentoran Belfastmarker 109 1890-
Linfield Belfastmarker 109 1890-
Distillery Lisburnmarker/Ballyskeagh, Co. Down 109 1890-
Glenavon Lurganmarker, Co. Armagh 87 1911-2004, 2005-
Portadown Portadownmarker, Co. Armagh 78 1924-2008, 2009-
Ards Newtownardsmarker, Co. Down 76 1923-2006
Coleraine Colerainemarker, Co. Londonderry 76 1927-
Ballymena Ballymenamarker, Co. Antrim 75 1928-
Bangor Bangormarker, Co. Down 70 1927-2003, 2008-09
Crusaders Belfastmarker 60 1949-2005, 2006-
Larne Larnemarker, Co. Antrim 53 1923-40, 1972-2008
Newry Town/City Newrymarker, Co. Down 44 1923-40, 1983-
Belfast Celtic Belfastmarker 38 1896-1920, 1924-49
Derry City Derrymarker 36 1929-72
Carrick Rangers Carrickfergusmarker, Co. Antrim 20 1983-2003
Omagh Town Omaghmarker, Co. Tyrone 15 1990-2005
Ballyclare Comrades Ballyclaremarker, Co. Antrim 13 1990-2003
Bohemians Dublinmarker 13 1902-11, 1912-20
Derry Celtic Derrymarker 13 1900-13
Dungannon Swifts Dungannonmarker, Co. Tyrone 13 1997-
Shelbourne Dublinmarker 12 1904-20
Limavady United Limavadymarker, Co. Londonderry 11 1997-2008
Institute Drumahoemarker, Co. Londonderry 10 1999-2006, 2007-
Queen’s Island Belfastmarker 8 1921-29
Armagh City Armaghmarker, Co. Armagh 7 1999-2003, 2005-08
Ulster Belfastmarker 6 1890-94, 1901-03
Barn Carrickfergusmarker, Co. Antrim 5 1923-28
Loughgall Loughgallmarker, Co. Armagh 3 2004-07
North Staffordshire Regiment Army team 3 1896-99
Donegal Celtic Belfastmarker 2 2006-08
Ligoneil Belfastmarker 2 1891-92, 1893-94
Oldpark Belfastmarker 2 1890-92
Belfast YMCA Belfastmarker 1 1891-92
Clarence Belfastmarker 1 1890-91
Derry Olympic Derrymarker 1 1892-93
King's Own Scottish Borderers Army team 1 1903-04
Milford Milford, Co. Armagh 1 1890-91
Lancashire Fusiliers Army team 1 1891-92
Milltown Belfastmarker 1 1891-92
Royal Scots Army team 1 1899-1900
St Columb's Court Derrymarker 1 1901-02
Tritonville Dublinmarker 1 1912-13

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:

Season Winners Score Runners-up
1895-96 Distillery 2-1 Cliftonville
1898-99 Distillery 2-0 Linfield
1904-05 Glentoran 3-1 Belfast Celtic
1905-06 Cliftonville 0-0 Distillery
Replay Cliftonville 3-3 Distillery
1910-11 Linfield 3-2 Glentoran
1937-38 Belfast Celtic 2-2 Derry City
Replay Belfast Celtic 3-1 Derry City
1949-50 Linfield 2-0 Glentoran
1960-61 Linfield 2-0 Portadown
1961-62 Linfield 3-1 Portadown

On one occasion – 1905/06 – the championship title was shared after Cliftonville and Distillery could not be separated after two play-off matches.

Linfield was the first team to win the championship on goal difference in 1992-93, when they finished level on 66 points each with Crusaders, but eight goals better with a +34 goal difference to Crusaders' +26.

Linfield have won the League championship the most times (48).

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 Irelandmarker) 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 Belfastmarker 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 team to do so. Of the 106 championships, the title has only been taken out of Belfastmarker on ten occasions. The most successful provincial club is Portadown, with four championships.

A total of 12 different teams have won the championship.

In the early years, Army regiments stationed in Irelandmarker participated in the League: the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1891-92; the North Staffordshire Regiment for three seasons from 1896-99; the Royal Scots in 1899-1900 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.

The record for consecutive titles is six, held jointly by Belfast Celtic (1935-40 and 1947-48) and Linfield (1981-87).

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.

On the following occasions, teams have completed a league campaign unbeaten:

Season Team Number of games played
1892-93 Linfield 10
1894-95 Linfield 6
1903-04 Linfield 14
1921-22 Linfield 10
1926-27 Belfast Celtic 22
1928-29 Belfast Celtic 26
1980-81 Glentoran 22

The first ever Irish League match to be broadcast live on television took place on 24 September 2007 when Sky Sports showed Cliftonville and Linfield draw 2-2 at Solitudemarker.


  • Title shared after two play-off matches ended in draws.
  • 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.
  • Known as Ballymena until 1934.
  • Changed name from Newry Town to Newry City in 2004.

See also


External links

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