succeeding IFA Premiership (2008),
Irish Premier League (2003) and
Irish Football League (1890)
|Number of teams||12|
|Levels on pyramid||1|
|Relegation to||NIFL Championship 1|
|Domestic cup(s)||Irish Cup|
|League cup(s)||NI Football League Cup|
|International cup(s)||UEFA Champions League (1 place)
UEFA Europa League (2 places)
|Current champions||Cliftonville (4th outright title + 1 shared)
|Most championships||Linfield (51)|
|TV partners||Sky Sports (6 live matches a season)
|Website||NI Football League official site|
The NIFL Premiership (known as the Danske Bank Premiership for sponsorship purposes) is a national association football league in Northern Ireland that operates as the highest division of the league system. It was formerly called the IFA Premiership, Irish Premier League, and before that the Irish Football League, and is still known in popular parlance simply as the Irish League. Although the current league format was established in 2008, the league was originally formed in 1890. Historically the league for the entire island of Ireland, it became Northern Ireland's national league after the partition of Ireland in 1921. Clubs in the league are semi-professional, and are known locally as senior clubs. The league should not be confused with the League of Ireland, which is the football league for the Republic of Ireland.
The League is operated by the Northern Ireland Football League, who took over from the Irish Football Association for the start of the 2013–14 season. The NI Football League is a private company that has 41 member clubs from the Premiership and Championships 1 & 2, who are each shareholders. At the end of the season, the champion club is presented with the Gibson Cup.
- 1 History
- 2 League format
- 3 UEFA coefficient and ranking
- 4 2008 reorganisation
- 5 NIFL Premiership members for 2014–15
- 6 List of champions and runners-up
- 7 Club membership history
- 8 History and trivia
- 9 Relegation and promotion history
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 External links
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). 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).
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 1902. 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 top flight 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.
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 Solitude. In 2008, the Irish League was re-organised again (see 2008 Reorganisation below) and renamed as the IFA 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 points system combined with a "domestic licence" scheme. The IFA's administration over the league lasted for five years until 2013, when the newly formed Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) took control of the top flight and the two intermediate divisions below for the start of the 2013–14 season. The top division became the NIFL Premiership and the intermediate league became the NIFL Championship.
Cliftonville are the current champions, after defeating Portadown 2–0 on 22 April 2014 to secure the title for the second successive season and fifth time overall. It was also the first time in the club's history that they had retained the league title.
Each team initially plays every other team three times (either twice at home and once away, or once at home and twice away), for a total of 33 fixtures per team. The league then "splits"; the top six teams play each other for a fourth time to settle championship and European qualification issues, and the bottom six teams play each other to settle relegation issues. This totals 38 fixtures per team. After the league splits into two halves, 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. No points are awarded for a loss. Points can be deducted for breaches of rules: for example, fielding an ineligible player. The team with the most points at the end of the season wins the championship. If two teams finish level on points, four tiebreakers are used to separate them: highest goal difference, most goals scored, most points gained head-to-head, and finally, highest goal difference head-to-head. In the highly unlikely event that teams are still level after these tiebreakers, a single play-off match is played at a neutral venue to decide the league champions.
The League champions qualify to represent Northern Ireland in the following season's UEFA Champions League, with the runners-up, third-placed team, and Irish Cup winners qualifying for the UEFA Europa League. If however, the Irish Cup winners have already qualified for Europe by finishing third or higher in the league, 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 NI Football League Cup have qualified via the League. (The League Cup runners-up cannot qualify.)
At the end of the season, the bottom-placed club is relegated to NIFL Championship 1 and the 11th-placed club must take part in an aggregate two-legged play-off against the runners-up of Championship 1, with the away goals rule, extra time and penalties used to determine the winner in the second leg if necessary. The Premiership club gets home advantage in the second leg, and is relegated to Championship 1 if it loses the tie. In the event that the Championship 1 winners do not possess a championship licence or a domestic licence, there is no automatic relegation. Instead, the bottom-placed club takes part in the play-off against the Championship 1 runners-up, and the 11th-placed club is safe from relegation. In the event that neither the Championship 1 winners nor runners-up have either licence, there is no relegation.
Along with the thirty Championship 1 and 2 clubs, the twelve Premiership teams also compete for the Northern Ireland Football League Cup: the second-most important cup competition after the Irish Cup.
UEFA coefficient and ranking
As of 26 June 2013, the NIFL 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. The new league began as the IFA Premiership, and was reduced in size 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)
NIFL Premiership members for 2014–15
|First season in
|First season of
current spell in
in top division
|Institute||1st in NIFL Championship 1||2002–03||2014–15||8|
List of champions and runners-up
Irish Football League
Irish Football League Premier Division & First Division
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 (3½)||Crusaders||Linfield||Liam Boyce (Cliftonville)||29|
(number of titles)
|2013–14||Cliftonville (4½)||Linfield||Crusaders||Joe Gormley (Cliftonville)||27|
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).
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|
|Belfast||103||Linfield (51), Glentoran (23), Belfast Celtic (14), Distillery (5½)[n 1], Cliftonville (4½)[n 1], Crusaders (4), Queen's Island (1)|
|Derry||1||Derry City (1)|
Club membership history
A total of 46 different clubs have been members of the league during its history - ten of which have been members for only one season. The newest members are Warrenpoint Town, who joined the league in 2013 for the first time. That was the second consecutive season that a new member club had made its first appearance in the league, following Ballinamallard United's debut a year earlier in 2012. Three clubs – Cliftonville, Glentoran and Linfield – have retained membership of the League since its inception in 1890: 125 years and 114 seasons (due to eleven suspended seasons).
Listed below are all the League members from 1890 up to and including the 2014–15 season in the following competitions:
- Irish Football League (1890–2003)
- Irish Premier League (2003–2008)
- IFA Premiership (2008–2013)
- NIFL Premiership (2013–present)
|Club||From||Seasons in League||Years|
|Lisburn Distillery[n 2]||Ballyskeagh[n 3]||112†||1890–2013|
|Ards||Newtownards[n 4]||77†||1923–2006, 2013–2014|
|Newry City[n 5]||Newry||45†||1923–1940, 1983–2011|
|Belfast Celtic[n 6]||Belfast||38||1896–1920, 1924–1949|
|Carrick Rangers||Carrickfergus||21†||1983–2003, 2011–2012|
|Institute||Drumahoe||11†||1999–2006, 2007–2010, 2014–|
|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|
Bold – a current member
Italics – a club no longer in existence, or no longer competing in Northern Irish football
† Includes membership of the now defunct senior second tier – the Irish Football League First Division (1995–2003)
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.)
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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 the years 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 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.
Of the 113 completed championships, the title has only been taken out of Belfast on ten occasions. The last club to do so was Portadown in 2001–02. They are also the most successful provincial club, with four championships overall.
The record for consecutive titles is six, which has been achieved by two clubs. Belfast Celtic won five consecutive titles between 1935–36 and 1939–40, before the suspension of the league in 1940 due to World War II. On the resumption of the league in 1947–48 they won their sixth consecutive title, albeit eight years after the fifth. Linfield are the only club to achieve six consecutive titles without a hiatus, from 1981–82 to 1986–87. The longest gap between title wins is the 88 years separating Cliftonville's wins in 1909–10 and 1997–98. A total of 12 different clubs have won the championship, Linfield holding the record for the most wins (51).
In the 1905–06 season, the championship title was shared after Cliftonville and Distillery could not be separated after two play-off matches. This is the only occasion in the league's history that the title has been shared. 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.
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|
On seven occasions, a team has completed a league campaign unbeaten. Linfield have done so four times, but with fewer fixtures relative to Belfast Celtic's unbeaten seasons in 1926–27 and 1928–29. Glentoran were the last club to achieve an unbeaten league season, when they won the 1980–81 Irish League title by two points after completing 22 league games without defeat. They again came close in the 1991–92 Irish League season, losing only once in 30 league games. Linfield also came close in the 2003–04 Irish Premier League season, when they too lost just one league game all season. Between 2005–06 and 2006–07, Linfield lost just two league games in two seasons - one in each season.
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 NIFL Championship 1).
|2010–11||Newry City||Carrick Rangers|
|2011–12||Carrick Rangers||Ballinamallard United|
- Northern Irish football clubs in European competition
- Northern Ireland football league system
- Irish League XI
- The 1905–06 league title was shared when Cliftonville and Distillery could not be separated after two play-off matches – the only season in the Irish League's history in which the title has been shared.
- Changed name from Distillery to Lisburn Distillery in 1999.
- Moved from Belfast to Ballyskeagh in 1980.
- Sold home ground in Newtownards in 2002, and has subsequently played in Carrickfergus, Belfast and Bangor.
- Changed name from Newry Town to Newry City in 2004, and was dissolved in 2012 following financial problems.
- Changed name from Celtic to Belfast Celtic in 1901. Club was dissolved in 1949.
- 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.
- "NORTHERN IRELAND FOOTBALL LEAGUE". NIFL Premiership.
- "Cliftonville retain Irish Premiership title for first time". BBC Sport (BBC). 22 April 2014. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
- "Portadown out of Premier League". BBC News. 2008-05-13.
- Northern Ireland Football League website
- NI Football Daily Website
- Irish Football Club Project
- Irish FA Website
- Irish League Forums
- BBC Irish Football
- rsssf.com: Northern Ireland - Champions