Northern Ireland Football League Cup
|Number of teams||40|
|Current champions||Ballymena United
|Most successful club(s)||Linfield (9 wins)|
The Northern Ireland Football League Cup, also known as the Irish League Cup, and the BetMcClean.com League Cup is a national football knock-out cup competition in Northern Ireland open to the 40 Northern Ireland Football League clubs. It is the third-highest rated competition in domestic Northern Irish football after the NIFL Premiership and Irish Cup. It should not be confused with the Irish League Floodlit Cup which ran from 1987–88 to 1997–98 initially under the sponsorship of Budweiser and latterly Coca-Cola. Unlike the Irish Cup, the competition does not have a berth for UEFA Europa League qualification, however the winners qualify for the next season's all-Ireland Setanta Sports Cup. The cup is operated by the Northern Ireland Football League, who in 2013 took over the administration from the Irish Football Association (IFA) for the 2013–14 season onwards, after which the cup was renamed as the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) Cup.
From 2017-18, it will be sponsored by McClean Bookmakers and will be called the BetMcClean.com League Cup. The competition's previous sponsors are JBE (2015-16),, WASP Solutions (2013–14 and 2014–15), Irn Bru (2011–12 and 2012–13), Co-operative Insurance (2001–02 to 2010–11), Coca-Cola (1998–99 to 2000–01), Wilkinson Sword (1991–92 to 1997–98), and Roadferry Freight (1986–87 to 1990–91).
Unlike the Irish Cup, the League Cup is restricted to the 40 Northern Ireland Football League clubs. It is contested by the 12 NIFL Premiership clubs, and the 28 clubs in NIFL Championship 1 and NIFL Championship 2. The competition uses a knock-out system. Each round consists of a single match. In the event that the scores are level, extra time is played, and if the teams are still level, there is a penalty shoot-out.
The top 16 ranked clubs from the previous season receive byes into the second round, which includes the 12 Premiership clubs, and the top four ranked clubs from Championship 1. Of the remaining 24 Championship clubs, 16 enter in the first round, with the remaining eight randomly drawn to receive byes into the second round. The second round draw is seeded so that the top 16 clubs from the previous season avoid each other. The second round is the only round of the competition in which seeding is used. From there on, the competition has a third round, quarter-finals, semi-finals and a neutral venue final.
The competition began with 32 clubs in a straight knock-out format in February 1987, and included teams from the Irish League B Division until 1997–98. From 1998–99 until 2007–08, only senior (Irish League and Irish Premier League) teams competed, but the competition was opened up to the 17 Championship clubs in 2008–09, and again in 2010–11 to include clubs from Championship 2, after the Championship 2 League Cup was abolished. From 2001–02 until 2007–08, a group stage followed by a knock-out system was used instead of the straight knock-out system, and for two seasons (2008–09 and 2009–10) two-legged home and away aggregate ties were used up until the quarter-finals, instead of single matches.
When it was first introduced in the 1980s, it was one of a number of senior cup competitions run by the Irish League, originally to compensate for the relatively few league fixtures (traditionally 22 or 26), but also as vehicles for sponsorship revenue. The League Cup would have been considered less prestigious than the long-standing Gold Cup and Ulster Cup. Over time however, these other cup competitions were phased out as the number of Irish League fixtures increased and the public appetite for additional competitions reduced, leaving the League Cup as the only cup competition run by the Northern Ireland Football League and now established as the third most prestigious competition in Northern Ireland after the national top-flight and national cup. The actual trophy presented to the winners is the old City Cup, which was another senior Irish League competition that was discontinued in 1975.
The first final took place on 9 May 1987 at Glentoran's ground, the Oval, and was contested by Linfield and Crusaders. Linfield became the inaugural winners of the cup, defeating Crusaders 2–1. Linfield have gone on to win the competition nine times overall – more than any other club. They have appeared in twelve different finals, which is a record they share with rivals Glentoran. Linfield and Cliftonville have both won the competition in three consecutive seasons, which is the record for the most consecutive wins. The most common final has been the Big Two Derby which has occurred seven times, with the last meeting taking place in 2005. Linfield have won on four occasions and Glentoran on three. The 1988–89 final, played between the two sides at the Oval on 11 November 1988 was won courtesy of a goal by Glentoran goalkeeper Alan Patterson, via a kick from his own penalty area. This was the first time that a goalkeeper had ever scored in a British football final.
Thirteen different clubs have reached the final, but only ten clubs have won the cup and only five of them have done so more than once. Ballymena United, Larne and Newry City are the three clubs to have played in the final but never won. In 2011, Lisburn Distillery became the tenth different club to win the cup, in what was their first and to date only ever appearance in the final. In 2008–09, Championship side Portadown became the first intermediate club and the first club from outside the top flight to reach the final. They subsequently became the first intermediate club and the first club from outside the top flight to win the cup, after defeating Premiership side Newry City 1–0. That was also the first final to be played outside Belfast, with Mourneview Park, Lurgan hosting the match. It was attended by UEFA President Michel Platini and Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington who was in Northern Ireland for the FIFA meeting held in Newcastle.
The biggest winning margin ever recorded in a final is 4–0, which has occurred twice: in 1999–2000 when Linfield defeated Coleraine, and in 2012–13 when Cliftonville defeated Crusaders. On four occasions, the same two clubs have met in consecutive finals. Linfield and Glentoran have done so three times: 1997–98 & 1998–99, 2001–02 & 2002–03 and 2004–05 & 2005–06, while Cliftonville and Crusaders repeated the feat in 2012–13 and 2013–14. Both clubs agreed to toss a coin for home advantage in the 2013–14 final, with Cliftonville winning the toss. As a result, Solitude was chosen as the final venue for the first time in the competition's history.
In the 2015–16 competition, Cliftonville defeated Ards 3–0 in the final to become the first club ever to reach four consecutive League Cup finals, and the first club ever to win four consecutive Cups. Ards were appearing in the final for the third time overall, and became only the second club from outside the top flight ever to reach the League Cup final, emulating Portadown (then in the second tier) in 2008–09. Ards' previous final appearance had also been against Cliftonville, when they won the Cup 2–0 on penalties after a 0–0 draw in 1994–95. Ards also set a record for the longest gap between final appearances of 21 years between 1994–95 and 2015–16. This broke the previous record of 19 years between Newry City's appearances in 1989–90 and 2008–09.
The final was initially broadcast as highlights on UTV throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Live coverage of the final first began on the BBC in 2005, and continued until Sky acquired the rights to show the 2013 and 2014 finals on Sky Sports as part of a deal to cover Northern Ireland international matches. Following the 2014 final, it returned to the BBC in 2015 after Sky ceased their coverage of Irish League football.
- Most wins: 9, Linfield
- Most consecutive wins: 4, Cliftonville (2012–13, 2013–14, 2014–15 & 2015–16)
- Most final appearances: 12, joint record:
- Most consecutive final appearances: 4, Cliftonville (2012–13, 2013–14, 2014–15 & 2015–16)
- Most final defeats: 5, joint record:
- Most consecutive final defeats: 3, Glentoran (1996–97, 1997–98 & 1998–99)
- Biggest final winning margin: 4–0, joint record:
- Longest gap between wins: 15 years, Crusaders (1996–97 and 2011–12)
- Longest gap between final appearances: 21 years, Ards (1994–95 and 2015–16)
- Most final appearances without winning: 2, joint record:
- Most common final: Glentoran v Linfield (7 times)
|*||Match level after 90 minutes. Decided in extra time.|
|Match level after 90 minutes and extra time. Decided by a penalty shootout.|
(number of wins)
|Roadferry Freight League Cup|
|1986–87||9 May 1987||Linfield (1)||2 – 1||Crusaders||The Oval, Belfast|
|1987–88||28 November 1987||Coleraine (1)||1 – 0 *||Portadown|
|1988–89||30 November 1988||Glentoran (1)||2 – 1||Linfield||10,000|
|1989–90||19 December 1989||Glenavon (1)||3 – 1||Newry Town||Windsor Park, Belfast||1,000|
|1990–91||13 March 1991||Glentoran (2)||2 – 0||Ards||4,000|
|Wilkinson Sword League Cup|
|1991–92||14 April 1992||Linfield (2)||3 – 0||Larne||The Oval, Belfast|
|1992–93||20 April 1993||Bangor (1)||3 – 0||Coleraine||Windsor Park, Belfast||2,000|
|1993–94||26 April 1994||Linfield (3)||2 – 0||Coleraine||The Oval, Belfast||4,500|
|1994–95||25 April 1995||Ards (1)||p)0 – 0 (2 – 0||Cliftonville||Windsor Park, Belfast||3,500|
|1995–96||19 September 1995||Portadown (1)||2 – 1||Crusaders||2,600|
|1996–97||15 October 1996||Crusaders (1)||1 – 0||Glentoran||3,000|
|1997–98||9 September 1997||Linfield (4)||1 – 0||Glentoran|
|Coca Cola League Cup|
|1998–99||4 May 1999||Linfield (5)||2 – 1||Glentoran||Windsor Park, Belfast||6,500|
|1999–2000||18 April 2000||Linfield (6)||4 – 0||Coleraine||2,963|
|2000–01||24 April 2001||Glentoran (3)||1 – 0||Glenavon||2,515|
|Co-operative Insurance League Cup|
|2001–02||27 November 2001||Linfield (7)||3 – 1||Glentoran||Windsor Park, Belfast||6,200|
|2002–03||3 December 2002||Glentoran (4)||2 – 0||Linfield||5,700|
|2003–04||11 November 2003||Cliftonville (1)||p)1 – 1 (5 – 4||Larne||3,089|
|2004–05||9 November 2004||Glentoran (5)||2 – 1 *||Linfield||6,000|
|2005–06||10 December 2005||Linfield (8)||3 – 0||Glentoran||6,845|
|2006–07||2 December 2006||Glentoran (6)||1 – 0||Cliftonville||6,910|
|2007–08||2 February 2008||Linfield (9)||3 – 2||Crusaders||5,200|
|2008–09||28 February 2009||Portadown (2)||1 – 0||Newry City||Mourneview Park, Lurgan||4,100|
|2009–10||27 March 2010||Glentoran (7)||p)2 – 2 (4 – 1||Coleraine||Windsor Park, Belfast|
|2010–11||2 April 2011||Lisburn Distillery (1)||2 – 1||Portadown||Mourneview Park, Lurgan|
|Irn-Bru League Cup|
|2011–12||28 January 2012||Crusaders (2)||1 – 0||Coleraine||Ballymena Showgrounds, Ballymena|
|2012–13||26 January 2013||Cliftonville (2)||4 – 0||Crusaders||Windsor Park, Belfast||4,948|
|WASP Solutions League Cup|
|2013–14||25 January 2014||Cliftonville (3)||p)0 – 0 (3 – 2||Crusaders||Solitude, Belfast||4,300|
|2014–15||24 January 2015||Cliftonville (4)||3 – 2||Ballymena United||Windsor Park, Belfast||2,654|
|JBE League Cup|
|2015–16||13 February 2016||Cliftonville (5)||3 – 0||Ards||Solitude, Belfast||2,930|
|2016–17||18 February 2017||Ballymena United||2 – 0||Carrick Rangers||Seaview, Belfast|
Performance by club
|Linfield||9||3||1986–87, 1991–92, 1993–94, 1997–98, 1998–99, 1999–00, 2001–02, 2005–06, 2007–08|
|Glentoran||7||5||1988–89, 1990–91, 2000–01, 2002–03, 2004–05, 2006–07, 2009–10|
|Cliftonville||5||2||2003–04, 2012–13, 2013–14, 2014–15, 2015–16|
Total cups won by town or city
Ten different clubs have won the cup, and the overwhelming majority of cups have been won by clubs from Belfast.
|Town or city||Cups won||Clubs|
|Belfast||23||Linfield (9), Glentoran (7), Cliftonville (5), Crusaders (2)|
|Ballyskeagh||1||Lisburn Distillery (1)|
|Ballymena||1||Ballymena United (1)|
There have been 31 League Cup finals contested during the competition's history so far, played at six different grounds. Windsor Park has been the most common venue, having hosted 20 finals.
|Venue||Finals hosted||First final||Last final|
- "NORTHERN IRELAND FOOTBALL LEAGUE". NIFL Premiership.
- NI Football League
- "JBE TO SPONSOR LEAGUE CUP". nifootballleague.com. 6 August 2015. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
- "NI FOOTBALL LEAGUE CUP SPONSORSHIP ANNOUNCEMENT". nifootballleague.com. 20 January 2014. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
- Irn Bru unveiled as new League Cup sponsor
- Glentoran Football Club – The Pride of East Belfast – Legends
- "Cliftonville get home advantage for League Cup final". BBC Sport. 28 December 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
- "League Cup final: Cliftonville beat Ards 3–0 at Solitude". BBC Sport. 13 February 2016. Retrieved 16 February 2016.
- "Sky Sports drop Irish League". belfasttelegraph.co.uk. Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 30 May 2015.