Monday, May 04, 2009

The Irish Football League

Justin Paul gives us the view in Northern Ireland as the season reaches the climax. And gives us some history too.

The Irish Football League season was decided last weekend with Glentoran FC winning the title. Glentoran are one of Northern Ireland's big two, along with the larger and more successful Linfield FC. Glentoran are based in the largely Protestant East Belfast and you can see the shipyard of Harland and Wolff -- the builders of the Titanic over their terrace. They were the childhood team of East Belfast's most famous product, George Best, but he was rejected by the club as a youth for his smaller size. In the larger scheme of football, their success has paled in comparison to South Belfast club Linfield FC. Linfield play in Windsor Park, the home of the Northern Ireland national team and have often benefited from close links with the IFA and their status as being a Protestant club similar to Glasgow Rangers. Linfield claim to have on the most trophies of any football club in the world. To their account they have 48 Irish Premier League titles, 39 Irish Cups, and 9 Irish League Cups. However, Northern Ireland has historically had numerous other competitions not recognized by UEFA. Among these is the County Antrim Shield (a regional tournament) of which the Blues have 42 victories.

There have been numerous discontinued trophies which Linfield have won. These include the City Cup (which preceded the Irish League Cup) 22 times, the Gold Cup (which had its origins in an Federation split in the early 20th century) 33 times, and the Ulster Cup 15 times. In terms of North-South competitions, Linfield have won the North-South Cup, Blaxnit Cup, and Taylor Cup one time each and claimed a victory in the current manifestation of Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland club rivalry, the Setanta Cup in 2005. In addition there was a brief competition held to celebrate Irish League clubs getting floodlights in their grounds, with the predictable yet appropriate name Floodlit Cup, of which Linfield have won twice. This total leads to 224 trophies, a truly staggering number, no matter how small the "pond" the club plays in. This year Linfield won nothing-- not the League, the Cup, the League Cup or County Antrim Shield. The last season Linfield failed to win a single thing was 1995-1996. According to UEFA Standards however, it is Linfield's strategic ally, Rangers FC whom have won the most tropies with 51 league titles, 32 Cup Titles and 25 League Cup titles.

Glentoran will still be the 2nd team in the province, and their support continues to be mostly based in East Belfast, whereas Linfield have support from Protestant communities throughout Northern Ireland and other areas of Belfast (including the notorious loyalist working class Shankill Road). The rivalry between the two clubs is fierce and sees an annual boxing day match. Crowd trouble at this year's edition led to the IFA almost banning the fixture for 5 years, until an appeal kept the colorful post-Christmas date alive. The rivalry has seen some crazy fixtures over the years including a snow covered match in which the orange ball broke after the first half and the second half was played with a white ball on a snow logged pitch -- and an Irish Cup final between the two clubs once saw both a pig and a cockerel foisted onto the pitch

The Irish League does not produce many players of the Northern Ireland national team, and today only a handful of its stars have any experience with the league. Glentoran and Linfield both have storied histories. Glentoran reached the Cup Winners cup qf in 1974 and Linfield reached the European Cup qf in 1967. In addition Glentoran hosted a famous match against Eusebio and Benefica, drawing 1-1 in East Belfast and 0-0 in Lisbon, thus being one of the first sides to lose on an new rule-- the away goals rule. Glentoran also ran the Detroit Cougars soccer team in the United Soccer Association. The present state of Irish League football seems to have more in common with the one year wonders in Tiger Stadium than repeats of glorious ties of sides with Eusebio type stars.

The current format has seen a diminished talent pool after an ill fated move to a 16 team top flight, which was subsequently retracted back to 12. Interest in the EPL and especially Old Firm teams in the SPL hurt local gates and sponsorships. Compared to 4 full time clubs in the Eircom League in the Republic of Ireland, every club in Northern Ireland is part time. In addition, one the great heroes of the Irish League, Glenn Ferguson, is nearing the end of his run at Linfield, being now 39 years old and having scored 277 goals in his career. Yet this fierce rivalry is not likely to die, and it will be helped by the promotion of Portadown FC back to the JJB Premiership. The provincial club, playing in a city known sometimes as "the Orange Citadel" for its loyalist politics were the strongest threat to the big two monopoly in the late 90's and early part of 21st century, with a Dublin born striker Vinny Arkins as its main star. Meanwhile the game goes on the Irish Cup final next week pits Cliftonville (one of only two top flight clubs-- along with Newry City to have a majority nationalist/catholic support) against their North Belfast rivals Crusaders FC (a mostly Protestant supported club despite the name). Let's hope this league's future will be as colorful as its past.


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