National League history

A History of League Soccer in Ireland

Association football first arrived on Ireland's shores in 1878 after businessman John M. McAlery went to Edinburgh for his honeymoon. There he found the well-established game of soccer and when he decided to introduce it to Ireland, he first arranged for two Scottish sides, Queen's Park and Caledonians, to play an exhibition game at the Ulster cricket ground in Ballymafeigh. Following this, McAlery set up the first association football club in Ireland, Cliftonville, in Belfast. A year later the Irish Football Association was born in the Queen's Hotel in Belfast on November 18th 1880. The association had seven founding clubs: Knock, Oldpark, Distillery, Moyla Park, Cliftonville, Avoniel and Alexander (Limavady). Moyla Park won the first Irish Senior Cup.

The early years of the sport were dominated by northern clubs as the game was slow to spread south, and it wasn't until 1883 that Dublin's first club was formed - Dublin Association FC, followed shortly after by the formation of Dublin University (Trinity College). A year later the first Dubliner appeared on the Ireland team. However the national team did not have much success in its early years, starting off with a 13-0 defeat to England in 1881. It wasn't until 1887, when Wales were beaten 4-1, that they recorded their first victory. The 1880s also saw the formation of the GAA, which would have a major impact on soccer in Ireland, its effects continuing to the present day.

1890 saw the formation of two new Dublin clubs, Bohemians and Leinster Nomads, who had many members from the now disbanded Dublin Association FC. Two years later the Leinster Football Association was formed with five founding members (Bohemians, Montpelier, St Helen's School, Dublin University and Leinster Nomads). In 1895 Bohemians became the first club outside Ulster to reach the Irish Cup final, only to lose 10-1 to Belfast side Linfield. A year later, as the game continued to spread the Munster Football Association was formed, as well as Belfast Celtic, while Shelbourne FC reached the Leinster Senior Cup final.

In 1900 came the staging of inter-provincial games as first Leinster hosted Munster before taking on Ulster at the Suburban Grounds (now Croke Park). A year later Dublin staged its first Irish Cup Final at Jones' Road when Cliftonville beat Dublin side Freebooters of Sandymount. In 1902 Phibsbrough side Bohemians entered the Irish League having opened Dalymount Park two years earlier.

1906 was the year the Irish Cup was taken out of Ulster when Shelbourne beat Belfast Celtic in the final. Two years later Shelbourne and Bohemians contested the first all-Dublin Irish Cup final.

After the Easter Rising of 1916 major differences of opinion began to grow between football authorities in the north and the south. Shelbourne was to be the last southern club to win the Irish Cup - by default following a riot between the nationalist club Belfast Celtic and Glentoran. The following year Shelbourne, along with Bohemians and Saint James' Gate, withdrew from the Irish League and, together with Dublin United, Frankfort, Jacobs, Olympia and YMCA, became founder members of the new southern league. A new body was formed in June in the south called the Football Association of the Irish Free State.

A number of incidents had contributed to the split, including the decision by the IFA not to allow the Irish Cup final to be played in Dublin because of civil unrest, while Shelbourne refused to travel north for the final. Angry at the secession, the IFA had the new association black-listed at first but the FAIFS were given backing by the new world governing body, FIFA. From 1921 on there were irreconcilable differences between the football authorities in the two jurisdictions.

Dublin side Saint James’ Gate became the first winners of the Irish Free State League run by the FAIFS in 1922. They also beat the newly-formed Shamrock Rovers in the Senior Cup Final to record a double. Rovers, who were then members of the Leinster Senior League, won the League the following year and would go on to be a major force in Irish club football. The following year a Belfast side, Alton Towers, won the Irish Free State Cup; most of their members came from the suspended Belfast Celtic. Later that year Ireland were finally formally recognized by FIFA, while the International Board agreed to grant Ireland ‘dominion status’.

In 1926 the Irish League took on the their Free State counterparts losing 3-1 in Dalymount Park: it was to be half a century before their respective international teams met in competition.

By 1931 the new FAIFS had become established and the International Board made a proposal to restrict the IFA to only players from the six counties in Northern Ireland. This proposal was defeated by the IFA, however, and it wasn't until a number of years later that the issue was settled. The IFA also made the decision to revert back to green for their international side and ditch the blue jerseys of Saint Patrick's Athletic.

Dundalk won the 1932/33 season to bring to an end the dominance of the Dublin clubs, who had won the Free State League from its conception. Football was now establishing itself in the major towns and cities around Ireland, and in particular in Dundalk, Sligo and Waterford where Gaelic games were not as dominant. Although Dublin clubs remained strong the top four of the 1936/37 season were Sligo Rovers, Waterford, Dundalk and Bray Unknowns.

Ireland's neutrality during the Second World War meant that the League continued through the war years while the Dublin - Belfast Intercity Cup was set up. Dundalk were the first winners of the cup in 1941.

In the National League the post-war years were again dominated by Dublin sides with only Cork breaking the stranglehold between 1946 and 1959. 1957 also saw Irish clubs compete in Europe for the first time when Shamrock Rovers took part in the European Cup. It was a cold blast of reality when they were drubbed 9-2 on aggregate by the English Champions Manchester United. Despite some good performances through the years, the European competitions were to expose the weaknesses in the amateur Irish club sides. The end of the decade saw new champions, as Limerick beat off the challenges of Cork City and Shelbourne.

In the 1960s, in the National League a new force was emerging in Waterford United, who won the league four times in five seasons between 1965 and 1970. Just prior to that one of the most successful clubs in Ireland, Drumcondra, won their final league championship. The 1960s also saw an increase in the number of top Irish players playing their football across the water in England. It meant Irish clubs suffered in Europe as they struggled to make it past the first round in most competitions.

It also led to a growing division between the international team and the domestic game, as managers opted for players who were gaining experience in what was clearly a superior league.

In 1974 Waterford United became Ireland's first League Cup winners in a decade when for once the league wasn't dominated by Dublin sides. In general the 70s were a time of optimism for the National League as clubs like Shamrock Rovers took on Brazil in a friendly and announced plans for a 50,000 all-seater stadium. As the 1980s would show this optimism was totally misplaced and rather than thinking about grandiose plans most clubs would be fighting for survival. The one highlight was in 1979 when Dundalk took on Glasgow Celtic for a place in the quarterfinals European Cup. After a 0-0 draw at home Dundalk played bravely in the return leg but lost 3-2.

By the 1980s in the National League, things were going from bad to worse as the crowds disappeared and clubs went into the red. Ireland's most famous club - Shamrock Rovers - even lost their ground in Milltown on the south side of Dublin. The underlying reason for most of this was the competition from England: with live English games now being shown on TV in Ireland, people began to lose interest in their local clubs and the League suffered as a result. Major changes were needed in domestic football, but the cash-strapped clubs lacked the finances to make them, and despite their growing income from international games (in the 1980s alone, Ireland played 78 international matches; between the early twenties and the end of the ’50s, the comparable total was 74 matches over four decades). Even the FAI seemed to share the public’s declining interest in the domestic game.

A re-structuring of the National League in the mid-80s introduced new blood, with two divisions and a total of 22 clubs. Some of the new teams made an immediate impact on the hitherto cosy world of the top flight, with Bray Wanderers, Derry City and Drogheda United all gaining trophies in their first seasons in the League. Derry went on to become League Champions only four seasons after their entry to the League.

The 90s were dominated by the success of the National team, and despite a certain amount of funding from the FAI, clubs still struggled to make ends meet. By the end of the decade, however, the Association had finally realised that urgent measures were now necessary to ensure the long-term survival of the domestic game. A radical re-organisation of the League and Cups season was planned, as was a change in the membership of the two Divisions of the League. These changes were due to come into effect beginning in the 2002/03 season, with the following one to be played from Spring to Autumn: ‘Summer Football’.

The saga continues ...

[based on a 2000 draft from; additional material (c) 2002]

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