Much overshadowed by the more popular leagues in England, and a lesser extent Scotland, football in Northern Ireland has been unfairly overlooked by those outside of the country. But the league in Northern Ireland is taken very seriously by locals with loyal fans travelling the nation to support their clubs.
The top flight in Northern Ireland has undergone several name changes, being known as the Irish Football League until 2003 when it was rebranded as the Irish Premier League. Only 5 years later it became known as the IFA Premiership and then in 2013 the NIFL Premiership was born.
Throughout the season 12 teams compete in the NIFL Premiership, who also have domestic competitions including the prestigious Irish Cup to contend with. The winners enter the UEFA Champions League at the qualifying stage with the two runners up entering the Europa League qualifying rounds. Sadly, UEFA don’t recognise the league as significant in continental terms and it ranks 47th out of 53 leagues in their rankings, below the likes of Luxembourg and Liechenstien. But that doesn’t prevent the locals from taking the NIFL Premiership very seriously indeed.
Cliftonville, Glentoran and Linfield have played in an impressive 114 season each of league football are their names are known around the continent as they have made appearances in prestigious European competitions. The likes of Portadown and Coleraine have long histories whilst the NIFL Premiership now also boasts newer clubs such as Warrenpoint Town and Ballinamallard United to give the league a strong competitive edge. Results are unpredictable, leagues tend to be separated by few points and the title race grips the country come the end of May.
Linfield fans have had the most to cheer throughout their history and their 51 titles are only bettered in Europe by Rangers of Scotland. In fact since winning their first crown in 1890 the club have won more than double the titles of their nearest rival, Glentoran who had won 23 titles. Cliftonville have rose to prominence in recent season with back to back titles in 2013 and 2014 and the league retains is universal appeal and “anyone can win” factor.
Although names like Joe Gormley, Rory Patterson and Curtis Allen may not be household names in the rest of the UK, in Northern Ireland these men have grown into legends through their prolific scoring in the league.
But it is not just the league that provides football action in the country but its the same teams that have dominated the prestigious Irish Cup. Again, Linfields record of 42 cup wins is close to a European Record and together with Glentoran they have dominated the competition. Cup Final days rings its own traditions, customs and it seems like the whole of nation tunes in.
With a passionate following, a strong supporter base and clubs steeped in tradition, Northern Ireland has a rich footballing heritage and a league to be proud of.