The Forgotten Ireland: A Profile of Northern Irish Football

Northern Ireland has long been viewed as the less fashionable of the Irish nations, and when it comes to football the external view is no different. From their origins as a united Ireland team to two very separate football entities, politics and unrest have littered their history and inevitably their football.

With more name changes than hip-hop artist Sean Coombs, Northern Ireland’s domestic championship has been called the Irish Football League, Irish Premier League, IFA Premiership and most recently in 2013 the NIFL Premiership. Originally formed in 1890 the semi-professional league is second in age only to the Football League in England.  Originally the competition encompassed the whole of Ireland but curiously up until 1903 only teams from what is now Northern Ireland competed, and seven of the eight were Belfast-based. Southern Irish teams appeared sporadically between 1903 and 1920 but quickly disappeared with the majority lasting only one season ensuring a Belfast monopoly.

When separation came in 1920 the Irish Free State (Republic of Ireland) formed a breakaway association and Northern Irish football expanded across the country accepting non-Belfast based teams with open arms. Their regional newcomers however were not nearly as talented and it took over three decades of competition before in 1952 Glenavon became the first team outside of Belfast to take the Championship.

One of the non-Belfast teams that have been the subject of most controversy is Derry City. Playing at the notorious Brandywell Stadium, their sacred home ground sits in a traditionally nationalist city with a largely Catholic support. With sectarianism at its most vicious the club left the Irish League in 1972 after the security forces banned the club from playing at the ground. Furthermore the League continued the ban amongst accusations that the largely Protestant, Belfast-centered League were happy to keep Derry in the wilderness. After a period of playing youth and amateur football Derry City reappeared in the Republic’s League of Ireland in 1985 and have since remained in the top flight bar one season due to a ban brought about from huge club debts. The club remains the sole Northern Irish team to be playing in the Republic.

An incredible three teams have played exclusively in Northern Ireland’s top flight (in it’s various forms) since the formation in 1890. Cliftonville, Glentoran and Linfield are still going strong with Cliftonville winning the 2012-2013 title, only the fourth in their history. Linfield lead the overall standings with an astonishing 51 championships, over double their nearest rivals Glentoran with 23 and the rest of the existing teams with only a handful shared amongst them.

Since 1999 nine out of the last 13 seasons Linfield maintained their recent dominance and substantially bulk up the numbers that show the extent of Belfast teams’ monopoly; in 113 seasons, 102 titles have gone to teams in the capital.

The current format of the league, the NIFL Premiership, sees 12 teams play each other three times over the season. The clubs are then split into the leading six that play each other for the title and the bottom six that battle to avoid relegation. With three changes in name and format in ten years, supporters and clubs hope that the latest reorganisation is the last for some time.

As with the early domestic league Northern Ireland shared a football association with the Republic playing under the simple ‘Ireland’ from 1882 to 1921. For the purposes of history and records, pre-1921 results are attributed to the current Northern Ireland national team. It is almost certain that they wish this was never the case as their record was abysmal, barely registering a victory in decades that saw a 14 game losing streak including heavy, double-figure defeats mainly at the hands of England and Scotland.

The national team endured a spell of relatively little football between 1928 and 1946 as the Irish Football Association did not affiliate with FIFA, but their status was to rise dramatically in 1958 with their first appearance at the World Cup. With the Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower captaining the team alongside his brother, Manchester United’s Jackie, they forced their way into the Quarterfinals finally being humbled by France.

This promising era was to disintegrate into a period of little success in the 1960s and 1970s until their next World Cup appearance in 1982.  Their most famous victory in history unraveled when they beat hosts Spain 1-0 with ten men at an intimidating atmosphere in Valencia, winning their first round group before stumbling at the second stage. They followed this up by qualifying four years later to play at Mexico ’86 but bowed out at the group stage that included Algeria, Spain and Brazil.

With no European Championship appearances in their history their recent record has been sporadic. Ranked at 27th in the world in 2007 and 2009, this was seen as the David Healy inspired era, the former Leeds, Sunderland and Rangers striker snatching important goals to beat the likes of England and take the all-time leading scorers title with 36 goals. Despite this surge they currently languish at 109th unable to be consistent. Remarkably however just last week Northern Ireland snatched a 1-0 win against Fabio Capello’s Russia in a game they dominated throughout. Although it will make little difference to their fortunes, Russia will be devastated as they sit second in the group behind Portugal. With four games remaining for Brazil 2014 qualifying it is likely a fourth-place finish out of six would be a solid achievement for The Green and White Army.

Despite not producing a world-class team at any stage, they did once harbour one of the greatest players, and social drinkers, on the plant. George Best needs no introduction but when he was at his peak in the late 1960s and 1970s the national team was poor and not even the mercurial Best could carry them.

Another ex-Manchester United star and national hero, Norman Whiteside was a talented, clinical striker and announced his arrival on football’s biggest stage with a bang. The youngest player ever to play at a World Cup in 1982, Whiteside was cruelly cut down by injury and forced to retire at 26 years old.

The current squad is a mixture of young playing in England’s Premiership and Championship as well as the likes of experienced goalkeeper Roy Carroll, of Greece’s Olympiakos and the prolific ex-Rangers and now Palermo striker Kyle Lafferty. Manchester United’s Jonny Evans provides the steel at centre-back alongside Blackburn’s Aaron Hughes leading the current crop on 87 appearances for his country.

Northern Ireland’s most recent challenge has come in the form of their old foe and neighbour, the Republic. Since separation almost 100 years ago there were no clear rules of player representation despite the countries having separate Football Associations. Players could represent either Irish nation and on some occasions were called up by both teams and had to choose which one whereas others had split loyalties and played for both nations within days of each game.

By 1953 FIFA stepped in to prevent any further ambiguity after the Northern Ireland (known as the IFA XI) called up four players that were born in the Republic and had already played for them (known as the FAI XI). The world governing body demanded that both nations had distinct names adding Republic and Northern to their official titles.

This has not stopped recent controversy over players switching their allegiance. In 2007 Darren Gibson, born in Derry, chose to represent the Republic at senior level after playing at junior level for his country of birth. It has worked in the reverse also but the underlying argument is that the Republic has a more talented team and Northern Ireland needs all the help they can get. This has not been helped by Northern Ireland declaring publicly that their youngsters can play for who they wish.

As “The Troubles” have flared again recently off the pitch, Northern Irish football seems set to continue to play second fiddle to it’s Republic step-brother and neighbour. The predictable semi-professional domestic league will remain so with its talent acquired and groomed by English or Scottish clubs, a positive for the national team as it aims to qualify for future national competitions, but an inevitable formality that will keep the league’s growth stunted.

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