IFA Premiership

The IFA Premiership is the second oldest national soccer league in the world, just behind the English Football League. It is the 45th ranked league in Europe, according to FIFA. The league has been called by various names, including the Irish Premier League and the Irish Football League, and many in Northern Ireland still refer to it as the Irish League. Historically the league was open to the entirety of Ireland. All the teams in the IFA Premiership are semi-professional, and the league is overseen by the Irish Football Association. The league is currently sponsored by Carling, and is being marketed to fans as the Carling Premiership. Every season the IFA Premiership hands out the Gibson Cup to its champion, and the current title-holders are Linfield.

The IFA Premiership got its start in 1890 as the Irish Football League. After Ireland was partitioned, the league transformed into one exclusively for Northern Ireland in 1921, with a second league taking up residency in what is now the Republic of Ireland, called the Football Association of the Irish Free State – now the Football Association of Ireland.

During the league’s first season, travel wasn’t too difficult. In fact, seven of the league’s eight teams came from Belfast alone. This Belfast dominance continued for quite some time, with several upstarts from outside of Belfast failing after just one year on the scene. As late as the 1920s there was still only one team successfully operating outside of Belfast. Later in that decade, however, the league spread its tentacles across Northern Ireland. A champion from outside Belfast was not crowned until 1952 though. In the late 1990s and until 2003, the league was split into two divisions, but since then there has been but one grouping. That year the Irish Football Association began its takeover of the Irish Football League, which was completed in 2004. In 2008 the Irish League was reorganized, and turned into its current IFA Premiership, which consists of 12 teams: Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers, Cliftonville, Coleraine, Crusaders, Donegal Celtic, Dungannon Swifts, Glenavon, Glentoran, Linfield, Lisburn Distillery, and Portadown. The 12 squads received their memberships in the league based on an esoteric points system.

Each team plays the other 11 squads three times per season, for a total of 33 games, before the league is split into a top six and a bottom six, similar to the Scottish Premier League. Then the teams play against each team in their groups once for an extra five matches to determine the winner of the league title and to settle any possible further tournament play with the rest of Europe; the bottom six, however, fight it out to avoid relegation. League play last from August until the start of May, and most matches take place on Saturday afternoons. The crowned champs represent Northern Ireland in the UEFA Champions League the following season.

Although Linfield, with an impressive 50 titles, and Glentoran, with the second highest total of 23 championships, have traditionally taken home the hardware, there is considerable movement among the second tier of the league, making Saturday afternoon matches an interesting betting proposition. If you do your research there’s quite a bit of money to be made both on easy bets on the favorites and on some smart underdogs with questionable lines from time to time.