Association football in Ireland is run by the League of Ireland and comprises of two senior division, the Premier Division and First Division with teams promoted and relegated between the two. This current format has been in place since the 1985/86 season having previously been A and B divisions and was initially a single division. The League of Ireland was run independently since formation in 1921 though in 2006 it was brought under the control of the Irish FA which also runs the FAI Cup.
Both divisions are usually comprised of ten teams however currently the First Division has nine teams as a result of a merger between Bray Wanderers and Cabinteely. Games where played through winter until 2003 when it switched to being a summer league with the schedule currently running from February to November. In the modern format, post 1985, the most successful team is Dundalk with eight titles, ahead of Shamrock Rovers with seven and Shelbourne with six.
Ireland Premier Division
|Bohemians||Dublin (Phibsborough)||Dalymount Park||3,400|
|Drogheda United||Drogheda||United Park||3,500|
|Finn Harps||Ballybofey||Finn Park||4,500|
|St Patrick’s Athletic||Dublin (Inchicore)||Richmond Park||5,350|
|Shamrock Rovers||Dublin (Tallaght)||Tallaght Stadium||8,000|
|Shelbourne||Dublin (Drumcondra)||Tolka Park||3,600|
|Sligo Rovers||Sligo||The Showgrounds||4,000|
|UCD||Dublin (Belfield)||UCD Bowl||3,000|
About the Ireland Premier Division
- Number of Teams – 10
- Number of Relegation Places – 1 or 2
- Total Number of Matches Per Season – 180
- Average Attendance – Over 2,000
The rather mouthy League of Ireland Premier Division goes by the name Príomhroinn Sraith na hÉireann for those that speak the local language. More commonly though, you will see it as its sponsored title which is the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division. It represents the absolute top level of Irish football with the winner of the league being able to brag that they are the best football club in the entire country.
Eight Different Teams Took the Title in Past Decade
Many clubs over the years have laid right to this claim, as the Irish top flight can be quite competitive compared to other top divisions across the continent. Between 2006 and 2020, eight different teams lifted the title on at least one occasion. Looking at the same period, this is distinctly more unique winners than the top leagues in Scotland (2), England (5) and Wales (5).
Competitively run title races are not at all uncommon but most clubs are far more concerned with just staying in the division than mounting a push for the championship. The way the Premier Division relegation system works is that the team finishing in 10th is automatically relegated to the First Division, something we will talk about more later on. The team that winds up one place above, in ninth, faces a relegation play-off. During this process they face a two-legged tie against the First Division Runners up to settle their fate. Win the game and they will remain in the Premier Division for at least another year. Lose it and the victorious First Division side will take their place instead.
Although the relegation play-offs do not always end in disaster, they are something Premier Division teams are always keen to avoid as there is a lot on the line. Even playing poorly across just one half of the final match can seal a relegation. The play-offs are still much preferred to automatic relegation, of course, but often in Ireland there is no genuine contest for avoiding the rock bottom spot. What you will find quite regularly happens in the Irish top-flight is there is one team that is significantly worse than all other clubs, as you can see from the table below.
|Year||Team||Points||Points from Relegation Play-Off||Points from Guaranteed Safety|
Note, the 2020 season is omitted due to being cut short due to the global health crisis and the 2017 campaign due to league restructuring.
Although things may not go down to the wire at the bottom of Premier Division, the race to secure the last one or two European football spots tends to go the full distance. Due to their UEFA coefficient, Ireland has four European places to give out each season. Their most highly-prized spot, qualification to the Champions League first round, is automatically handed to the league champions.
The other three places are for the Europa Conference League first qualifying round. As standard, these are awarded to the teams that finish second and third in the league, plus the winner of the FAI Cup. In seasons in which the cup winner also manages to finish within the top three, the extra place is simply passed down to the fourth-placed team.
Should there be two teams level on points in fourth, or any other position for that matter, goal difference is first looked at to discern which side finishes where, followed by goals scored. This method of separating tied-on-points teams is used across both Irish divisions and it always proves sufficient as a tiebreaker. The final standings are confirmed once each team has played 36 matches, so two home and two away fixtures against every side in the division.
Ireland First Division
|Athlone Town||Athlone||Athlone Town Stadium||5,000|
|Bray Wanderers||Bray||Carlisle Grounds||3,200|
|Cobh Ramblers||Cobh||St. Colman’s Park||4,000|
|Cork City||Cork||Turners Cross||7,485|
|Galway United||Galway||Eamonn Deacy Park||5,000|
|Treaty United||Limerick||Markets Field||4,500|
About the Ireland First Division
- Number of Teams – 10
- Number of Promotion Places – 1 or 2
- Number of Relegation Places – 0
- Total Number of Matches Per Season – 180
- Average Attendance – Around 500
It would be easy to think that the ‘First Division’ is at the top of Ireland’s footballing pyramid but in actual fact, this is the sole second-tier competition in the country. As with the Premier Division, this league features 10 teams from across Ireland and the involved clubs play each other at home on two occasions and away on two occasions; facing all sides four times in total means a full regular season of First Division action sees 36 rounds of fixtures for each team.
Top of the Table Goes to Premier Division
For the team that manages to top the table after their 36 matches played, their reward is automatic promotion to the Premier Division. The league champions may be joined by another First Division side but this depends on how the promotion play-offs pan out. Four teams enter the play-offs each year, the First Division runners-up and the three clubs that finished immediately below. They then enter a knockout competition in which the team that finished second takes on the team that finished fifth and the side that ended in third place takes on the fourth-place finisher in a two-legged contest. The team that finished higher-up the table plays the second leg at home, as it gives them something of an advantage should the tie go to extra-time/penalties.
First Division Play-Off Final for Two Semi-Finalists
The two semi-final victors then face each other for a First Division play-off final. Unlike before, this is simply a one-legged contest with no replay so there must be one winner and one loser on the day. It is also played at a neutral venue as you might expect from anything labelled as a final. The sole First Division side that manages to progress from both these rounds then enters what is known as the promotion/relegation play-off. It is here where they meet the team that finished ninth in the Premier League for an all-or-nothing clash at a neutral ground. Only if the second-tier side manages to win this tie will the Premier League see two new teams the following season, rather than just one.
You may have spotted in the key figures above that there is no relegation from the Irish First Division so there are no real consequences for finishing rock bottom. This is not because there are simply no more football leagues in Ireland as there is a trio of third-tier provincial leagues – the Leinster Senior League Senior Division, the Munster Senior League and the Ulster Senior League. Instead, there is simply no formal relegation/promotion between the second and third tiers so those in the provincial leagues are unable to reach any higher than they currently are. As such, First Division sides, regardless of how poor they might be one particular season, are spared the pain of the drop.
This is quite an unusual system as in most European countries it is possible to be demoted continually until you hit some low amateur level. The Irish system is not as much of a closed shop as say the MLS in America, which has absolutely no promotion or relegation, but only allowing movement between just two leagues is rare. That said, it is possible for provincial teams to occasionally receive an invite into the First Division. St James’s Gate accepted this invitation for the 1990/91 season, replacing Newcastlewest. They dropped out shortly after though ahead of the 1996/97 season due to monetary issues. With the league now a team short, St Francis FC were invited to apply for the vacant spot, along with two other teams, and theirs was the successful bid.
Having struggled for several years, regularly finishing bottom, St Francis returned to the Leinster Senior League in 2001. This is basically how provincial or newly formed teams get their chance in the League of Ireland, through an existing side running into financial woes or simply being too uncompetitive. When Limerick FC folded at the end of 2019, Treaty United FC, effectively a phoenix club, emerged a few months later and joined the First Division in 2021. In doing so, they replaced the temporary measure that had seen Shamrock Rovers’ reserve team join the division to ensure it had a full offering of 10 teams.
It is not possible for First Division sides to qualify for a European club competition through their league position but they can if they win the FAI Cup. Naturally, this has proved difficult for second-tier sides over the years but there have been some examples with Bray Wanderers being the first in 1990/91. There have been a few more instances since then and there was also one exceptional case in 2015 in which Ireland was awarded an extra European place through the Fair Play ranking system. As the two teams with the best disciplinary record had already qualified for Europe, the space went to the next fairest team, First Division side UCD Dublin.
League of Ireland History
The League of Ireland was first formed in 1921 and in its inaugural season, eight teams took part in the competition with St James’s Gate FC proving the best of the lot. Dublin clubs dominated the league in its very early years but moving into the 1930s and there were tales of success from clubs residing outside of the capital. Dundalk and Sligo Rovers both were crowned champions during this decade while Cork FC and Waterford enjoyed glory in the FAI Cups. This helped football spread around the country and new teams quickly began to emerge.
1958: Shamrock Rovers Took on Man United
Fast forward to 1958 and for the first time, a League of Ireland side featured in a UEFA club competition. In the contest, Shamrock Rovers took on the English giants of Manchester United. With a gulf in ability separating them, the Irish outfit ended up losing 9-2 on aggregate in the European Cup bout. Although breezed past then, Irish clubs have occasionally enjoyed some much better European nights over the years. Shamrock themselves beat Partizan Belgrade in a Europa League qualifying match and in doing so become the first Irish team to book their place in the group stages of the competition. There is also the time Cork City drew 1-1 with Bavarian powerhouse Bayern Munich back in the 1991/92 UEFA Cup.
1985: Birth of the Irish Premier & First Divisions
By the early 1980s many teams in the League of Ireland were facing a difficult time financially. This happened all over the country and it saw some clubs, such as Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic, forced to move out of their stadium. To help improve the situation, clubs across Ireland sought to reorganise the existing league structure. The result was that in 1985 we saw the birth of the Irish Premier Division and the Irish First Division, so the system currently in place today. The top-flight saw 12 teams compete in its inaugural season while the First Division welcomed 10 teams.
2003: Summer League Begins
The restructuring worked as well as hoped with the Republic of Ireland domestic game improving significantly across the 1990s. Better finances also enabled Shamrock Rovers to return to their normal home of Glenmalure Park. A major change followed in 2003 as the League of Ireland began to operate as a summer league, something you typically find with countries that have bitterly cold winters. Once the 2002/03 season had concluded, there was only a short break ahead of the 2003 season. It was hoped the change would help boost attendances as several weeks of cold and wet weather matches would now be played in the summer instead.
The switch to a summer league applied to both the Premier Division and First Division as they have regularly operated in tandem. Both have suffered ups and downs since, and there have been teams that have suffered major financial problems, but on the whole Ireland’s top two tiers have survived well since the 1985 restructure.