The Premiership in England and Scotland
Soccer is Northern Ireland’s most popular sport, and almost every football fan in Northern Ireland supports an English or Scottish Premiership side. Due to the relative proximity of Glasgow to Belfast, and historic links between Northern Ireland and Scotland as a whole, Scottish games attract large numbers of visiting supporters from Ireland every week. Which Glaswegian team you support is usually defined by your cultural heritage: Celtic are traditionally supported by Catholics, and Rangers by Protestants. These divisions are more entrenched in Northern Ireland than in Glasgow, which has seen sectarian tensions ease in recent years. The number of Irish fans who travel to matches between Celtic and Rangers is remarkably high, and sometimes tensions on the field when these ‘Old Firm’ teams meet spills over into the streets of Belfast and Derry.
Other British cities with a sizeable Northern Irish following include Liverpool and Manchester, both historical centres for Irish immigration. However, young supporters now usually chose a team for their success on the field, not because of a link to the area. Bars all over Northern Ireland showing such matches are exceptionally well attended.
The Irish Football League
The excitement generated by the English and Scottish Premiership teams means the local game has suffered. There are 16 teams in the local Premier Division. The league is structured like most other European leagues, with sides playing each other twice a season. The division winner is the side that has collected most points over the course of the season. Attendances struggle to reach 1000 even for matches between the ‘big three’ of Northern Ireland clubs—Linfield, Glentoran and Portadown. League matches are usually more of a social gathering for fans, with the half-time drink in the social club sometimes lasting right through the second half.
Low attendance figures and lack of local support means the league struggles financially. Transfer fees are usually minimal. Most players hold down a full-time job during the week, receiving only a small appearance fee. The best a local team can hope for is to qualify for a European competition and draw a big club. This boosts gate receipts and can guarantee additional revenue if the match is televised. Over the years, some clubs have been able to organise high profile friendly matches. Liverpool and Manchester United have played in Northern Ireland on numerous occasions, generating substantial income.
One Northern Irish club, Derry City, plays in the Irish Republic’s semi-professional Eircom Premier League, run by the Football Association of Ireland. Derry left the Irish Football League in 1973 after the troubled relationship between the club and the league culminated in widespread sectarian violence at their home ground, the Brandywell. The Candystripes, as they are known, have had some memorable moments over the years, and attract a healthier crowd to their grounds than most northern teams. They remain the only club in Ireland to have played in two leagues.
There is, however, no shortage of budding participants in local soccer, with numerous amateur league sides. Playing fields across Northern Ireland are in high demand on Saturday afternoons, when pub-sides and workmates organise themselves into a team. Some amateur sides are very well run and generate sizeable crowds of their own.
Internationally, Northern Ireland has enjoyed widespread coverage because of their record-breaking run of 14 matches without a goal, broken in February 2004. The international side’s poor reputation is at odds with their historic ranking as one of the leading sides in Europe. Northern Ireland have qualified for the FIFA World Cup three times, and under Billy Bingham in the 1980s appeared in two successive finals. Windsor Park, home of the international side since the 1900s, was regularly sold out as fans flocked to see some of the best players in British football turn out for Northern Ireland. These included Martin O’Neill, Norman Whiteside, Pat Jennings and Sammy McIlroy.
Northern Ireland’s most famous footballing son has had very little to do with his country’s soccer infrastructure. George Best was born in Belfast in May 1946, and became a global superstar in the 1960s with his combination of good looks and mesmerising footballing skill. He signed for Manchester United when he was 15 and, despite playing for an array of clubs in the 1970s and early 1980s, he never represented a local side in a competitive match. Best now regrets not playing more matches for the national side. Despite winning the numerous honours with Manchester United and winning the European Player of the Year award in 1967, he only scored nine times for Northern Ireland. He regarded internationals as practice matches and used to hold onto the ball because he had no faith in his teammates to keep hold of it themselves.
By Conor McLaughlin