The Biggest Soccer League in Ireland
As soccer fans, we’re all immersed in the English Premier League, a collection of some of the world’s greatest players, playing in iconic stadiums across England. It’s unmissable. But do other countries have anything similar? What is the biggest soccer league in Ireland?
The League of Ireland Premier Division is the highest division of soccer played in the Republic of Ireland. The Premier Division currently features 10 teams that play for a piece of the current prize pool of EU600,000.
Let’s have a look at the history, the teams, and how the Premier Division of Ireland stacks up compared to the world-famous Premier League.
Irish Soccer History
Under the League of Ireland, top-tier Irish soccer was traditionally played in one league which dates from 1921. However, due to increased popularity in the latter half of the century, a second tier was added in 1985, giving greater opportunity for players to develop and progress their career through leagues.
This additional league paved the way for The Premier Division to facilitate the top teams in Ireland, whilst the First Division (immediately below the Premier Division) is currently home to nine soccer teams in The Republic of Ireland. Since 2010, title sponsorship has been provided by SSE Airtricity, and is commonly referred to as the SSE Airtricity League.
These top two leagues are controlled by the soccer Association of Ireland (FAI), which operates similarly to the FA in England, in providing commercial, technical, legal, and financial assistance.
It’s worth saying that Northern Ireland have their own top-tier League too, the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) Premiership, which consists of the 12 best teams based in Northern Ireland.
Whilst teams in these different national leagues do not normally play each other competitively, the annual FAI Cup gives the opportunity for these fierce sporting rivals in Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland to play for an overall win in a knockout-style competition.
To ensure the nurturing and support of young talent in Irish soccer, U19, U17, U15, and U13 leagues have recently been created below the First Division, allowing junior players to experience top level soccer within their age group. This mirrors the structure seen in professional soccer in England.
As can be expected with any European nations’ top-flight division, the winning team of the Premier Division automatically gains automatic qualification into the first qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.
As it stands, Dundalk lead the way in UEFA Champions League participation, with a total of 5 entries into the European event, but have failed to ever make it past the group stages, with their best result taking them to the group stages where they managed to snatch a 1-0 win against Maccabei Tel Aviv. Whilst they again managed to qualify in the first round of the 2020-21 Champions League, they’ll be hoping to see a better future result than their single lost game.
In 2023, there are ten teams in the Premier Division in Ireland, with another nine teams in the First Division below them. Like many leagues, the League of Ireland employs a relegation system between the two divisions, with the top team in First Division earning promotion to the Premier Division, and the bottom team in the Premier Division, conversely, being demoted.
The second highest and and second lowest placed teams in the First Division and Premier Division respectively, playoff for the final spot in the Premier Division, allowing an ailing team a chance to cling on, or the second best a chance of promotion.
Since the inception of the Premier Division in 1985, four cornerstone Irish clubs have fielded a team in every season. These are; Shelbourne, Bohemians, Dundalk, and Shamrock Rovers.
In 2023, the Shamrock Rovers will be looking to defend their title and have some great odds when you look at the Irish bookmakers covering the event, which they have won back-to-back in 2021 and 2020. With key players in Ronan Finn and Aaron Greene, they’ll be looking to make it a hat-trick of wins in the Premier Division this year.
Despite their recent success, the title of most League wins goes to another traditional club, and Rovers rival; Dundalk. They have an impressive trophy cabinet with 8 league wins to their name, also qualifying for the 2016 UEFA Champions League playoff-round.
Given the recent successes of Dundalk and The Rovers, you would be forgiven for thinking that either one of these clubs were the oldest in the League. However, that honour belongs to Shelbourne FC, with a history dating back to 1895, making it over 125 years old. Deservedly, they hold the third highest number of Premier Division wins, at 6, behind Dundalk (8) and Shamrock Rovers (7).
One major difference between top-tier soccer in Ireland and England is the size of the stadiums. You won’t find any Middle-Eastern airline sponsored super-pitches with capacity near to 100,000 and state-of-the-art facilities, oh no.
In fact, the largest home ground of any Premier Division club belongs to the Shamrock Rovers who, at Tallaght Stadium, can draw in a crowd of up to 8,000. Although major work is underway to boost this to 10,000 in the near future, it’s still a far cry from the near 75,000 that can pack into Old Trafford on a home day.
Whilst the Premier Division in Ireland is no match for the Premier League of England, there is something to be said for the largest Irish Soccer League. The fans are fanatically loyal, and the relatively small stadium size allows those fans to be much more immersed in matches – standing just feet from the players and getting within touching distance of their local heroes.
One thing is for sure, if you want a close-up piece of the action, then you will not be disappointed with soccer in Ireland, and we’d thoroughly recommend dropping into a local game if you’re ever over in the Emerald Isle.
Have you had an up close and personal experience of Irish soccer? We’d love to hear your stories below!