In a regular column, Ryan Clarke will look at all the different aspect of Irish football; from history to current developments, interviews and league reviews. In this edition he chronicles the history of cross-border competitions and what is needed for it to make a successful return.
Like most things in Ireland, the question of an All-Ireland cross-border football competition is a complex one. In order for there to ever be a successful, sustainable introduction of such a tournament, it is essential to first look at the history of cross-border football and the failings of past iterations, together with the experiences taken from other sports and associations that operate on an All-Ireland scale.
The most popular of these All-Ireland sports associations would be IABA for amateur boxing, rugby union’s IRFU and, of course, the GAA. The advantage that these sports have over football is that they are all regulated by a single governing body that has jurisdiction over the whole island of Ireland. Football is split between the FAI and IFA, based on the partition the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Looking at GAA’s organisational structure compared to the FAI and IFA, its clear how obtuse and limiting the use of two governing bodies can be.
The island of Ireland is organised on a provincial and county basis, thirty-two counties divided among four provinces. The GAA is also organised this way, with every county having board that is responsible for all GAA activity within its boundaries. This includes fixture scheduling for club teams and managing county teams. The counties elect members to represent them at provincial level. In addition to the organisation of provincial competitions, both at club and county level, the provinces also play an important role in the distribution of central funds designated for investment in facilities at both club and county level. Changes to existing rules and competitions are discussed and ratified at the GAA’s annual AGM. While the GAA is far from perfect, it shows that with clearly defined leadership All-Ireland competitions are achievable.
The very first All-Ireland football competition began in 1881, before Ireland was partitioned in 1921, and was named the Irish Cup. The Irish Cup was to serve as the domestic cup competition for the entire island but the balance of power in Irish football at the time was firmly in the favour of the North and in particular the teams from Belfast. Bohemians and Shelbourne were the only southern teams who could compete with the northern clubs.
Both clubs won the Irish Cup before breaking away to form the FAI, along with other Irish Free State teams, after partition in 1921. The Irish Cup, the fourth oldest cup competition in world football, is still the domestic cup competition for Northern Ireland.
After partition there was a drought of cross-border football, and according to Gerard Farrell, after the schism in Irish football between the IFA and FAI they agreed to arrange an annual friendly from 1924 onwards between Bohemians and Linfield, who were the most distinguished clubs in Ireland at the time. This Condor Cup was an attempt to ease tensions between the associations. The friendly was held in alternating grounds each year with the first one held in Dalymount Park in 1924. The friendlies were contested until 1932 and then returned after a six-year absence in 1938. After this, reports on the matches begin to become vague and sketchy with the last recorded friendly being in September 1944 in Dalymount Park. Glentoran and Shamrock Rovers also played similar friendlies during this period for the Hannigan Cup, although information on this is also sparse.
Aside from the Condor Cup matches, there were no true cross-border All-Ireland football until the 1941/42 season when the Dublin and Belfast Inter-City Cup was born. At the time, the competition was a vital source of finances for struggling clubs during the Second World War and was tremendously popular with the fans too as it added much needed variety. The Inter-City Cup ran for eight seasons and the teams from the south dominated the competition; Shamrock Rovers winning it four times, with Bohemians and Dundalk with one trophy each.
After a decade long drought in cross-border football it returned briefly from 1960 to 1962 with the North-South Cup, which was plagued by poor organisation. Linfield and Glenavon were the only winners of the short-lived tournament. In its aftermath another cross-border competition didn’t rear its head until 1967 with the Blaxnit Cup. It was the third attempt at an All-Ireland competition since partition and it hobbled along until 1974 when it fizzled out due to a lack of interest and, with the rise of the Troubles, security becoming a severe issue.
The Texaco Cup was another short-lived experiment in the mid-70s until the fifth and final attempt at a cross-border competition in the 20th century, the Tyler Cup, which ran until 1981. Like its predecessors, the tournament ended after a lack of interest and a particularly nasty and violent outburst from Linfield fans in Athlone in 1980 despite winning the competition.
Cross-border football in Ireland struggled to gain a foothold for several reasons. Severe violence and security concerns plagued the competitions. Looking at the contemporary accounts, it appears that Linfield fans were among the main perpetrators of the violence during ties with teams from the Republic. Along with the aforementioned incident in Athlone, another particularly unsavoury eruption of violence occurred when Linfield played Dundalk in the 1979 European Cup. After drawing the first leg 1-1 in Dundalk, Linfield fans went on a rampage in Dundalk causing £10,000 worth of damage to residents of Dundalk and £5,000 worth of damage to Oriel Park. A UEFA report condemned Linfield and the return leg was to played in Haarlem in the Netherlands with Linfield to cover all the costs of Dundalk. Dundalk proceeded to win 3-1 on aggregate. In addition, the lack of clear communication and direction from both the IFA and FAI meant that any problems would be difficult to overcome.
Contrast this with the Collingwood Cup, the only cross-border competition that has been run successfully. Although this competition is strictly for university and college teams it has been in existence since 1914, with interruptions only because of WWI, the Irish War of Independence and the FAI/IFA split, it has run uninterrupted since 1943. This is largely down to the fact it is operated by the Irish Universities Football Union – a single governing association, unlike the senior football cross-border competitions with the FAI and IFA.
In 2005 came the first new attempt at cross-border football in a generation; the Setanta Sports Cup, which was surrounded by initial optimism. The big draw for the clubs was the substantial prize money and sponsorship that Setanta provided; €350,000 awarded to the winner with an additional €1.6m in sponsorship money dished out over four years. The prize money alone was far more than for winning the League of Ireland (R.O.I) or Irish League (N.I). While the financial incentives for the Setanta Sports Cup were enticing, the rest of the competition was plagued by many of the same issues from the past; violent crowd trouble and issues with competition structure.
It began with an 8-team format in 2005, increased to 9 teams in 2009/10, 12 from 011 to 2013 and back to 8 again by 2014. With the League of Ireland operating on a summer calendar and the Irish League on a traditional autumn/spring schedule it meant the only available months for were March to May. With Setanta Sports entering administration in 2009 it was the first bleak sign of things to come and by 2014 both Cliftonville and Linfield decided not to take part as interest had weaned in the competition (particularly up north as teams from the League of Ireland dominated) and crucially, the prize money was reduced. The 2014 edition proved to be the last time we would see the Setanta Sports Cup and an All-Ireland football competition.
From the evidence of the Setanta Sports Cup, it looks like nothing has been learnt. The future of cross-border football is quiet and it would seem that there is no appetite to see it return for a number of reasons. The contrasting schedules of both leagues makes the staging of a tournament difficult, coupled with mediocre attendances. With the increased cost of security and policing for cross-border fixtures, the lack of any substantial interest from sponsors and the dominance of the League of Ireland over the Irish League, it could be awhile before cross-border football returns.
It was reported by the Scottish press in December last year that the winners and runners-up from the League of Ireland could receive an invitation to join Scottish, Welsh and, crucially, Northern Irish clubs in the expanded Scottish Challenge Cup. Ahead of the 2017 season it was confirmed that Sligo Rovers and Bray Wanderers would compete in the next edition of the competition. This has been met with bewilderment in certain sections of Irish football as its schedule makes participation challenging and fans wouldn’t have much interest in a second-tier Scottish competition that also features underage teams.
Cross-border football will never hit the heights that it has the potential for with the FAI and IFA not providing clear leadership and adequate cooperation. A way forward (as seen with the Collingwood Cup) would be with one united governing body but the FAI and IFA are very unlikely to cede their power.
Cross-border football in Ireland has a storied and often ill-fated history. While it may not achieve what the Inter-City Cup of the 1940s did in terms of the sheer popularity and excitement generated by that competition, it can still have an important role in the landscape of Irish football. Until some serious reforms are made, this will just be a pipe dream. What history have also taught us is that before long there will be another half-baked iteration of an All-Ireland cross-border competition and the outcome will be no different than the past endeavours.