Region = Europe
The European Cup began in the 1955/1956 season and it was two years later when Glenavon became the first entrants from Northern Ireland when they played AGF Aarhus of Denmark. In the 1960/1961 season Glenavon were again involved when they were drawn against Erzgebirge from East Germany. Because of the difficulties at that time with travelling through the ‘Iron Curtain’ both sides were refused visas to travel to each other’s countries. The situation could not be resolved and therefore Glenavon withdrew from the competition. There was a similar story the following season when Linfield were drawn against Vorwärts of East Berlin. The first leg did take place in Berlin and Linfield went down 3 - 0. However, once again, the East Germans were refused visas to travel for the second leg in Belfast and Linfield withdrew this time.
In the 1966/1967 season Linfield fought their way through to the quarter-finals only losing narrowly to CSKA Sofia of Bulgaria 3 – 2 on aggregate. This is the furthest that any Irish League team has progressed in any European competition. This was the season that Glasgow Celtic became the first British winners of the competition.
The competition ended in the 1991/1992 season and was replaced by the UEFA Champions’ League. Portadown were Northern Ireland’s last representative that year.
Some bad beatings were handed out to Irish League teams. Crusaders lost 11 - 0 to Dinamo Bucuresti in 1973. Derry City lost 9 – 0 to Anderlecht in 1965 and both Glentoran and Linfield were on the wrong end of 8 – 0 score lines handed out by Red Star Belgrade in 1965 and PSV Eindhoven in 1975 respectively. And Porto destroyed Portadown 8 – 1 in 1990. But it didn’t stop them coming back for more!
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup
The Fairs Cup was a European competition that was started in the 1955/1956 season and ran until 1970/1971 when it was replaced by the UEFA Cup. It was initially set up to promote cities who were holding fairs. Friendly matches were held between teams from those cities but it gradually became a European competition. Glentoran were the first Northern Irish team to take part in 1962/1963 season. Coleraine were the most successful entrants from here progressing to the second phase on two occasions, the second of which was in the 1970/1971 season when the competition ended.
The Intertoto Cup was a competition run by UEFA for teams who had not qualified for one of the other European competitions. It was started in season 1961/1962 as the International Football Cup but was renamed the Intertoto Cup in 1995. Irish League clubs entered the competition in the 1996/1997 season with Cliftonville being the Irish League’s first representative. It was essentially a summer competition with matches starting as early as mid-June. Clearly this did not give teams here very long to recover from the previous season. For the first couple of seasons the format was that of a mini-league with Ards being our representative in the second season. Neither team progressed past this point.
In subsequent seasons the format changed to a home and away knock-out. Newry Town, Coleraine and Cliftonville succeeded in making it through to the second round when their time came. The competition did allow some clubs from lower down the league to have a chance in Europe but visits to Eastern Europe probably didn’t enhance their coffers.
The 2008/2009 season was the last for the competition. By that time twelve Irish League teams, who previously may have only dreamt of European competition, had visited foreign fields.
UEFA Champions League
The Champions League is the major European competition. It replaced the European Cup from the 1992/1993 season onwards. The format has changed several times over its lifespan but currently Irish League clubs will enter at a preliminary or qualifying round stage. The winner of the previous season’s league is always nominated for this. The first entrants from Northern Ireland were Glentoran. Up to now no Irish League club has got past the second stage of the competition.
UEFA Conference League
The Conference League was introduced for the 2021-2022 season as a third tier competition behind the Champions' League and the Europa League. The competition is essentially a route for clubs from counties with a lower UEFA performance coefficient. Clubs from the Irish League fall into this category. However it also acts as some sort of an 'escape route' for those clubs who have qualified for the Champions' League but lose out at the qualifying round. These teams get another chance to progress through a European competition. In the 2020/2021 season Linfield, as League and Cup winners, qualified for the 2021/2022 Champions' League. Larne, as Cup runners-up, went into the Conference League at the first qualifying round and they were joined by Glentoran and Coleraine because of their finishing positions in the previous season's League competition.
Glentoran and Coleraine stumbled in Qualifying Round 1 at the hands of The New Saints and Velež respectively. Larne beat Bala Town in round one and AGF Aarhus in round two before going down to Paços de Ferreira in round three. Linfield, having lost out in the Champion's League, joined the Conference League at qualifying round two where they beat Borac Banja Luka. In round three they were beaten by Fola Esch. The competition is a great way for Irish League clubs to earn European money which in most cases will amount to several hundreds of thousands of euro!
The UEFA Cup morphed out of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and started in the 1971/1972 season. Glentoran were the first entrants from Northern Ireland when they played Eintracht Braunschweig from what was then West Germany. Northern Irish teams didn’t do particularly well in this competition with only Portadown, Glentoran, Glenavon and Linfield (twice) making it past the first round. The competition ended in the 2008/2009 season and was replaced the following season by the UEFA Europa League.
UEFA Cup Winners Cup
The competition started in the 1960/1061 season as the European Cup Winners’ Cup before changing its name for the 1994/1995 season. Glenavon were the first entrants for Northern Ireland in the following season. As the name suggests, the winners of the Irish Cup in the previous season are nominated to compete. In the situation where the league champions had also won the cup then the league runners-up were nominated instead. The competition finished in the 1998/1999 season and was not replaced. Glentoran were the last entrants from Northern Ireland.
UEFA Europa League
The Europa League took over from the UEFA Cup competition for the 2009/2010 season and is still running today. Essentially it was for clubs who had either won their domestic cup competition or who had finished just below the clubs who had qualified for the Champions League. From the Irish League’s point of view this gave more than one club an opportunity to experience European football in the same season. The number of clubs from here who could take part in any season was determined by a European coefficient based on the previous years’ performances of clubs from here. In the first season Lisburn Distillery, Linfield and Crusaders all took part. The introduction of the UEFA Conference League for the 2021/2022 season meant that Irish League clubs who would have competed in the Europa League now compete in the Conference League.
The seasons 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 were the most successful for Irish League clubs with both Linfield and Coleraine making it through to the third stage of the competition.