Region = Northern Ireland
The Alhambra Cup was a short-lived competition and only lasted for two seasons - 1921/1922 and 1922/1923. At the time there were only six teams in the Irish League. As a result of this there was a paucity of matches. The Alhambra Cup was the season-opener knock-out competition. The first round saw four of the league teams paired-off and the two winners, plus the two other non-playing teams, go through to the semi-final. Then it was a conventional knock-out to find the winners. Linfield beat Cliftonville 1 - 0 in the first final but Cliftonville turned the tables the following year, defeating the Blues 2 - 0.
Belfast and District League
Despite the outbreak of the Great War in July 1914, the Irish League competition ran as normal and was completed as planned. For the following 1915/1916 season it was realised that it would not be possible to have a ‘normal’ competition and therefore the League was suspended. There was still, however, an appetite for football. In August 1915 a meeting was held between five of the six Northern teams who had comprised the Irish League. These were Cliftonville, Distillery, Glenavon, Glentoran and Linfield. Belfast Celtic was not represented at the meeting but it was decided to write and invite them too. Subsequently they declined to compete in the new competition. Glenavon agreed to play all of their home matches in Belfast.
In late August a fixture list was drawn up with just the five teams. This would mean that one team would not be playing each week. However just prior to the first game a new club called Belfast United was formed and the fixture list was adjusted to include them. Just like the normal Irish League format each team would play the other teams twice, home and away.
The competition continued for seasons 1915/1916, 1916/1917 and 1917/1918 with the aforementioned clubs but Glenavon decided not to compete in the 1918/1919 season. Belfast Celtic took their place. This was the final season for the competition as it was deemed that the Irish League could restart for the following season.
Belfast Charity Cup
Most people have never heard of the Belfast Charity Cup but in actual fact it was one of the longest-running competitions in Northern Ireland. In the 1883/1884 season, not long after association football started here, the idea of having a competition that would benefit charities in the greater Belfast area was born. Like most competitions, the format varied over the years. For most seasons only teams in Belfast were invited to take part. As a result this eventually limited the entrants to Belfast Celtic, Cliftonville, Distillery, Glentoran and Linfield. A draw was made which would initially pit two of the teams together in a first round match. The winners would progress to the semi-final stage and join the other three teams there. It was straightforward knock-out from then on. For some seasons Intermediate level teams and even some from the Army would be invited to compete at the first round stage. There were even a few occasions when teams from outside Belfast were invited too.
Prior to the 1897/1898 season's competition there was a dispute between the Irish League clubs and the trustees of the competition over the payment of professional players. Consequently the Cup's name was changed to the 'City of Belfast Charities Competition.' The original trophy was handed over to the Northern branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union and a new trophy, in the form of a shield, was awarded to the competition's winners. This was just a temporary measure, however, as a new cup was presented from the 1901/1902 season onwards.
The matches usually took place in April and May and the final was often the last game of the season. The curtain fell on the competition at the end of the 1940/1941 season and considering that there was a World War on at the time, and bombs dropping from the air, it was surprising that any football matches were taking place! Some of the matches were not very charitable. One newspaper report suggested that the behaviour of the two teams looked like they were trying to supply 'customers' for some of the hospitals the match was trying to support!
The Carlsberg Cup only lasted for two seasons - 1972/1973 and 1973/1974. As you can guess, it was sponsored by Carlsberg Lager! In the first season all twelve of the Irish League top tier took part. In the second season they were joined by four teams from the ‘B’ division. It was a knock-out format with a first round, a quarter final, a semi-final and a one-off final. Ards have the distinction of reaching both finals but losing them both 3 – 0 to Portadown and Crusaders respectively. The competition was the season opener, starting and finishing in early August.
In keeping with the format of the Community Shield in England, the Charity Shield brought together the Irish League and Irish Cup winners for a one-off match to open the season. The competition started in the 1992/1993 season and initially only lasted for three seasons. It was sponsored by McEwan’s Lager. The first two finals each ended in draws with the trophy being shared on both occasions. Very charitable indeed!
The competition was resurrected for the 1998/1999 season but again only lasted for three years. This time Wilkinson Sword was the sponsor. It appeared for the third, and currently last, time in 2014/2015. This time it lasted for four years, with the sponsors being Northern Ireland Hospice. It was resurrected again for the 2022/2023 season with Cup Winners Crusaders beating League Champions Linfield 2 - 0 at Windsor Park.
The City Cup was one of the oldest competitions in the local football calendar. It first started in the 1894/1895 season when it was won by Linfield. At that time, or course, there was one football federation, the Irish Football Association, covering the entire island. It ran for 71 years and with breaks for the two world wars eventually finished in the 1975/1976 season. Until 1900 it was only for the five Belfast teams, hence the name. Gradually it was expanded. From 1905 to 1911 Shelbourne from Dublin joined the Belfast teams. In the 1912/1913 season the league was expanded to ten teams with Glenavon joining in. From 1913 onwards all Irish League teams competed. Because of the Great War, the competition was reduced to just the Belfast teams and was known as the Belfast City Cup. However it was not recognised as an official competition during that time. Because of the Second World War it was not played between 1940 and 1947.
From its inauguration, the format was that of a league with each team playing all the other teams once. If team A played team B at home one year the fixture would be reversed for the next year and so on. The team with the most points won the cup. If two teams finished with the same number of points it went to a play-off called a ‘test match’. For most seasons the competition was played at or close to the start of the season with games on a Saturday. In 1969/1970 the format was changed to have two sections, A and B, with six teams in each. Each team in a section played the other teams once. The two section winners met in a one-off final. Glentoran were the first winners of this format. The following season the competition reverted back to the single league format. The season after it went back to the sectional format and continued until its final season of 1975/1976 when Bangor were the winners.
Note that the old City Cup trophy, actually called the Dunville Cup, is now used for the League Cup.
County Antrim Centenary Chalice
This was a one-off competition organised by the County Antrim Football Association in the 1987/1988 season to celebrate its centenary. The format was similar to the association’s Senior Shield competition in that, in theory, it was limited to teams from County Antrim. However Maghera, a junior team from the village of the same name near Newcastle in County Down were also invited to take part. This resulted in 16 teams competing in the first round with subsequent quarter-finals and semi -finals leading to a one-off final. In the final Glentoran defeated Ballymena United 4 – 2.
The competition was sponsored by Cawoods, local fuel suppliers.
County Antrim Shield
The County Antrim Shield, or Senior Shield as it is correctly known, is organised by the County Antrim Football Association. It is one of the longest-running competitions in the Irish League calendar. It is open to teams from the Country Antrim Association together with other such teams as the Association may invite from time to time. This invitation does sometimes extend outside of County Antrim. The format has always been that of a knock-out with a first round, a quarter-final, a semi-final and a one-off final.
The competition first started in the 1888/1889 season with Distillery beating YMCA 8 – 4 in the final. In its second year crowd trouble in the final between Linfield and Distillery caused the match to be abandoned in the 88th minutes with Linfield winning 5 – 3. The Shield was not awarded that year. The competition continued without a break throughout both world wars.
Sponsorship started in the late 1980s. Several companies have sponsored the competition over the years since then. These include Cawoods, Calor, TFG Sports, and Crest Team Wear together with bookmakers Paddy Power and Toals.
The Shield is probably the most impressive of all the trophies that are or have been played for. At the end of the final the winning captain probably needs a bit of assistance to lift it into the air!
Festival of Britain Cup
The Festival of Britain in 1951 was a national exhibition of the cultural life of the British Isles and was intended to celebrate the end of the Second World War. As part of the celebrations, football clubs in Britain and Ireland held a large number of matches in May of that year against clubs in other countries in these islands and also those abroad. The Irish Football association decided to have their own competition and this replaced the Ulster Cup for the 1951/1952 season. The twelve senior teams were divided into four sections of three with each team in a section playing the other teams in the section home and away. The winners of each section went through to the semi-finals and the victors then met in a final in May 1952. Ballymena United were the winners defeating Crusaders 3 – 0 at Solitude.
No trophy was awarded to the winners and the fact that Glasgow Celtic were in town to play Belfast Celtic on the same day as the final would point to the fact that perhaps this trophy did not ignite many fans’ imagination!
Those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth will remember that floodlights were a bit of a rarity when it came to Irish League grounds. In 1950 Distillery were the first local club to install floodlights – at Grosvenor Park. A year later floodlights were installed at Windsor Park and the Oval followed suit some years later in 1964. Consequently evening games in the darker months were not as commonplace as they are now. It was not unusual in the fifties and sixties for other clubs to ‘borrow’ one of these grounds to play matches, postponed from earlier in the season, under lights.
By the mid-1980s all Irish League clubs now had floodlight installed. Many of the clubs benefitted from grants from organisations like the Football Trust to get the work done. This now opened up an opportunity to have a competition that would be played specifically under lights. The Floodlit Cup was born in the 1987/1988 season with Budweiser being the first sponsor. The first final was won by Glentoran who beat Coleraine 1 – 0.
The competition was successful in that it ran for eleven years eventually finishing in the 1997/1998 season. At the end of the 1995/1995 season Budweiser ended their sponsorship and as Portadown had won the cup for the third time that season they were allowed to keep the trophy. Coca-Cola took over the sponsorship with a brand new trophy. Coca-Cola’s sponsorship deal had been due to run for six years but as the number of competitions for Irish League clubs was being reduced the Floodlit Cup was removed from the schedule. The remaining Coca-Cola sponsorship deal was transferred to the League Cup.
At that time of the competition’s inauguration the Irish League comprised 14 teams. Twelve of these teams were chosen to play in a first round knock-out format with the other two teams joining in for the quarter-finals. After that it progressed to semi-finals and then a final. The format changed over the life of the competition. It was always a knock-out format but the number of teams entering tended to increase. In addition home and away legs for the first round were introduced from time to time.
The Gold Cup started in the 1911/1912 season. As Ireland was one country then it was open to all clubs in the island. However a dispute between clubs limited the initial number of entrants. The first winners were Belfast Celtic who beat Glentoran 2 – 0 at Grosvenor Park. The following season, due to the ongoing dispute, the competition was not held. The competition resumed the following season. The First World War did not interfere with running of the Gold Cup but after Northern Ireland was formed in 1921 only northern clubs took part. The official competition was halted during the Second World War but the ‘Substitute Gold Cup” was held between 1941 and 1946 for Northern Regional League teams only.
The format of the competition varied greatly over its lifetime. Although a straight knock-out was the most common format it also had seasons where a league format was in use and some that had a combination of the two. When a league was in operation a play-off was held between the teams finishing first and second.
The first sponsorship was introduced in the late 1970s by Hennessy the cognac company. I wonder how many of the fans in the 70s actually drank cognac! The logistics company TNT took over the sponsorship for the seasons 1984/1985 to 1994/1995 followed by Sun Life (financial services) for seasons 1995/1996 and 1996/1997. The Nationwide Building Society was the sponsor from 1997/1998 until 2000/2001 when the competition ended. The last winners were Glentoran who defeated Coleraine 3 - 2 in the final.
The Irish Football Association Challenge Cup, as it is officially known, is the premier cup competition in Northern Ireland and the winner will be assured of European competition the following season. First started way back in 1881, even before the League competition, it is the fourth oldest such competition in the world. Back then Ireland was a united country and consequently all clubs on the island would have been entitled to compete.
Only seven clubs took part in the competition in that first 1880/1881 season with Moyola Park beating Cliftonville 1 - 0 in the final. Both clubs still exist. Cliftonville are in the Premiership but Moyola Park play their football now at a much lower level. Shelbourne and Bohemians are the only teams from what is now the Republic of Ireland to have won the cup before the island was partitioned. Derry City are unique in that they have won the competition when they competed in the Irish League and then subsequently won the equivalent trophy when they joined the League of Ireland.
Unlike many of the other competitions the format has remained the same in that it is a straight single-leg knock-out event. For most years a drawn game would have resulted in a replay, perhaps even two. Nowadays it is much simpler with extra time and, if necessary, penalties deciding the winners. Any club with a suitable status can enter. These regulations are laid down by the IFA. If their ground was not enclosed, for example, that would bar them. During the two World Wars the League competition was suspended but the Cup continued. 34 clubs have reached the final with 24 of them winning the trophy.
The current sponsors are Samuel Gelston's Whiskey but in the past Nationwide Building Society, Bass Ireland Ltd, JJB Sports, Tennent's Lager and Sadler's Peaky Blinder Lager have all put money into the event. Since 2001 the final has been broadcast live by the BBC.
The Irish League competition is the second oldest in the world. It started in the 1890/1891 season with eight teams. On that occasion, and on many others, each team played every other team twice, once at home and once away. In subsequent years, and depending on the number of entrants, there might be four meetings between the teams. In these cases it meant two at home and two away. The modern format, with twelve teams in the league, results initially in each team playing the other teams three times. So this could mean twice at home and once away or vice-versa. At that point a line is drawn after the team finishing sixth and two mini-leagues of six teams are formed. Then each team in each mini-league plays the others once. The home/away situation is balanced up meaning that each team in each mini-league will have played the other teams in the mini-league four times, twice at home and twice away.
In days gone past teams finishing on the same number of points would share the trophy. Later it became the situation that such an occurrence would result in the teams playing an additional ‘test match’ in order to decide who would be champions. Subsequently goal average and now goal difference would decide.
Unlike the Irish Cup there were never any winners of the League from what is now the Republic of Ireland. The first winners were Linfield who finished ahead of Ulster. In most years there were twelve teams competing but at times there were as many as 16 and as few as eight. The competition was suspended during the First and Second World Wars.
By the end of the 1994/1995 season there were 16 teams in the league. This was felt to be too many and therefore two leagues of eight called the Premier Division and the First Division were formed. Over the next few seasons teams were added to the Premier Division bringing the numbers back up to twelve. From 2003/2004 until 2015/2016 it went back to a single division albeit with relegation to the lower leagues. From the 2016/2017 season onwards there has been a Premiership and a Championship.
For most of its existence the League has been operated by the Irish Football Association. However in 2013 it came under the auspices of a new body called the Northern Ireland Football League. They also operate the Northern Ireland Football League Cup competition. Glenavon were the first team outside Belfast to win the League. They achieved this feat in 1951/1952.
Smirnoff had sponsored the Irish League for about 20 years up until the end of the 2001/2002 season and the competition was named after them. Danske Bank sponsored the Premiership from the 2012/2013 season but Sports Direct took over for the 2023/2024 season.
Irish League European Playoffs
The winners of the Irish League are entitled to compete in the Champions League qualifying round and the winners of the Irish Cup were, up until the 2020/2021 season, entitled to compete in the Europa League qualifying round. Other places in the Europa League would have been available depending on Northern Ireland’s ranking in the UEFA club coefficient system. From the 2021/2022 season these clubs would now compete in the newly-introduced UEFA Conference League. These play-offs started at the end of the 2015/2016 season to enable lower-placed teams in the league to experience competition in Europe that they would probably not qualify for naturally. The rules can change from year to year but essentially the teams finishing fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh in the league play-off for the European spot. So third will play seventh and fourth will play fifth with the winners meeting in a final.
The first team to benefit from the new competition was Cliftonville who beat Glentoran 3 – 2.
Irish League Relegation Playoffs
If you look through the history of the Irish League competition you will see that in most seasons the league comprised twelve teams. In some years it was only eight and in other years it went up to as many as 16. When the league finished for the season, and the final positions were determined, the bottom two teams were required to apply for re-election into the league for the following season. It was generally just a box-ticking exercise and the composition of the league didn’t change.
At the end of the 1994/1995 season the league comprised 16 teams. It was (finally) realised that this was too many and it was decided to split the teams into two leagues, eight in each. The top league would be known as the Premier League and the lower league as Division 1. It was also decided that, for the first time, promotion and relegation would be introduced between the two leagues at the end of the following season. In order to determine whether a team was going to be in the Premier or First division an average position based on their position over the 1993/1994 and 1994/1995 seasons was used. Rather complicated it seems! Not every team was happy. Coleraine, for example, finished in the top eight but their performance the previous season meant that they started the next season in Division 1.
At the end of the 1995/1996 season Bangor finished bottom of the Premier division. Coleraine had finished top of Division 1 and therefore the two clubs swapped places for the 1996/1997 season. At the end of this season Ards finished bottom of the Premier division. It had gradually been realised that only eight teams in the top division was not working and so it was decided to increase this to ten for the following season. The top two teams from Division 1, Ballymena and Omagh, were promoted to the Premier division. Bangor had finished third and therefore they and Ards were involved in the first promotion/relegation scrap in Irish League history. It was a two-legged affair and Ards triumphed 2 – 0 on aggregate over their great local rivals.
At the end of the 2000/2001 season it was decided to increase the number of clubs in the top flight back to twelve. Consequently the top two clubs in the lower league were promoted and no promotion/relegation matches took place that season.
At the end of the 2007/2008 the leagues were again reorganised and no promotion/relegation matches took place that season either. At the end of the 2010/2011 and 2013/2014 seasons the relegation playoff matches were again cancelled but this was because the clubs who were potentially going to be promoted did not meet the standard required for their grounds to be used in the Premier division.
At the end of the 2016/2017 season it got a bit more complicated with what was called a pre-playoff round. The teams finishing second and third need to play off first of all before the winners would face the bottom club in the top division. This idea was scrapped the following season!
As you will read elsewhere on this site there was a plethora of competitions in the 1960s and 1970s. North-South competitions were introduced, ran for a few seasons and then stopped. And the City Cup, one of the oldest competitions, had finished in 1976. By the mid-1980s it was decided that a new competition was needed and for the 1986/1987 season the League Cup was introduced. It proved very successful and is now regarded as the third most important competition after the Irish League and Irish Cup.
One of the points that piqued interest was the fact that clubs from the lower leagues were included in the draw. Some Premier division reserve teams were also included from time to time.
Up until the 1997/1998 season the format followed a standard single-leg knock-out pattern. 32 teams competed and we had a first round, second round, quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final. The first winner in 1986/1987 was Linfield who defeated Crusaders 2 – 1. In 1998/1999 the number of teams was reduced. We had a preliminary round with four teams with the winners going through to join 14 other teams in the first round proper. Then it progressed to the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. More tinkering with the format occurred in 2000/2001 with an additional four teams entering the preliminary round. For the 2001/2002 it was a complete change to the format. Here we had four leagues of five teams which each league member playing the other league members once. The top two from each league progressed to quarter-finals. The semi-finals were two-legged affairs but the final was a one-off contest. This format continued up to and including the 2007/2008 season although the two-legged semi-final was reduced to just one leg.
For 2008/2009 it was another complete shake-up for the format. More lower league teams were introduced and a knock-out format was re-introduced but this time with two legs each time. And so it continued for a while before the format became what it is today with three rounds, quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final – all one-legged affairs.
The competition has been well supported by sponsors. Roadferry Freight, Wilkinson Sword, Coca Cola, Co-operative Insurance, Irn-Bru, WASP Solutions, JBE and BetMcLean have all put their money in. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s UTV put together a highlights programme for the final. In 2005 the final was broadcast live by the BBC and coverage continued until 2012. Sky then acquired the rights to show the 2013 and 2014 finals on Sky Sports. Coverage of the final returned to the BBC in 2015 after Sky ceased their coverage of Irish League football. Sky returned to show the 2018 final.
Grosvenor Park, the home of Distillery, was the first ground in Northern Ireland to have floodlights installed. Distillery's home game against Coleraine on 24th December 1953 was the first league game in the British Isles to be played under lights. Prior to that, and to celebrate the new installation, the Irish Football Association gave permission for a new competition called the Mercer Cup. This was sometimes called the Floodlight League. Four teams from Belfast would play each other once in a league format. The teams would be Crusaders, Distillery, Glentoran and Linfield. All the matches would, of course, be played at Grosvenor Park under the lights. The competition only lasted for one season with the majority of the games being played in February and March of 1953. The final game, which turned out to be the decider, was held over until the following season. In this Glentoran beat Linfield 5 - 1.
No competition was held in the 1953/1954 season. In the 1954/1955 season the format changed to a one-off game between Distillery and Glentoran, again held at Grosvenor Park. This format continued until the 1958/1959 when the competition ended. Glentoran were the last winners.
New Irish Cup
In the 1911/1912 season, seven of the eight clubs that formed the Irish Football Association left the fold after a dispute over money and founded the New IFA. Linfield were the only club not to leave. The new body launched a competition which they called the "New Irish Cup". This would be a knock-out competition based on the original Irish Cup format. The seven teams were joined by a new team called Belfast Blues formed, apparently, by players from Linfield Swifts!
Belfast Celtic won the cup by defeating Glentoran 2 – 0 in the final held at Grosvenor Park. At the end of the season, after a lot of discussion, the dissident clubs returned to the IFA’s fold. That was the end of the New Irish Cup! It was not, however, the end of the actual trophy. Two years later the Gold Cup was introduced and the old ‘new’ Irish Cup was used for that.
North Regional League
As detailed elsewhere on the site the Irish League was suspended during the Great War and the same thing happened during the Second World War. The 1939/1940 Irish League season was completed as normal but the competition was then suspended. Eventually, after a lot of discussion, it was decided that the new league should only have eight clubs. Initially this was known as the Northern Ireland Regional League but the name was soon abbreviated. The difficulties associated with travelling during wartime were taken into account. The eight clubs selected were Belfast Celtic, Cliftonville, Derry City, Distillery, Glenavon, Glentoran, Linfield and Portadown. With the reduction in the number of clubs it was decided that each team should play the other teams four times, two at home and two away.
After the first season Glenavon and Portadown resigned from the league. The six remaining teams continued to comprise the league for the next five seasons. Ballymena United and Coleraine were added for the 1946/1947 season. This was to be the last season for this league as the Irish League was restarted the following season.
Substitute Gold Cup
When the Second World War came along, it created a number of problems for Irish League football. As a result, organised football was regionalised and it was clear that the traditional competitions could not proceed without their full complement of teams. It would clearly have been unfair to carry on with these competitions in their normal form. One such competition was the Gold Cup, a competition that had been running since 1911. It was therefore decided that a new competition, called the Substitute Gold Cup, would be created.
The competition started in the 1940/1941 season and ran for seven years until it was deemed that normality could return to the Irish League. For the first season the five Belfast clubs (Belfast Celtic, Cliftonville, Distillery, Glentoran and Linfield) were joined by Derry City, Glenavon and Portadown. However after the first season Glenavon and Portadown dropped out leaving six teams to compete for the trophy. This was the status quo until the final 1946/1947 season when Ballymena United and Coleraine were able to join. Things were clearly getting back to normal.
The competition was the first one on the fixture list with the matches taking place through August, September, October and November. When only six teams were competing all the matches took place on a Saturday. For the final season some midweek matches also took place. Amazingly, considering the difficult times of those years, no matches were abandoned or postponed!
Unlike the ‘real’ Gold Cup, matches were played on a league basis with each team playing the others once home and away.
Top Four Cup
This competition was created for the teams who finished in the top four positions of the Irish League in that season. It started in the 1965/1966 season and ran for only four years. The format was simple with two semi-finals and a final. In all cases it was just a single match knock-out. The first winners were Derry City who defeated Linfield 2 – 1 in the final. Linfield defeated Coleraine in the next two finals but Coleraine got their revenge in the fourth and last final. Interestingly none of the champions for the season won this competition in the same season.
Because all of the games were semi-finals or finals, it was decided to play them at neutral grounds. There were some exceptions. When Derry City played Coleraine in the 1966/1967 season the game was played at the Brandywell. This was a sensible decision as it cut down on unnecessary travelling. When Linfield played Glentoran in semi-finals and finals generally a toss of the coin determined whether the game would be played at Windsor Park or the Oval. For the 1966/1967 semi-final Solitude was chosen as the venue. However this decision did not please Glentoran and they refused to play there. The reason they gave was that “it does not provide adequate protection for the goalkeeper”. This followed on from incidents in the County Antrim Shield final between the teams the previous Saturday when bottles and other missiles were thrown. That was not an uncommon problem in those times. The Irish League Emergency Committee met to discuss the issue. The decision they made was that it wasn’t an emergency! It wasn’t their problem and so they passed it on to the Referees’ Committee who organised the fixtures. They made the decision to expel the Glens. Consequently Linfield were awarded the tie and sailed through to the final untroubled!
Although the Ulster Cup only started in the 1948/1949 season it still qualifies as one of the longest-running competitions for teams in Northern Ireland. It continued until the 1998/1999 season but was then suspended for three years after that. It then had its swan song in 2002/2003 before being consigned to the history books. The final three seasons were only open to teams from the lower First Division. Before that it was competed for by the senior teams in the league structure. For the 1951/1952 season it was renamed the Festival of Britain Cup.
For most of its running the format comprised two mini leagues with six teams in each. The teams in a section would play each other, sometimes once but other times twice. The section winners would meet in a final. Of course, like most of the other competitions, tinkering with the format would occur from time to time. In the earlier years teams finishing with the same number of points in a section would require a play-off to decide who would go through to the final. In later years goal difference would prevail. The competition would normally be held towards the start of the season with matches being played Saturdays and midweek.
Lombard and Ulster Bank sponsored the competition from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s. During this time it was officially known at the Lombard Ulster Cup. Prior to that, the competition was sponsored by Moran’s.
Linfield were the first winners in the 1948/1949 season defeating Ards 3 – 0 in the final. Dungannon Swifts won the last competition beating Ballymena United to the top of the mini league that year.