Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Christmas in the Irish League: The league you never knew you were missing out on

Posted on 24 December 2018 by Michael Jordan

In a league which provides an abundance of magical moments ranging from the sheer delight, to the utterly controversial to the, at times, downright bizarre — the Christmas period epitomises all that is beautiful about the Irish Premiership.

The Irish League — not to be confused with the League of Ireland, a completely different competition in its own right — is in fact the league you never knew you were so terribly missing out on.

With that in mind, there may be no greater advert for Northern Ireland’s elite division than the festive fixture period.

Boxing Day? St. Stephen’s Day? This time within the Irish League calendar is better known as Derby Day.

Local derbies are played up and down the Ulster province on a day which Christmas itself can in reality play as no more than a warm-up act to what the crowds are really anticipating to come.

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As festive cheer meets determined competition. As pigs-in-blankets are swapped for the match-day chip van’s greasy burgers. As fans nursing a holiday hangover send glaring stares to the drummer giving it his best welly.

As club volunteers raise their pitch forks with delight after the referee gives the game the go-ahead — it becomes clear just how great of a hidden gem this little league is.

A commonly used question which you may have often heard is how the footballing greats would fare on a cold, windy away-day at Stoke. I find myself in much deeper thought, however, pondering over how let’s say a Paul Pogba would perform away at Carrick Rangers.

The coastal winds, the steady incline of the pitch when playing from left-to-right — not to mention it being the only venue I have been to which on one especially treacherous night couldn’t provide team sheets as the printer located in the medical hut had been side-lined with a frozen ink cartridge.

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Or how about Warrenpoint Town? The border club. Located less than two miles from the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. The football club sits in the shadow of both the Mourne Mountains and the Irish border Brexit issue.

Regarding matters on the pitch, they’ll be facing Newry City AFC in the local Boxing Day derby — a team who themselves went into liquidation before gaining five consecutive promotions to return to the Northern Irish top division.

They may be two of the league’s smaller clubs, but what they lack in stature they undoubtedly make up for in pride — and if they feel the commentator does them in any way a disservice, they’ll be sure to tell them.

After all, the only thing between the dugouts and the man with the mic is a matter of feet and a somewhat shaky wooden fence.

Speaking of fences: that may be the very thing on top of Warrenpoint’s Christmas list this year, as celebrations between Ballymena United fans and players, proved too much for the fence’s foundations in the away end.

If glitz and glamour is more your cup of tea, or indeed if a good cup of tea is all you’re looking for — why not try Seaview, home of the current Irish League champions, Crusaders?

Not many teams can boast that they finished higher than a side who went the entire league campaign unbeaten, but that is in fact an accolade which the Crues possess.

Pipping the unbeaten Coleraine to the league title last season, it is clear upon arrival at Seaview that you are at the home of a Northern Irish powerhouse.

The artificial pitch — fit to withstand Storm Deirdre, Barbara or whoever else may arrive to test it — the choice between both tea and coffee in the press box alongside the wide variety of biscuits to go with it, makes you fully aware that this isn’t your normal Irish League ground.

You will, however, need to nudge the press box door open in order to see any action taking place in the near left corner of the pitch, but asking for that would just be greedy.

So there you have it — this Boxing Day why not have a lookout for the Irish League? It may seem rough around the edges at first, but peer a little deeper into what it has to offer and you’ll find a league bursting with colour, characters and personality.

Featured Image/Wikimedia Commons/Windsor Park Redevelopment.