Football Special Report #16 – League of Ireland 1921-1985, Who Would Have Gone Down?

The following article originally appeared in issue #73 of Reds Independent‘s “Red Inc.” Shelbourne fanzine. We’re now uploading it, along with this one, to coincide with 100 years of League of Ireland, today 17/09/2021 being the anniversary. (All maps taken from Wikipedia)


Upon the conclusion of the 2020 League of Ireland season we created a “league table” of all-time relegations from the Premier Division to the First (below). This included demotions such as Shelbourne in 2006, since a demotion is just another form of relegation. At the end of the day, you’re going down and that’s the point. We shared this to a certain fan group on Facebook, but quickly realised it was a bad idea as several people could not grasp the simple concept so took it down.

As you can see, Drogheda hold the honour of leading the way with 8 relegations at the time of writing (2021). Shels are in joint 7th with their four from 1986, 2006, 2013 and 2020, while Shamrock Rovers, Derry City and Wexford prop up the bottom with one apiece (who remembers Wexford in the top flight??). This means that the only clubs to have been in the Premier Division and never leave it are Bohemians and St. Patrick’s Athletic. The latter are particularly proud of this with their “Never Relegated” flag, which was excellently retorted by Shels fans’ “Never Relevant” banner in Inchicore one year.

Of course “never relegated” might be more impressive if it wasn’t for the fact that relegation was not physically possible pre-1985, when there was only one division. Plenty of clubs did leave over the years, but these were because of other factors. If you finished last, so long as your house was in order, you were still safe. The reason for the dirge of participants was that many communities where you might expect a League club to come from were Gaelic Games-only zones, with previously British-garrisoned areas more likely to produce an association football team. In an ideal world, the Leinster, Connaught, Munster and Ulster Senior leagues would flow into the League of Ireland system, but for the moment the vast majority of these teams would be incapable of securing a licence.

Off the back of this, we wanted to rewind and see who would have actually gone down every year assuming there had been at least one more division all along. Obviously each season has to be taken in a vacuum to account for the fact that a relegated team one season will still be there the next, so it will be possible for two or more in a row. We’re also going to just say that the bottom-placed side would have went down, no play-offs and such. And at the end we’ll see who the biggest losers were in LoI pre-First Division history.


Going back to the first ever League of Ireland season, 1921-22, an eight team division was made up solely of Dublin-based clubs. The only two of these recognisable to most modern audiences were Bohemians and Shelbourne, with inaugural champions St. James’s Gate, Dublin United, Frankfort, Jacobs, Olimpia, and YMCA making up the rest. Based in Sandymount, “The Y”, as they would undoubtedly be nicknamed today, finished bottom of the table and subsequently withdrew from the league, along with Frankfort. One side who replaced them, Rathmines Athletic, took the wooden spoon the following year, while Athlone Town became the first non-Dublin club involved. Midland Athletic based out of Whitehall in Dublin took over bottom spot in 1924, and Pioneers in 1925 and 26, who will have sent their non-drinking backers of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association reaching for the bottle after the latter season with only 2 points gained. Brideville FC, tenants of both Richmond Park and Harold’s Cross throughout their existence, came last in 1927, before Athlone Town in 1928 who also failed to achieve re-election. Seeing out the decade, predecessors to Bray Wanderers “Bray Unknowns” came 10th out of 10 in 1929


Jacobs kicked off the 1930s with the worst league performance since Pioneers in 1926 with only 3 points, but improved gradually with 4 in 1931 and 5 in 1932. Finally in 1933, Drumcondra FC took over the bottom spot. One of the many, many Cork-based clubs over the years, Cork Bohemians, then came last in 1934, followed by another in Cork FC in 1935, originally founded as Fords FC and sponsored by Ford Motors. In 1936, Bray Unknowns again found themselves as truly the worst team in the League, with a record even more pathetic than Pioneers’ – 2 points earned and a staggering 99 goals against in only 22 games. The following year they recovered amazingly to finish 4th with Brideville again bringing up the rear, at least achieving a more respectable 15 points out of 18 games. Drumcondra also became two-time last placers in 1938, before Waterford in 1939.


Founded in 1937 (as we all can’t help but remember now), Limerick came last in their third season in existence in 1939-40. Bray Unknowns, on the other hand, were coming towards the end of their League run, finishing rock bottom for the next three seasons before failing to achieve re-election. It was a similar situation for the original champions St. James’s Gate, coming 8th out of 8 in 1944 and not participating again until 1990 (interestingly, league winners Shelbourne only needed 21 points to become champions in 14 games). As World War II came to a close, celebrations accompanied Bohemians officially becoming the worst League of Ireland team in 1945. Classically, the following year it was Shelbourne’s first turn. Limerick took over in 1947, but then Bohs again slumped taking both the 1948 and 49 wooden spoons.


Bohemians made it three in a row in 1950, equaling Jacob’s run in the early 30s. Limerick took 1951 and 52 before “The Big Club” yet again came last in 1953, officially making them the worst ranked surviving LoI team of all time by this point in terms of lowest league positions. Thankfully for Bohs they improved to mid-table the following season, as Dundalk finished bottom in both 1954 and 55. With several seasons of well known modern teams in the last spot, another relatively forgotten side in Transport FC, based out of Bray and effective team of CIÉ (Irish Transport System), brought up the rear in 1956. Limerick equaled Bohs’ five last-places in 1957, with another Cork side Cork Hibernians in 1958, before Bohs well and truly took back the crown with their 6th in 1959, besting even Bray Unknowns.


As they had done ten years earlier, Bohemians started the decade of the 60s holding on to their crown as Ireland’s worst national league team with a 7th last place finish. Sligo Rovers gave a brief rest-bite in 1961 and 62, before once again Bohs took that all too familiar wooden spoon in both 1963 and 64. In 1964-65, another league was also added in the form of the League of Ireland B Division, but with no relegation or promotion. Hence Waterford didn’t have to worry about their second wooden spoon in 1965, before the recently formed Drogheda FC – later to merge with Drogehda United – in 1966. Shelbourne also suffered their second last-place the following year, but Reds fans could at least enjoy Bohemians’ amazing tenth bottoming-out in total in 1968 (no wonder Shels-Shamrock Rovers was considered the more important derby at the time). This was made 11 in 1969, meaning that since 1945 it was more likely than not for Bohs to finish last in any given season. But finally the worst was over for the Gypsies.


The 70s started with another North Dublin club, Drumcondra, taking over with back-to-back wooden spoons in 1970 and 71, before Sligo Rovers in 1972 and Drogehda again in 73. Heading towards their first dark period (despite an FAI Cup final appearance the following season), Shelbourne slumped to their third last-place in 1974, with Sligo Rovers’ fourth in 1975, while former whipping boys Bohs won the division. 1976 and 77 would see debutante bottom-feeders, first in Ireland’s most successful club Shamrock Rovers, the only such instance in their history (as the 2005 relegation came down to a play-off) before Home Farm the following year, who had merged with Drumcondra to take up a league position in 1972. The new entity of Thurles Town FC – the result of another merger between Thurles Town AFC and Peake Villa in 1977 – took last place in 78 and received the honour of propping up the biggest league to date – 16 teams. Cork Celtic, the former Evergreen United, rounded off the decade in 16th in 1979 before exiting the league altogether.


Coming towards the end of the one-league era, Shelbourne continued their decline finishing bottom in 1980 and only avoided the same fate in 81 on goal difference, thanks to Thurles Town’s slightly worse goals-against record. Thurles again came last in 1982, their final season as a League club with the subsequent re-splitting of Peake Villa. In 1983, Home Farm received their second wooden spoon in a new 14 club division, with Sligo Rovers in 1984 the last ever team to finish last but not be relegated. The following season, the decision to add a lower division was agreed upon with the bottom four out of 16 to go down. These would be Sligo Rovers, Drogheda United, Finn Harps and Longford Town in last, who would be joined by newly elected Bray Wanderers, Cobh Ramblers, Derry City, EMFA (the future Kilkenny City) and Newcastle United, aka Newcastle West AFC, plus Monaghan United joining from the B League, to form the first ever League of Ireland First Division in 1985-86.


So, if you’ve been keeping track at home – and we assume everyone has with a pen and paper – you’ll know that Bohemians are the undisputed champions of finishing last in the pre-First Division era with 11 wooden spoons, all between 1945 and 1969. This amazingly bad period meant that they achieved the feat more times than the second and third worst surviving sides by that point, Limerick and Sligo Rovers, put together. But using your power of deduction, you’ll have noticed that one club mentioned in the intro are missing from this run-down in St Pat’s. That’s right, not only have the Saints avoided relegation since 1985, they would have also avoided it in the preceding years too had it been around (ignoring the fact that they only entered the League in 1951 and did finish 11th out of 12 in 1953-54, 9th out of 10 in 1962-63, and 13th out of 14 in 1969-70) However, that only means one thing: even by this metric, they were never relevant.


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