The 2016 SSE Airtricity League of Ireland Premier Division is seven games into the season and the league table has a familiar look already. Dundalk FC are top. Champions in 2014 and 2015, if Dundalk retain their crown they will become only the 4th club in the history of the League to win three consecutive titles, and follow in the footsteps of Shamrock Rovers (1984/85-1986/87), Waterford (1967/68-1969/70) and the now defunct Cork United (1940/41-1942/43).
Followers of the top European Leagues might think this is very much the norm. Bayern Munich look set to win their fourth consecutive league title next month. Juventus as closing in on a remarkable 5th Scudetto (Italian league title) in a row, matching Inter’s five-in-a-row from 2005/6-2009/10. Barcelona won three La Liga titles from 2008/9-2010/11. Celtic are set to make it five and counting since 2011/12.
The League of Ireland is somewhat different. The recently published Football and Money: A Soccernomics Guide presents data on dominance in twenty European leagues since the 1960s. The League of Ireland stands out for two main reasons:
- Firstly, the most league champions wins by a club over the last 50 years stands at just 7 (Shamrock Rovers), the lowest on the list.
- The league has the highest number of league championship winners over the last 50 years at 15 (Athlone Town, Bohemians, Cork Celtic, Cork City, Cork Hibernians, Derry City, Drogheda United, Drumcondra, Dundalk, Limerick United, Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne, Sligo Rovers, St. Patrick's Athletic and Waterford).
What also struck me about the league is a club that currently have the joint lowest number of points (4) in the Premier League this season; Sligo Rovers. The Bit o' Red were league champions just over three years ago. Relegation is a possibility this season and would not be the first time a champion of recent years were relegated. League of Ireland clubs seems follow a rise and decline pattern. A number of years building up to a league title, followed by a period of slow, or in some cases rapid, decline.
The figures below present the league position of the eight most recent champions in the Leagues since the 1997/98 season.
For example, Bohemians appear to have gone through three cycles. Drogheda United are on the decline in a second cycle. This might also be said of both Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic. Sligo Rovers fans must be worried. Their decline is in full swing and they could go the way of previous champions such as Cork City and Drodegha United to be relegated.
Dundalk's recent dominance is bettered only by Shelbourne. The Dublin club weren't outside the top three between 1998 and 2006 and were crowned champions no less than six times during that period. Since then they have suffered two relegations and lie just one point off the bottom of the second tier of Irish football.