|Number of teams||36|
|Current champions||Coleraine (2019–20)|
|Most successful club(s)||Linfield (10 titles)|
The Northern Ireland Football League Cup (BetMcLean League Cup for sponsorship purposes), also known as the Irish League Cup, is a national football knock-out cup competition in Northern Ireland open to the 36 Northern Ireland Football League clubs. It is the third-most prestigious competition in domestic Northern Irish football after the NIFL Premiership and Irish Cup. It should not be confused with the Irish League Floodlit Cup which ran from 1987–88 to 1997–98 initially under the sponsorship of Budweiser and latterly Coca-Cola. Unlike the Irish Cup, the competition does not have a berth for UEFA Europa League qualification. The cup is operated by the Northern Ireland Football League, who in 2013 took over the administration from the Irish Football Association (IFA) for the 2013–14 season onwards, after which the cup was renamed as the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) Cup.
Since the 2017–18 season, the Cup has been sponsored by McLean Bookmakers. The competition's previous sponsors are JBE (2015–16), WASP Solutions (2013–14 and 2014–15), Irn Bru (2011–12 and 2012–13), Co-operative Insurance (2001–02 to 2010–11), Coca-Cola (1998–99 to 2000–01), Wilkinson Sword (1991–92 to 1997–98), and Roadferry Freight (1986–87 to 1990–91).
Unlike the Irish Cup, the League Cup is restricted to the 36 Northern Ireland Football League clubs competing in the NIFL Premiership, NIFL Championship, and NIFL Premier Intermediate League. The competition uses a knock-out system. Each round consists of a single match. In the event that the scores are level, extra time is played, and if the teams are still level, there is a penalty shoot-out.
The 16 highest-ranked clubs from the previous season's league standings (all 12 NIFL Premiership clubs plus the top 4 NIFL Championship clubs) are exempt from the competition until the second round. Eight of the remaining 20 clubs across the NIFL Championship and NIFL Premier Intermediate League are randomly drawn to enter the competition in the first round. The four first round winners then join the other 28 clubs in the second round - the round of 32. The 16 highest-ranked clubs from the previous season are then seeded in the second round, to avoid drawing each other. The second round is the only round of the competition in which seeding is used. From there on, the competition uses a standard knock-out format, consisting of a third round, quarter-finals, semi-finals and a neutral venue final.
The competition began with 32 clubs in a straight knock-out format in February 1987, and included teams from the Irish League B Division until 1997–98. From 1998–99 until 2007–08, only senior (Irish League and Irish Premier League) teams competed, but the competition was opened up to the 17 Championship clubs in 2008–09, and again in 2010–11 to include clubs from Championship 2, after the Championship 2 League Cup was abolished. From 2001–02 until 2007–08, a group stage followed by a knock-out system was used instead of the straight knock-out system, and for two seasons (2008–09 and 2009–10) two-legged home and away aggregate ties were used up until the quarter-finals, instead of single matches.
When it was first introduced in the 1986–87 season, it was one of a number of senior cup competitions run by the Irish League, originally to compensate for the relatively few league fixtures (traditionally 22 or 26), but also as vehicles for sponsorship revenue. The League Cup would have been considered less prestigious than the long-standing Gold Cup and Ulster Cup. Over time however, these other cup competitions were phased out as the number of Irish League fixtures increased and the public appetite for additional competitions reduced, leaving the League Cup as the only cup competition run by the Northern Ireland Football League and now established as the third most prestigious competition in Northern Ireland after the national top-flight and national cup. The actual trophy presented to the winners is the old City Cup, which was another senior Irish League competition that was discontinued in 1975.
The first final took place on 9 May 1987 at Glentoran's ground, the Oval, and was contested by Linfield and Crusaders. Linfield became the inaugural winners of the cup, defeating Crusaders 2–1. Since then, Linfield have been the most successful club in the competition, winning the Cup a record 10 times overall in a record 13 final appearances - their three final defeats all coming against Big Two rivals Glentoran. The most common final has indeed been the Big Two derby, which has occurred seven times - the last of which came in 2005–06. The 1988–89 final, played between the two sides at the Oval on 11 November 1988 was won courtesy of a goal by Glentoran goalkeeper Alan Patterson, via a kick from his own penalty area. This was the first time that a goalkeeper had ever scored in a British football final.
Cliftonville hold the record for the most consecutive wins, having lifted the Cup on four occasions between 2013–2016. Fifteen different clubs have reached the final, but only twelve clubs have gone on to win the cup - and only six of those have done so more than once. Carrick Rangers (once), along with Larne and Newry City (twice each) are the only three clubs to have played in the final but never won the Cup. Conversely, three clubs have a 100% record in the final, lifting the Cup in their sole final appearance to date: Bangor in 1993, Lisburn Distillery in 2011, and Dungannon Swifts in 2018. In 2008–09, Championship side Portadown became the first intermediate club and the first club from outside the top flight to reach the final, and subsequently to win the cup, after defeating Premiership side Newry City 1–0. That was also the first final to be played outside Belfast, with Mourneview Park, Lurgan hosting the match. It was attended by UEFA President Michel Platini and Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington who was in Northern Ireland for the FIFA meeting held in Newcastle.
The biggest winning margin ever recorded in a final is 4–0, which has occurred twice: in 1999–2000 when Linfield defeated Coleraine, and in 2012–13 when Cliftonville defeated Crusaders. On four occasions, the same two clubs have met in consecutive finals. Linfield and Glentoran have done so three times: 1997–98 & 1998–99, 2001–02 & 2002–03 and 2004–05 & 2005–06, while Cliftonville and Crusaders repeated the feat in 2012–13 and 2013–14. Both clubs agreed to toss a coin for home advantage in the 2013–14 final, with Cliftonville winning the toss. As a result, Solitude was chosen as the final venue for the first time in the competition's history.
In the 2015–16 competition, Cliftonville became the first club ever to reach four consecutive League Cup finals, and subsequently to win four consecutive Cups, after they defeated Ards 3–0 in the final. Ards were appearing in the final for the third time overall, and became only the second club from outside the top flight ever to reach the League Cup final, emulating Portadown in 2008–09. Ards' previous final appearance had also been against Cliftonville, when they won the Cup 2–0 on penalties after a 0–0 draw in 1994–95. Ards also set a record for the longest gap between final appearances of 21 years between 1994–95 and 2015–16. This broke the previous record of 19 years between Newry City's appearances in 1989–90 and 2008–09.
The final was initially broadcast as highlights on UTV throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Live coverage of the final first began on the BBC in 2005, and continued until Sky acquired the rights to show the 2013 and 2014 finals on Sky Sports as part of a deal to cover Northern Ireland international matches. Following the 2014 final, it returned to the BBC in 2015 after Sky ceased their coverage of Irish League football. Dungannon Swifts' win in the 2018 final was broadcast live on Sky Sports enabling the entire town of Dungannon to enjoy the historical result, Dungannon winning a major trophy for the first time in their history .
- Most wins: 10, Linfield
- Most consecutive wins: 4, Cliftonville (2012–13, 2013–14, 2014–15 & 2015–16)
- Most final appearances: 13, Linfield
- Most consecutive final appearances: 4, Cliftonville (2012–13, 2013–14, 2014–15 & 2015–16)
- Most final defeats: 6, Crusaders (1986–87, 1995–96, 2007–08, 2012–13, 2013–14 & 2019–20)
- Most consecutive final defeats: 3, Glentoran (1996–97, 1997–98 & 1998–99)
- Biggest final winning margin: 4–0, joint record:
- Longest gap between wins: 32 years, Coleraine (1987–88 and 2019–20)
- Longest gap between final appearances: 21 years, Ards (1994–95 and 2015–16)
- Most final appearances without winning: 2, joint record:
- Most common final: Glentoran v Linfield (7 times)
|*||Match level after 90 minutes. Decided in extra time.|
|Match level after 90 minutes and extra time. Decided by a penalty shootout.|
(number of wins)
|Roadferry Freight League Cup|
|1||1986–87||9 May 1987||Linfield (1)||2 – 1||Crusaders||The Oval, Belfast|
|2||1987–88||28 November 1987||Coleraine (1)||1 – 0 *||Portadown|
|3||1988–89||30 November 1988||Glentoran (1)||2 – 1||Linfield||10,000|
|4||1989–90||19 December 1989||Glenavon (1)||3 – 1||Newry Town||Windsor Park, Belfast||1,000|
|5||1990–91||13 March 1991||Glentoran (2)||2 – 0||Ards||4,000|
|Wilkinson Sword League Cup|
|6||1991–92||14 April 1992||Linfield (2)||3 – 0||Larne||The Oval, Belfast|
|7||1992–93||20 April 1993||Bangor (1)||3 – 0||Coleraine||Windsor Park, Belfast||2,000|
|8||1993–94||26 April 1994||Linfield (3)||2 – 0||Coleraine||The Oval, Belfast||4,500|
|9||1994–95||25 April 1995||Ards (1)||p)0 – 0 (2 – 0||Cliftonville||Windsor Park, Belfast||3,500|
|10||1995–96||19 September 1995||Portadown (1)||2 – 1||Crusaders||2,600|
|11||1996–97||15 October 1996||Crusaders (1)||1 – 0||Glentoran||3,000|
|12||1997–98||9 September 1997||Linfield (4)||1 – 0||Glentoran|
|Coca-Cola League Cup|
|13||1998–99||4 May 1999||Linfield (5)||2 – 1||Glentoran||Windsor Park, Belfast||6,500|
|14||1999–2000||18 April 2000||Linfield (6)||4 – 0||Coleraine||2,963|
|15||2000–01||24 April 2001||Glentoran (3)||1 – 0||Glenavon||2,515|
|Co-operative Insurance League Cup|
|16||2001–02||27 November 2001||Linfield (7)||3 – 1||Glentoran||Windsor Park, Belfast||6,200|
|17||2002–03||3 December 2002||Glentoran (4)||2 – 0||Linfield||5,700|
|18||2003–04||11 November 2003||Cliftonville (1)||p)1 – 1 (5 – 4||Larne||3,089|
|19||2004–05||9 November 2004||Glentoran (5)||2 – 1 *||Linfield||6,000|
|20||2005–06||10 December 2005||Linfield (8)||3 – 0||Glentoran||6,845|
|21||2006–07||2 December 2006||Glentoran (6)||1 – 0||Cliftonville||6,910|
|22||2007–08||2 February 2008||Linfield (9)||3 – 2||Crusaders||5,200|
|23||2008–09||28 February 2009||Portadown (2)||1 – 0||Newry City||Mourneview Park, Lurgan||4,100|
|24||2009–10||27 March 2010||Glentoran (7)||p)2 – 2 (4 – 1||Coleraine||Windsor Park, Belfast|
|25||2010–11||2 April 2011||Lisburn Distillery (1)||2 – 1||Portadown||Mourneview Park, Lurgan|
|Irn-Bru League Cup|
|26||2011–12||28 January 2012||Crusaders (2)||1 – 0||Coleraine||Ballymena Showgrounds, Ballymena|
|27||2012–13||26 January 2013||Cliftonville (2)||4 – 0||Crusaders||Windsor Park, Belfast||4,948|
|WASP Solutions League Cup|
|28||2013–14||25 January 2014||Cliftonville (3)||p)0 – 0 (3 – 2||Crusaders||Solitude, Belfast||4,300|
|29||2014–15||24 January 2015||Cliftonville (4)||3 – 2||Ballymena United||Windsor Park, Belfast||2,654|
|JBE League Cup|
|30||2015–16||13 February 2016||Cliftonville (5)||3 – 0||Ards||Solitude, Belfast||2,930|
|31||2016���17||18 February 2017||Ballymena United (1)||2 – 0||Carrick Rangers||Seaview, Belfast||3,031|
|BetMcLean League Cup|
|32||2017–18||17 February 2018||Dungannon Swifts (1)||3 – 1||Ballymena United||Windsor Park, Belfast||2,995|
|33||2018–19||16 February 2019||Linfield (10)||1 – 0||Ballymena United||5,700|
|34||2019–20||15 February 2020||Coleraine (2)||2 – 1||Crusaders|
Performance by club
|Club||Winners||Runners-up||Winning Years||Runners-up Years|
|Linfield||10||3||1986–87, 1991–92, 1993–94, 1997–98, 1998–99, 1999–00, 2001–02, 2005–06, 2007–08, 2018–19||1988–89, 2002–03, 2004–05|
|Glentoran||7||5||1988–89, 1990–91, 2000–01, 2002–03, 2004–05, 2006–07, 2009–10||1996–97, 1997–98, 1998–99, 2001–02, 2005–06|
|Cliftonville||5||2||2003–04, 2012–13, 2013–14, 2014–15, 2015–16||1994–95, 2006–07|
|Crusaders||2||6||1996–97, 2011–12||1986–87, 1995–96, 2007–08, 2012–13, 2013–14, 2019–20|
|Coleraine||2||5||1987–88, 2019–20||1992–93, 1993–94, 1999–00, 2009–10, 2011–12|
|Portadown||2||2||1995–96, 2008–09||1987–88, 2010–11|
|Ballymena United||1||3||2016–17||2014–15, 2017–18, 2018–19|
|Newry City||0||2||–||1989–90, 2008–09|
There have been 34 League Cup finals contested during the competition's history so far, played at six different grounds. Windsor Park has been the most common venue, having hosted 23 finals.
|Venue||Finals hosted||First final||Last final|
- "NORTHERN IRELAND FOOTBALL LEAGUE". NIFL Premiership.
- NI Football League
- "JBE TO SPONSOR LEAGUE CUP". nifootballleague.com. 6 August 2015. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
- "NI FOOTBALL LEAGUE CUP SPONSORSHIP ANNOUNCEMENT". nifootballleague.com. 20 January 2014. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
- Irn Bru unveiled as new League Cup sponsor
- Glentoran Football Club – The Pride of East Belfast – Legends
- "Cliftonville get home advantage for League Cup final". BBC Sport. 28 December 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
- "League Cup final: Cliftonville beat Ards 3–0 at Solitude". BBC Sport. 13 February 2016. Retrieved 16 February 2016.
- "Sky Sports drop Irish League". belfasttelegraph.co.uk. Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 30 May 2015.