The League of Ireland B Division ran for 41 seasons, commencing at the start of the 1964-65 season and running continuously until the curtain was finally brought down on this unique league in 2005 [at that stage it was rebranded as an U21 league and a later incarnation as the A Championship from 2008 to 2011 followed a roughly similar template as the old B Division].
In my day I always thought of the League of Ireland B as the reserve division, but this wasn’t strictly true. It was a league in its own right, albeit one that reserve teams of full League of Ireland members played in.
To get what the B Division was about you need to imagine the two opposing pillars of reserve football that B fell in between. At one extreme there is the English model, where reserve sides play in exclusively reserve-team divisions, leagues and combinations. There is a clear demarcation between first team football and reserve football.
At the other end of the scale you have the European model, where reserve teams are integrated into the main football pyramid, albeit with stipulations [you can’t play in a league higher than your first team and you can’t enter the nation’s FA Cup, for example]. The Segunda Division B in Spain is their third tier and includes the reserve sides of La Liga and Segunda Division teams. Similarly in Germany the 3. Liga is the highest division that a club’s reserve side can play in.
The League of Ireland B Division fell between these 2 types of set-up. It contained reserve teams of some [but not all] League of Ireland sides [and so was not an exclusively reserve-team league], but also counted amongst its member sides the first teams of emerging clubs who in some cases were hoping to use it as a staging post on the way to progression into the actual League of Ireland. Teams like Bray Wanderers, Monaghan United, Longford Town and UCD all played in the League of Ireland B Division before eventually joining the full League of Ireland [at which point many of these teams continued in B by fielding their reserve sides there].
There was no promotion between B and the League of Ireland, but it was a national league and acted as the de facto second tier between 1964-65 and 1984-85, and the third tier from 1985-86 [when the First Division started] until its demise. You could say B paved the way for the First Division.
Back in 1964 the League of Ireland B Division started life as a 10-team league. It had the reserve sides of the then League of Ireland alumni Shelbourne, Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers, St Patricks Athletic, Dundalk, Drogheda and Drumcondra as well as the first teams of Bray Wanderers, Home Farm and Athlone Town. I suppose if you were the latter three at that stage it was more prestigious to be playing in B as a national league than say, the top tier of the Leinster Senior League. Bray dropped out of the league after a single season and Ormeau, Dalkey United and Tullamore Town were added as it expanded to 12 teams. The sides in B who weren’t the reserve sides of full League of Ireland clubs weren’t classed as senior teams; they retained intermediate status and so were allowed continue in the FAI Intermediate Cup.
The format of the early B Division was both traditional and novel. Teams competed for the Blackthorn Trophy [essentially the overall League title] but also the Castrol Trophy [for the winners of a single round of matches, a very good idea when sides played each other several times in the league in that it created several mini-titles to be fought for].
By the mid 1980’s, just prior to the formation of the First Division as the new second tier, the League of Ireland B comprised the first teams of Dublin University, Monaghan United, Longford Town, St Brendan’s and Belgrove as well as the reserve sides of Shelbourne, UCD, Bohemians, St Patricks Athletic, Waterford United, Athlone Town, Shamrock Rovers, Drogheda and Dundalk. Again, you get the picture – a mix of reserve sides and first teams competing in this unique league that was still cut off from the senior League of Ireland in that no promotion was allowed even for the first team sides. It was a curious anomaly of a league, part of the League of Ireland family but kept at arm’s length. Blurred lines existed between B and the parent league, unlike the more complete integration that existed for reserve sides in Europe and also unlike the complete separation of reserve sides in England.
UCD have a special place in the B Division’s history. They joined in 1970 and in 1979 were elected to the senior League of Ireland when Cork Hibernians were expelled for financial irregularities. They continued in B with their reserve side, and finally won the League of Ireland B title in 1997-98 after 28 years of membership. During the 1970’s such famous sportsmen as Kevin Moran and Hugo MacNeill played for UCD in the B Division [MacNeill scored 46 goals in 1978-79]. It’s also an urban myth that Brazilian legend Socrates played for UCD in the B Division – it might actually be true!
The B Division has a special place in my own footballing memory. I was an avid fan of it back in the 1990’s and probably went to as many of the Bray reserve team’s games in B as I did first-team games. There was a different atmosphere at B Division games. The grounds were almost empty and that seemed to make you more involved in the action. The games were competitive and entertaining. I also followed the Dublin University side [I’d been to college there] as they often played at home on opposite weeks to Wanderers. Happy days!