Back in summer 1985 it would be fair to say that I was looking forward to Bray Wanderers’ first season in the newly-constituted League of Ireland First Division more than I was to returning to school [for my Leaving Cert year and all the hard work and stress that was going to entail].
Bray had been one of six teams to be selected for elevation to the national stage, along with Derry City, Monaghan United, Cobh Ramblers, Newcastle United [later Newcastlewest FC] and E.M.F.A. [later Kilkenny City]. We were to be joined in the first-ever First Division by the four sides who had been relegated from the 1984-85 League of Ireland, namely Longford Town, Drogheda United, Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers.
To me at the time Longford, Drogheda, Sligo and Harps were the games I was fearing the most. These were ‘The Fab Four’ in my mind, names who had been in the single-division League of Ireland and who had performed on the national stage when Bray were in the Leinster Senior League. I had visions of us getting a hiding off each and every one of them every time we faced them. The sides that were joining the First Division alongside us were games I felt we had a better chance in.
History shows that Bray won that 1985-86 First Division campaign, a memory that glows bright still and resides in the top-drawer of my Wanderers’ memories alongside the FAI Cup wins of 1990 and 1999 and the glamour-friendlies against Celtic and Newcastle United.
History also shows that Sligo came up with us that season, returning to the top flight after an absence of just one year. Drogheda had to endure four First Division campaigns before returning to the top flight [for 1989-90]; Finn Harps put in 11 campaigns in the First Division before playing Premier Division football in 1996-97 while Longford were the last of ‘The Fab Four’ to get back to the big time, achieving promotion to the 2000-01 Premier Division after 15 straight terms in the basement division.
Overall though, how have ‘The Fab Four’ fared over the 35 League of Ireland campaigns [starting with that 1985-86 season and up to the 2019 season]? Who has been the most and least successful in terms of time in the Premier Division? Who has had the most trips in the promotion-relegation elevator? None of this matters in the greater scheme of things but I spent a very pleasant hour putting this together while the rest of the family watched ‘Dancing With The Stars’. See how many of these stats you would have known!
Sligo are the most-successful of the quartet in terms of time in the top flight, with 26 seasons. These 26 included a 14-year unbroken stretch from 2006 to 2019 [the League title was won in 2012], which obviously will be incremented to 15 for 2020. Their nine seasons in the First Division included a six-year sentence from 2000-01 to 2005.
Drogheda United are the next-most successful of ‘The Fab Four’, having spent 23 campaigns in the Premier and 12 in the First Division out of the 35 seasons under study. They spent an impressive 14-year stretch in the Premier [from 2002-03 to 2015; the League title was won in 2007] and have never stayed for more than four successive seasons in the First Division [which they did from 1985-86 to 1988-89].
Longford Town are marginally more successful than Finn Harps, with 11 terms in the Premier and 24 in the First Division compared to 10 and 25 for Harps, although things will even out this year seeing as Harps will be adding another term in the Premier and Longford another in the First Division.
Between all of the ‘Fab Four’ during these 35 seasons, 70 seasons have been spent in the Premier Division and 70 in the First Division, an even split and a perfect symmetry which suggests the old single-division League of Ireland got it right when it relegated these four clubs at the end of 1984-85.
Drogheda have been the biggest ‘yo-yo’ club of the quartet, moving division 14 times [seven promotions and seven relegations]. Next comes Finn Harps on nine moves [five ups and four downs]; Sligo have had seven trips in the elevator [four promotions and three relegations] while Longford have only had four moves in the 35 seasons [two promotions and two relegations].
After that 1985-86 season, when all of ‘The Fab Four’ were in the First Division, they have only ever been in the same division on one occasion. That was for the 2008 season, when the quartet all graced that term’s Premier Division. Perhaps their stars will all line up again for 2021 – that would take Sligo and Harps getting relegated and Longford and Drogheda staying down this term, or Sligo and Harps staying up and Drogheda and Longford getting promoted [which is probably the more-likely scenario].
So how have my club Bray Wanderers – original members of the First Division along with ‘The Fab Four’ – compared to them in the 35 seasons up to 2019? We have spent the majority of the time in the top-flight, with 23 campaigns that included a 14-year stretch between 2005 and 2018 [meaning we were in the Premier for 2008 along with all of ‘The Fab Four’]. We have moved division twelve times, with six promotions and six relegations. The longest we have ever spent in the First Division was three successive campaigns [1988-89 to 1990-91 and 1993-94 to 1995-96].
I’ve been to all of ‘The Fab Four’ stadiums supporting Bray. I only made it up to Finn Park and The Showgrounds the once, and have been to United Park and the City Calling Stadium about half a dozen times each.
Finally, it has to be said that there can only be one ‘Fab Four’. It’s The Beatles of course, even if 1985-86 onwards has been ‘a long and winding road’ for my footballing ‘Fab Four’ of Longford, Harps, Drogheda and Sligo!