Cliftonville has won the Irish League championship three times in total - twice outright (1910 and 1998) and once jointly with Distillery (1906) - and the Irish Cup eight times, most recently in 1979.
In 1880, it was again John McAlery who was the moving spirit in the formation of the Irish Football Association. A dynamic visionary, he realized the potential of the game and the fact that being one of few football clubs was in itself a problem. He therefore issued an invitation to interested parties in Belfast and district for a meeting to be called. The handful of active clubs of the time included Balmoral Academy and Knock Lacrosse Club, as well as Rugby clubs Albion and Windsor.
The first meeting took place on November 18 1880 at Queen's Hotel, Belfast, presided over by John Sinclair, from which the Irish Football Association was formed. While Major Chichester was appointed president, McAlery became the hon. secretary of the association. This meeting also paved the way for the Irish Cup.
The first Irish Cup final, played at Cliftonville on April 9 1881, saw a 1-0 defeat against Moyola Park. The opponent was well known for "rough and brutal play". In the following year Cliftonville lost again in the Irish Cup final, this time 2-1 against Queen's Island. It was only in 1883 that Cliftonville finally won the cup for the first time, with a 5-0 triumph over Ulster.
During the 1880s, Cliftonville played in the English FA Cup as well. They competed in the competition proper in 1886-87 and 1887-88; in 1886-87 they finally lost in the third round 11-0 at home to Partick Thistle after beating Blackburn Park Road 7-2 in an earlier round; and in 1887-88 they scratched their match with Church (Accrington). The match lost to Linfield 7-0 in 1888 is the only FA Cup match to be played on Christmas Day.
The inaugural meeting of the Irish Football League was held on March 14 1890 in the Belfast Estate Office of the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava with M. McNeice (Cliftonville) as its first president and eight clubs agreed to participate: Cliftonville, Clarence, Milford, Oldpark, Distillery, Glentoran, Ulster and Linfield. It was not, however, until 1906 that Cliftonville won the League for the first time, a success repeated in 1910.
In 1897, Cliftonville won the Irish Cup after a 3-1 win over Sherwood Foresters. A quite unusual protest was launched by Cliftonville after being beaten by Belfast Celtic in the 1900 Irish Cup competition. The Celtic goalposts were eventually measured and it was found out that they were much too short. A replay took place, in which Cliftonville reversed the 4-0 defeat in the earlier match. Subsequently they won the Cup that year, after beating Bohemians 2-1 in the Final.
Being an all-amateur team until the early 1970s, Cliftonville from then on played but a minor role in Northern Irish football as professionalism took hold. It was only in 1976, under manager Jackie Hutton and his assistant Jackie Patterson, that Cliftonville experienced a "revolution in fortune", a miracle, which peaked on 28 April 1979 in the Irish Cup Final at Windsor Park. In front of 15,000 spectators, the largest attendance for many years and not matched since, Cliftonville beat Portadown 3-2 with goals from John Platt, Mike Adair and a late winner from Tony Bell. Curiously, the Reds were playing in yellow and blue that day. In the years after this legendary triumph, Cliftonville returned to the lower reaches of the Irish League, and often in the Nineties were often closer to relegation than to the top. Yet after winning the Floodlit Cup in 1996 and the County Antrim Shield in 1997, a dream come true after 88 years of waiting.
Under manager Marty Quinn, a player of the inspirational team of 1979, Cliftonville won the Irish League in 1998 for the first time in 88 years, amid euphoric scenes at Solitude after a nail-biting 1-1 draw against Glentoran. UTV's coverage of the agonising post-match wait in the home changing-room, which erupted in celebration once the title win had been confirmed, brought the Reds' triumph to a wide audience.
Yet the championship was followed by another potential highlight that turned out to be a nightmare for everybody involved, when the final of the Irish Cup between Cliftonville and Portadown was cancelled due to a Cliftonville player who had featured in the semi-final being deemed ineligible, thereby giving Portadown a walkover in the final.
The Reds subsequently reverted to type, often struggling against relegation. Still, they showed considerable spirit in beating Ards twice in relegation matches in two consecutive years. Nevertheless, in 2003 the Reds surprised the whole league when they managed to win yet another title, the League Cup.
The Reds were back in the relegation play-off in the 2003/04 season under manager Marty Tabb, but comfortably disposed of Armagh City over the two legs. Since then the Reds have progressed, with a fifth-place finish in 2005/06 under new manager Eddie Patterson, (who replaced current Institute boss Liam Beckett), and his Assistant Tommy Breslin. Fifth was the club's highest finish since the league win of 1998.
The 2006/2007 season was a successful one for the club getting to the League Cup final and winning the County Antrim Shield. Finishing third ensured European football for the first time in five years.
Cliftonville won their first ever game in Europe beating Dinaburg of Latvia in the First Round of the UEFA Intertoto Cup 2007 , the home leg was played at Windsor Park, Belfast and finished 1-1 with Kieron O'Connor scoring the Cliftonville goal, on his competitive debut and the away leg was played at the Celtnieks Stadium in the Latvian city of Daugavpils. Mark Holland scored the goal that brought the travelling Red Army to their feet and secured Cliftonville's first victory in European competition.
During the 2007/2008 campaign Cliftonville's performances in the first half of the season had seemed to make them genuine title contenders, spending much of the early and middle part of the season top of the table, however a poor run of form towards the end of the campaign ended their hopes of winning the biggest prize in local football. The Reds finished the league campaign in third position fourteen points adrift of Champions Linfield.
† Won by Cliftonville Olympic (reserve team)
† Won by Cliftonville Olympic (reserve team) ‡ Won by Cliftonville Strollers (reserve team)