Legendary Dundalk referee 'paid £1.50 for a plastic whistle and it took me around Europe'

One-to-one with Denis McArdle

Caoimhín Reilly


Caoimhín Reilly


Legendary Dundalk referee 'paid £1.50 for a plastic whistle and it took me around Europe'

Denis McArdle claims to have been able to kick opponents further than he could drive the ball during his days playing in the Dundalk Summer League.

Denis McArdle claims to have been able to kick opponents further than he could drive the ball during his days playing in the Dundalk Summer League.

Democrat: “That’s a bit of a contradiction.”

Dinny: “Mind you, I was only sent-off once in my life.”

Democrat: “What was that for?”

Dinny: “Ah, I was fighting.”

Democrat: “Did you at least win the fight?”

Dinny: “Oh, you can be sure I did!”

A player with Rangers in his youth, he lined out for Fatima’s West End, for whom Willie and Gerry McKeever were stars, and Wolves in the Summer League, prior to concentrating fully on a career which saw him earn the respect of colleagues both at home and abroad.

Refereeing became the Dundalk man’s passion and he’s thankful to his neighbour, Noel Clifford, for getting him started, juvenile and friendly encounters marking the beginning of a journey which would lead to an FAI Cup final, UEFA Cup clashes and a Euro 1996 qualifier.

“I paid £1.50 for a plastic whistle and it took me around Europe. From day one, I just loved it.”

An avid Dundalk FC fan, he was a regular at Oriel Park during the 1960s and ’70s, sometimes getting the bus from Fatima to the Carrick Road for a game.

A tidy left-full in his heyday, officiating soon became his full focus, outside of working at McCann’s Bakery and, of course, looking after his family. He began whistling in the local divisions before earning promotion to the Leinster Senior League ranks, often taking charge of Bank Rovers’ home games.

The memories are fond and as time passed McArdle’s stock was rising. He recalls looking after an encounter in Navan one Sunday afternoon when a gentleman by the name of Kevin Nugent approached. He was scouting the man in the middle and informed the whistler that he’d “seen enough” when departing at half-time.

“Sure I didn’t know what that meant,” Dinny says, laughing.

Markings were made known through the Evening Herald and so his Monday routine would involve scrambling for an edition to see where he was destined for the following weekend. Boyne Harps and Parkvilla, “a cruncher”, was the game he wanted, but instead he was appointed to oversee Bluebell vs Tramore in the Intermediate Cup semi-final.

“This can’t be right, I thought. You didn’t go to Dublin to referee games at that time and I didn’t even know where Bluebell was or who the linesmen were.”

It was a promotion, ultimately. McArdle was climbing the ranks and by the mid-1980s, he was a fully-fledged member of the national panel, overseeing League of Ireland games having spent just one season “learning the trade as a lino”.

“I remember going up to Derry - they were getting thousands at their games - and walking out across the dog track just before kick-off with the place packed. The roar, the hair stood on the back of my neck, ‘Jesus Christ, this is different class, Denis’.”

Another upgrade, this time to the Premier Division, followed before being awarded the linesman’s shirt for the 1986 FAI Cup final between Shamrock Rovers and Waterford.

Rovers were the top team at the time, Jim McLaughlin and Dermot Keely having worked the oracle. What was it like to referee at Milltown? Well, Dinny doesn’t really know. Surprisingly, he only wore the black jersey at Rovers’ famous home once.

“Rovers played UCD and you had to walk through the crowd to get out to the pitch. That wouldn’t happen today!”

Especially not if The Hoops got to know you were from El Paso!

Sundays were progressively becoming a write-off as McArdle’s top-flight involvement intensified. On one December weekend in particular, he set course for a game in Cork at 5:30am ahead of a 2pm kick-off at the floodlight-less Turner’s Cross, landing home late the same day before journeying to Derry the next morning.

“Only for the woman I was married to, Marie, I couldn’t have done it,” he quips.

Brandywell assignments normally entailed overnight stays as trips north often involved checkpoints and awkward officers.

“I’d a couple of hairy experiences travelling north,” he adds.

“A few times I was stopped and you’d be in your referee’s uniform, blazer and tracksuit. If you were stopped by the RUC or British Army, they’d check the car out, they were… thorough. I remember one of the linesmen drove up one time and we got stopped for speeding.

“They were going to take us into the barracks and I’d to explain that we were League of Ireland officials and that there was a big game in Derry. I got reprimanded for saying Derry and not ‘Londonderry’. I ended up telling them we were going to The Brandywell.”

The situations, he reckons, were similar to those on the field. “You couldn’t phone a friend!”

And Dinny was never one for giving in.

“You gave people, where possible, as little grounds for a gripe as possible. Part of the philosophy at that time would be challenging the referee to see how far they could push you and I remember going to Sligo when there was an English manager there. The FAI had switched from three subs to three from five.

“He said ‘we’ve five subs today, ref’, when we were checking the gear. I said, ‘no, three from three’.

“‘Five from five’.

“‘No, three from three’

“He says, ‘I’ve a letter stating that it’s five from five’.

“I says, ‘Well, I’ve no letter and I’m not interested in yours. It’s three from three’.

“‘Well, I’m after telling five of my players to get striped’.

“I says, ‘Well, if you tell me the two you don’t need to get striped, I’ll go in and tell them not to get striped’.

“He said it was okay.

“‘It’s three from three, end of story. You can report me to the FAI if you wish’.

“About a month later, I’m in Derry for Sligo against Derry. The boul manager shuck hands and he says, ‘There’s nobody that’ll intimidate you... you don’t take things lying down!’”


“I was doing a game above in Derry, I think they were playing Shelbourne. The place was heaving. There was a free-kick for Shels on the edge of Derry’s ‘D’. Alex Krstic was playing for Derry and he stood in front of the ball.

“I said, ‘I want 10 yards’. He stood looking at me. ‘Ten yards,’ I shouted. Again, he stood looking at me. ‘Ten yards and you’re on a card’. Noel King comes running up and says, ‘Denis, he doesn’t understand English’.

“I says, ‘Well, he better understand colours because this one is a yellow and the next one is gonna be red’. Krstic then says, ‘It’s okay, Mr Referee, I shall retreat now as requested!’”


“A team arrived to play and they’d red jerseys, and Derry were in red. I checked the colours before the game and told them there was a clash of jerseys.

“The manager of the visiting team says, ‘We’ve nothing else with us’.

“I says, ‘Well, you can’t play in red’.

“‘What are you going to do?’

“‘I’m not going to do anything,’ says I, ‘because there’ll be no game’.

“‘This is the League of Ireland you’re talking about here,’ he says.

“I says, ‘Well, it’s a pity you didn’t remember that’.

“He says, ‘What are you going to do?’

“‘I’m going into my dressing room now to get changed and at a quarter to three, if you haven’t got a change of jerseys, we’re all going home’.

“He says, ‘You wouldn’t have the balls to do it’.

“I says, ‘I wouldn’t what. You try me!’.

“About 15 minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was the same manager with a blue jersey. ‘We found these in the boot of the bus, ref’. Shuck hands, that was the end of it. I had that attitude about me…

“I hope I’m not sounding big headed.”

Not at all. Forthright. Just being Dinny.

His form led to UEFA Cup assignments in both 1989 and 1992, the latter involving Borussia Dortmund and Floriana, who had an Irish player among their starting XI. The experience of refereeing at the Westfalenstadion was major for McArdle and he still looks for the German side’s results to this day.

But treks to Europe were commonplace by this juncture, Cologne and Iceland just a few places his roles took him to, while he was also on sideline duty for the Toulon Cup final in the south of France. He even met his hero, France’s Michel Votro, the man in black for the 1990 World Cup opener between Argentina and Cameroon, on one such occasion.

Though the best was still to come, 1994 resulting in McArdle achieving the holy grail in Irish football terms. The FAI Cup final, between Derry City and Sligo Rovers, was his.

“Everything about it was just incredible,” he recalls. “When I started refereeing I never had any ambitions to do things like that. It just happened for me.

“The pressure in a Cup final is phenomenal and the people don’t realise the pressure the referee puts on himself - it’s the flagship game of your career and you don’t want to make a balls of it. I was delighted with it. I got to put it to bed without any major controversy or focus on me in relation to how the game went.”

The Bit O’ Red won 1-0 in front of just under 14,000 at Lansdowne Road, but the stakes were higher just over six months later. Bulgaria, who’d finished fourth at that summer’s World Cup in America, were playing Moldova in a European Championships qualifier - with Dinny, from little Dundalk, at the helm.

“That would have been the biggest game of my career, there’s no doubt about that. We don’t get too many internationals in this country.

“Your man, (Hristo) Stoichkov, from Barcelona was playing and he was a real primadonna in the dressing room; he’d have been last to come out. They were saying he was huffing because he wasn’t the captain. The goalkeeper was the captain, he used to wear a wig.

Democrat: “Yeah, Borislav Mihailov.”

Dinny: “What was his name?

Democrat: “Borislav Mihailov.”

Dinny: Right… Coming out on to the pitch, the whole stadium was lit up with burning newspapers. All you could see were flames; over 36,000 people in the ground. The game itself went very well.”

Stoichkov scored twice as the hosts prevailed 4-1, but, for McArdle, “there wasn’t as much pressure in that game as there was in the Cup final”.

His elite-grade career came to a close in 1997 with the meeting of Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers. Incidentally, it was in a clash of the north-west rivals over a decade previously where McArdle took his bow as a linesman at senior level. It was a fitting stage on which to depart.

“After the game I was in tears, the whole emotion of finishing. I refereed at local level for a few years, but the League of Ireland, I loved it so much.”

Not that he stepped away altogether. He remains active in the game and is a regular at grounds around the country through his role as a senior FAI observer, while he still sits on the national referees’ committee, is chairman of the Leinster region and only recently stood down after 10 years on the elite referees’ committee.

Meanwhile, he was honoured before November’s FAI Cup decider as the silver jubilee of the final in which he was the main man was celebrated.

“I’m still up to my eyeballs in it,” he says, laughing.

£1.50 well spent.

Dinny would also like to put on record his appreciation of the frontline workers for the service they’re providing the Irish people through the Covid-19 crisis.