Annette, Benny, Fiachra, Éanna and Conall McArdle with Fiachra's wife, Lisa, after Cuchulainn's 2017 London IFC final win.
Fiachra McArdle was once asked ‘where did he see himself in 10 years’ time?’ by the curators of Shamrock Rovers’ matchday programme. His answer was conservative, despite having only just returned from schooling at Derby County’s academy.
While a Dundalk lad born and bred, he said that he hoped to still be in Rovers’ midfield. In hindsight, had he achieved that, his League of Ireland career would have earned him more honours than the Queen gives out every new year.
Needless to say his spell in the green and white wasn’t as long as he quipped it might be, though instead of his aspiring loyalty being reflected upon positively by those who he was sharing a dressing room with, Mark Rutherford tapped him on the shoulder and sought, rather intensely, an explanation.
He was 20 and yet an established cog in Rovers’ midfield, having only a year earlier been given a fresh three-term deal by Derby. Rutherford, it would seem, wanted to fertilise his young colleague’s desire for a career out of the ordinary.
Sixteen years later and McArdle is a primary school teacher based in Hong Kong with his wife, Lisa. He regrets not making the move to Asia, from his London home of seven years, sooner. Likewise, his two ill-fated spells at Dundalk FC are a source of frustration, as are the events which severed the link with Derby.
These apart, the former Colaiste Rís student is content with both the roads taken and not. He got out of football what he could. An articulate communicator boasting an analytical mind, there are few complaints about how his life has transpired.
“I don’t think I was at the level to make it; it wasn’t just down to a bad manager (John Gregory) or the club,” McArdle tells The Democrat.
“I would’ve been a skilful, small midfielder and the way I see it, players like that, a Wes Hoolahan or David Silva, have to be the best player on the pitch otherwise they don’t count in many ways. Wes Hoolahan is either the best player on the pitch, getting the ball and running the game, or, if he’s not, he doesn’t count really because he’s not going to get up and win his headers, or get around tackling people; other people can do those things better than him.
“I was a player like that, I couldn’t dominate games the way other people could. I was five foot eight and 10 stone. There were other players who were six foot two, could get up and down the pitch and were more valuable to the team.
“At the time the Premiership was becoming very physical. People talk about Arsene Wenger and the great football Arsenal played, but his two midfielders were Petit and Vieira; big and strong men.
“I remember one of my coaches at Derby asked me if I was ready to play in the first-team. I said, ‘yeah’. He said that if I played in the first-team I was going to come up against Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira, ‘are you ready for that?’ That’s the level I had to be at and physically I would’ve struggled.”
“Anybody who speaks out against the government is just eliminated completely and they’re really afraid of that here.”
McArdle is au fait with volatile politics. After all, despite his father, Benny, being such an intrinsic member of Dundalk Gaels, he favoured soccer as a teenager despite the obvious connotations. Similarly, his treatment at both Derby and Dundalk left quite a lot to be desired in terms of the strings that were pulled behind the scenes.
And yet none of that is comparable in its severity to the developing struggle for power in Hong Kong, as China seeks to implement its signature, strict regime on a people who are using every last democratic right they have in a bid to repel becoming entangled in an institutional web.
The leader, Carrie Lam, is a national hate figure and there is the potential for an international incident with Britain offering citizenship to people who were living there until the end of their colonial claim to the region.
“I asked people over here before I came what it was like, it looked a bit ‘rough’ on the news, but they said I wouldn’t come into any contact and we’d be perfectly safe,” McArdle adds, when pressed.
“You talk to a lot of the local people and it’s causing a lot of strife, particularly among the younger people you talk to; they’re very upset. Hong Kong is an amazing place because it has elements of China and the good sides of that, but it also has the freedom of a western place.
“It’s not like China in terms of the surveillance and strict measures that are there, but now you can just see little changes that are happening. China is starting to become a bit more strict and putting in little measures that the Hong Kongers are really upset about. You can see why they’re so upset.
“It’s sad because you can only see it going one way, really, and that’s China turning Hong Kong into a Beijing or the other places in China. It’s sad for the people who’ve grown up with more freedom.
“Like we went to Beijing for a friend’s wedding and you couldn’t get on Google Maps or Facebook or Whatsapp, it’s all monitored and sites like that are shut down. Anybody who speaks out against the government is just eliminated completely and they’re really afraid of that here and don’t want it to happen, but it’s hard to see any other outcome.
“I said to Lisa recently, I’m glad we’re here at this time, before it changes, because I can imagine visiting Hong Kong in 10 or 20 years and it being a very different place, unfortunately.
“They’re protesting and there’s big protests. I’m looking out from my balcony here and I’ve watched, at times, millions protest, literally a million people walking down the street protesting and police coming along; tear gas, etc.
“But, it’s weird, you don’t feel unsafe. I got caught in the middle of a protest while walking home from training one night but ‘you’re an expat’, ‘you’re not our enemy; we’ll walk past you and say ‘hello’’. There’s no feeling of being unsafe at all.”
He describes Hong Kong as being similar to London in terms of its layout and attractiveness, with the language barrier not a problem of the scale he imagined it would. A teacher in a deprived area of East London for the best part of the last decade, McArdle is now immersed in a much more privileged environment in that those he teaches are the offspring of fee-paying, English-speakers living and working in the country.
While the lockdown, he adds, hasn’t been as tight as in Ireland, for example, the former Glenmuir prodigy has had to conduct lessons digitally over the last number of months with education centres closed.
It’s been a strange way for the first of his two-year residence to end, but the stay to date has been very happily spent for both Fiachra and his Bolton-born significant other. Sport, after all, has been a crucial medium through which McArdle has settled in, playing soccer in Hong Kong’s top amateur league and Gaelic football with the local side.
Indeed, he was part of the Hong Kong team that lost to Singapore in the Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur last November and recently featured in a squad containing Blackrock’s David Clinton, 25 or so years since the pair lined out together on a Dundalk Schoolboys’ League selection that took on Glasgow Celtic U10s in a 4-4 draw.
A small world.
“All I ever wanted to do was to be a professional footballer… I never had anything else in my head, never even contemplated that I’d do anything else.”
Having once made a pledge to his parents that the only club he wouldn’t sign for was Manchester United, on the notion that their senior team would be too difficult to break into, the first cross-water side he visited was, ironically, the Old Trafford outfit.
Wally Murphy, his manager at Glenmuir and local representative level who would later become United’s scout in Ireland’s north-east, organised the link-up as McArdle’s schedule intensified with trial offers emanating from across England and Scotland.
“There was one week off we had in school and my week after finishing school on the Friday was to go up to Irish trials on the Saturday and Sunday, fly to Manchester on the Sunday for three or four days to go to Man United, and on the Wednesday, I was due to fly to Copenhagan with Liverpool to play in a tournament until the Sunday.
“But, funnily enough, I got injured with Ireland so I ended up not going to either Manchester or Liverpool…”
Derby, a Premiership team at the time, would woo McArdle, though; their eyes on the Milk Cup having clocked the diminutive midfielder and passed his details up the food chain. A contract was eventually tabled, although the agreement was that he wouldn’t move to the English midlands until after completing his Leaving Cert.
The situation worked out differently, however.
“The summer before I started sixth year I went to a tournament in Italy with Derby and I’d a particularly bad tournament, I didn’t play well. Derby had high hopes for me and I really didn’t perform at all.
“They got a little bit worried, sat me down with my Mam and Dad and said they were a little bit worried that if I got a year behind lads who’d come over and trained full-time a year earlier, it might be difficult for me.
“They asked if I could come over then, if it was sorted out that I could do my A-levels. Mam and Dad said what they’d offered sounded okay and allowed me to go. They knew how much I wanted it and I went for it.”
A private tutor was organised for down times at the training ground and he settled into comfortable digs with a pair of Derry boys. The honeymoon period was sweet and McArdle’s development over the course of his three-term youth deal was steady.
He recalls being taken to train with Scotland international Craig Burley on one occasion as the ex-Celtic star recovered from injury. It was all about teaching him the life of a professional.
And then, in 2001, he was an active member of the Derby side that won the English Reserve League title, opposing Edu in the title-decider against Arsenal at Pride Park. First-team boss Jim Smith took notice of McArdle, giving him a squad number, 35, and he almost made the bench for the final game of the season, only for a regular panellist to recover from a knock.
That, as they say, was as good as it got…
“It shook me, the change in attitude of a lot of people when it did go sour, when a new manager came in. I’d been doing well and after signing a three-year contract initially, coming near the end of that I was getting into the reserves and I signed a new three-year contract.
“But John Gregory came into the job and Derby got relegated from the Premiership. There were money problems and they got rid of maybe 12 first-team/reserve players, and they wanted to get rid of me even though I’d a three-year contract.
“I found then that some of the people who’d been good to me changed a bit. ‘Ah well, you’re no use to us anymore’. I was reaching out to them for a little bit of help and that left a sour taste for me. You’re young and naive so you maybe don’t see the ruthless side to it and the bad side to a lot of people.
“There was a story going around in the ’papers that they were going to be letting a lot of players go. One of the first-team players, Deon Burton, came up to me and said, ‘Feeks, I think you’re one of the players they’re talking about’. That hit me because I didn’t think it was going to be the case, even though things weren’t going too well at the time.
“His agent had seen a list, which he was also on, and I was one of the names on it. So I went to see the chief executive, who was sorting everything out, and he said I wasn’t going anywhere. But a day or two later he called me in and said, ‘we’re going to let you go; you’re one of these players’.
“That was a bit sour. He was a businessman and he didn’t care. They wanted to push us out. Lads on big money, Ravenelli, Kinkladze and Burley, were there on Premiership wages in the Championship. I wasn’t in that ballpark at all but I was in the group they wanted to get rid of.
“We were due to get paid the next week and my wages didn’t come in, so there was a fight for the wages and it went very toxic. I came into training one day and the reserve manager said I wasn’t in the session, I wasn’t on the list of players he’d been given. I was going into the training ground with the first-team, the reserves and youth team training and I wasn’t in any of the sessions. You can imagine that, I’m a 19-year-old, I don’t know what to do, my face is dropping.
“I’d seen this happening to other players, 30-year-old men, who were maybe able to deal with it, but I was lost. I’d still years on my contract and maybe had I been older I’d have gone into the gym and built myself up because I was probably going to outlast any manager that came in. And, as it turned out, Gregory was gone about six months later. But I spoke to Dad and my agent and we got out.”
“I couldn’t complain with John, he did a good job and took the team up to the Premier Division, but I remember meeting him one time after it and he said that he made a mistake by not giving me more opportunities.”
Following his Derby departure, he was encouraged to look into a move to the continent, where the style of play was generally more conducive to his technical type. The Rams were of no use when it came to helping him to organise a club and with the lower divisions of the English leagues even more brutal physically, a trial period was agreed with Spanish third tier team Deportivo Castellón, only a transfer was predicated on their promotion bid which fell short.
He opted, then, to come home and sign for Rovers while beginning a degree at UCD, never even considering the possibility of throwing his lot in with Gaels and trying to reach the standard required to play for Louth, like his father.
That, he felt, would tar him as a ‘failure’ in his own mind. He could at least salvage something for himself in the League of Ireland and after leaving Rovers, who were in financial meltdown, he signed for Dundalk.
“Apart from the sour spell at the end of my time at Derby, the two worst times of my career, when I was most unhappy, were my two stints at Dundalk. They were the only two times where I never really played.
“Every other club I was at I played for the majority of the time, until the end of the second year at Sporting Fingal.
“I didn’t play at all, for whatever reason, the first time. Jim Gannon was manager and didn’t fancy me, and never really gave me a chance. I went to Athlone and played every game under John Gill, so when he got the Dundalk job he took me back to Dundalk, but it didn’t work out again.
“I felt hard done by on both occasions and people talk about local players, I thought it was easier to not play a local player, to play a player who was travelling. And I saw that when I was playing in Dublin, Longford and Athlone. A fella coming from Dublin or me coming from Dundalk, they’d play you quicker.
“I felt hard done by at Dundalk by not getting a chance. I couldn’t complain with John, he did a good job and took the team up to the Premier Division, but I remember meeting him one time after it and he said that he made a mistake by not giving me more opportunities.
“I found that hard because I grew up supporting Dundalk and they were the team that I wanted to do well with the most in Ireland. It’s the biggest disappointment I have in coming home, that it didn’t work out.”
A year at Kildare preceded two seasons at Sporting Fingal. He was a regular in the first of the campaigns under Liam Buckley but gradually became a peripheral input as the Dublin club released the purse strings. They won the FAI Cup at the end of 2009, pipping Sligo Rovers, 2-1, at Tallaght Stadium, but, despite playing in the competition’s early rounds, McArdle didn’t make the squad for the decider.
Hence, his winners’ medal, which, he admits, “is nice to have”, doesn’t hold the same meaning as, for one, the intermediate football championship gong he landed with London club team Cuchulainn’s in 2017. He struck 1-8 of 1-11 in Ruislip that day, collecting the man of the match trophy as well in front of his family, who’d flown over.
If only Gaels had such a prolific scorer a matter of weeks later, in their senior final loss to Newtown Blues. Then again, he was a man they rarely had. A pity.