By Shaun Casey
THE Armagh championship got underway last weekend and the horrible weather conditions on Friday night dampened any hope of free-flowing football.
For players and officials alike, just seeing through the slamming rain was a struggle, but it’s all in a days work for Denise McDonald.
The Clann Eireann referee made history that night, becoming the first female official to take charge of a senior men’s championship game. McDonald was the one in the middle as Pearse Ogs began their campaign with a win over Annaghmore.
“It was awful conditions the other night, but it was an okay game of football,” recalled McDonald, who first picked up a whistle 28 years ago.
“I got a few responses back from people saying that I’d done okay but it’s tough because you can’t be the good guy for both teams. But I just go out and I do my best and try to implement the rules and that’s my job done.
“The weather was desperate, there was some resistance running done that night, I definitely got my steps up. But it was fine, you’re out in all weather and we’re that used to bad weather here anyway. If we get a bit of sunshine, we’re happy but if it’s a bit of rain, we’re used to it.”
It all started off in the old Athletic Grounds building when a young and enthusiastic McDonald agreed to start refereeing, adding to her already hectic schedule. But the passion for the game and love of club and county made it all worthwhile.
“I’ve been refereeing 28 years. I started off with the LGA and the men’s offered it to anyone who wanted to referee so I was already doing it and I thought I might as well try it as well.
“In between, I was still playing, I was coaching, I had family and followed my own children as well, so I’ve always been in and out. I wasn’t doing as many games at that time as I have the past six or seven years.
“I first qualified when I was 18, and I just thought why not. They were crying out for referees and they’re still crying out for referees. It keeps you involved in the game and when I stopped playing, I was refereeing and playing at the same time. When I stopped playing, I always thought it was a good way to give back to the club and give back to the county.
“I would be a big believer in that, and I love going back and helping out my club and county – 28 years is a long time but it’s hard to stop. It’s hard to hang the boots up but at least I’ll have the coaching to go back to, I don’t think I could ever completely step away from the game. At this stage, I think I’ll keep refereeing for as long as I can, as long as my legs hold up.”
Keeping up with the play is no problem for McDonald and her involvement at underage and senior level, in both ladies and men’s football, keeps her ticking over.
“It keeps you in shape, but you do have to rest as well. You don’t want to overload but I’m not out every night of the week either. I know in the championship, because we’re so tied up with refs and doing the line and everything, I like to go and watch my own play as well.
“I help out as best I can and come championship time, everything is sort of pushed to the side and you try to help out as best you can to get all the games covered.
“I’m out tonight (Tuesday) for an u-14 championship game up in Lissummon with Patrick Rankin and Tir na nOg and then I’m out again on Friday night at a Junior Championship game between Lissummon and Clady and then I’m on the line in Crossmaglen on Sunday.
“It’s brilliant because everybody gets an even number of games and I don’t mind having to do the line either, as long as you’re involved and you’re helping out in some way. But I’m honoured to get these games, it’s great.”
Refereeing both men’s and ladies’ football has the potential to be a head-wrecker. Only men can call a mark, while the ladies can lift the ball off the ground. But McDonald finds the going fine as she keeps on top of the dos and don’ts of both codes.
“I love the LGFA, and the men’s. People would often ask the difference between the two and obviously some of the rules are different, but I just get on with it and I really do love it.
“Ladies football always had the advantage rule but you still had to stop the game if there was a bad foul and you’re constantly talking. Ladies football is probably more vocal, but I would be quite vocal with the men’s game as well.
“But you’re telling girls they’re on a tick and in Ladies football, three ticks is a sin-bin so men’s football, you just have your yellow, black and red cards which is straight forward enough, I know you can caution players as well.
“I find the ladies has moved on more now in that way because you’re constantly ticking and constantly talking and I would talk to them and let them know what the foul was for, that’s the way I was always taught.”
The main thing that turns people away from calling the shots in the middle of the field is the abuse that referees receive, but McDonald has no complaints in that department.
“I do have to put my hands up and say that I have never had anybody give me much abuse but the other side of it is that I wouldn’t listen to it if there was anything,” added McDonald.
“Whatever is outside that fence, you don’t listen. You’re inside the fence to do a job and you do it. You’re not going to be everybody’s favourite all the time, but you still have to implement the rules as you see it on the field yourself.
“Personally, I’ve never had a problem. To be fair, a lot of the boys, I would have refereed at underage and they’re now playing senior football. Since Covid came in they’ve tried to keep us in our own areas, we don’t have to travel too far.”
McDonald joins a short list of female referees to have officiated a men’s championship encounter, and she would always encourage others to pick up the whistle and give it a go.
“I know Maggie Farrelly does it and she was one of the first at county level. I don’t know if Siobhan Coyle from Donegal is doing it, she’d refereed a few men’s games, but in Armagh I’m the only one from the last 28 years that I know of.
“Roisin Weathers (St Peter’s) is now getting involved and she’s done a fast-track refereeing course in June, so I think she’s going to start refereeing next year from u-12 up and that’s great to see.
“Some females probably think they can’t do it, but I always tell them to never think that and to have a go because if it doesn’t work out, you can always step away from it.
“It’s about taking that first step and I think I did the right thing all those years ago.”