TRIBUTES have been paid to popular rugby union referee and former St Helens schoolteacher David Matthews, who has died at the age of 71.

David was a respected member of the refereeing fraternity, who reached the highest level of officiating - and that is shown in the warmth of tributes paid to a raconteur and gentleman.

David was also popular PE schoolmaster, including spells at Grange Park School, West Park High School and De La Salle, until his retirement 10 years ago.

Wife Helen said: "I was by his side at the end - he passed away peacefully in Aintree Hospital accompanied by the people who loved him.

"We were married for 17 years and were so very lucky to have found each other.

"He loved sport and he organised many events; he was a big Saints fan and loved Lancashire County Cricket club.

"He was a life member at Rainford Cricket Club and a member of Grange Park Golf Club.

"Saturday would have his perfect day; listening to Saints on the radio and hoping Alastair Cook would do well for England in the cricket."

He was a popular teacher and Helen remarked that countless generations of former pupils will have known him by a nickname that was given to him by West Park schoolboys in the 70s.

"He was known as Dicky Mint, from the Ken Dodd and the Diddy Men character.

"He quite liked it really, and we even ended up calling our cat Dicky Mint," she said.

After joining Lancashire RFU in 1971, David became the Liverpool Society representative on the General Committee in 1993.

David was a successful international referee from 1992 to 1994 and was on the RFU List from 1982 to 2002, before combining local refereeing and assistant referee duties in the Premiership and Championship.

After that he became a well-respected Television Match Official (TMO) from 2001 until 2012.

President of Lancashire County RFU for 2014/2015, David was also a long serving honorary life member of the Liverpool St Helens club, a club he joined in 1965, and was still contributing his whistleblower column to the Moss Lane website.

Liverpool St Helens President Ray French said: "This is desperately sad news.

"David has been at the heart of Moss Lane for over 50 years, initially with the St Helens club and then with Liverpool St Helens.

"We have all been immensely proud of his achievements as a referee and in particular with the high regard in which he has been held throughout the game.

"His calm, logical and considered manner and his empathy with the players in the game made him very special.

"Above all though, he was a friend to many at LSH and we will all miss him."  

On Twitter tributes flooded in after the sad news broke on Monday.

Shaun Woosey wrote: "RIP David, good to have known you. My thoughts are with the family."

North Midlands RFU: "Very sad news. Our thoughts with David’s family and friends."

Nick Preston: "Really sad news Dave was a great guy.

Ian Aitchison: "Great rugby man and a great man. RIP. Love to all his family."

Cheshire RFU: "Sincere condolences at the loss of a good man; very sad new.

Widnes RUFC: "All at @WidnesRufc send our sincere condolences and deepest sympathy to Helen and family at this very sad time."

Tim Lightfoot: " That’s sad to hear. He refereed some of our games at school and also when I played Orrell Juniors even though he was an international ref at the time...good ref, top man."

Mark Cartwright: " Diamond of a man, pleasure to have been in his company many times, RIP Dave, never ever forgotten."

Steve Swindells: "Shocked to hear this sad news, a true rugby gentleman. Fond memories of him refereeing me on a number of occasions. Played one game where he didn’t award a single penalty to either side. Top man. RIP."

Peter Elliott: "Really sorry to hear this. David was a great fella to be around and a fantastic raconteur."

The family have said that the funeral details will only be known in three to four weeks and will be posted on this site when known.