World Cup duty in Canada the culmination of dream for Michelle O’Neill

Referee becomes only the second Irish appointee to officiate at Fifa’s highest level

Michelle O'Neill has been training to become a referee for years, working across Ireland and recently taking on Europe. Video: Gareth Maher

 

From the chaos of an under-10s game on a bumpy local pitch in Wexford to the hype and prestige of the Fifa Women’s World Cup in Canada, Michelle O’Neill has come a long way as a referee.

Yet it took quite a while for the 36-year-old to become an overnight success. There were the long hours driving all around the country, maintaining a strict training regime, learning to deal with egos and heightened emotions, and acquiring a ‘thick skin’.

All of that hard work paid off earlier this year when O’Neill, who officiates in the SSE Airtricity League and Continental Tyres Women’s National League, got the nod from Fifa. She is still pinching herself to make sure it’s not just a dream.

“When I chose to be a referee, I didn’t think I would go as far as I have. Obviously I’m on this road now, I’m embracing it, and loving every minute of it,” she says.

In some ways it feels as though she has tumbled down the rabbit hole and entered into a wonderland where women’s football is lauded, critiqued, and promoted on a scale similar to the men’s tournament in Brazil last summer.

This is where the best of the best come to compete. And everywhere O’Neill looks is a reminder of just how big a World Cup is with hundreds of fans waiting outside hotels to glimpse star players like Alex Morgan or Nadine Angerer.

Little overwhelming

Olympic Games

“I deal with pressure very well. I’ve been also doing a lot of mental preparation; it’s called ‘thinking into results’ and I’ve been doing that so I can get up to the next level as it involves a lot of visualisation, mental preparation, and analysing games,” reveals O’Neill.

“From there I just try to learn as much as I can. We train just like the players. We do agility, speed work, co-ordination, reaction times, high intensity, low intensity, core work, flexibility work, and recovery, so we have the same set-up as the players.

“For the Women’s World Cup, we’re one big team. We travel to the grounds together, we train together and we also do classroom work together. We’re constantly developing as referees because the players are developing and the game is developing all the time.”

Applying such dedication to being the best referee that she can be isn’t easy. There is the constant monitoring of her diet, fitness and performances, travelling all over the world, balancing her job as a swimming instructor in Wexford, plus running a family.

Yet she is just the second Irish official after Eddie Foley in the men’s tournament in 1998 to earn Fifa’s stamp of approval. No wonder she is fiercely proud of her journey and has a Fifa keyring dangling from the rearview mirror of her car.

A wiry, goalscoring striker during her playing career with Waterford IT, she is now a composed referee who is highly respected within the domestic game. But that doesn’t mean her nerves won’t be rattling when the World Cup kicks off this weekend.

Looking forward

“To be honest, I don’t know what any of them say because I’m so focused and so concentrated on the game – everything is shut out and it’s just noise. I have a job to do and I have to be fully focused on that.”

Unfortunately that focus is sometimes tested when sexist comments are volleyed her way. It hasn’t happened as much in recent times, but O’Neill has learned to ignore the insults when they do come.

“It took many supporters a while to accept female officials, but now the respect is there and we’re just part of the team of officials now. There have been some comments from some supporters, but never anything from players or managers,” she explains.

“We’re trying to get more young people involved in refereeing, especially women, and they are like: ‘oh no I couldn’t do that’, but you haven’t tried it yet. The FAI has a great programme in the school of excellence, which develops those referees and shows them the benefits of it.”

A perfect role model for aspiring referees, O’Neill has reached the top thanks to the sacrifices that she made through the years and it’s why she will now enjoying making the most of her World Cup experience.

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