Referee Michelle O’Neill: ‘I feel the very same going out, representing Ireland in an Olympic Games’

Wexford whistler busy dealing with Covid protocols and VAR classes ahead of the Games

 

Interviewing a referee, any referee, is inevitably going to centre around their unseen assistant. Before the VAR inquiry begins it is worth commending Michelle O’Neill for her latest addition to a curriculum vitae that already includes the 2019 World Cup final between the USA and the Netherlands.

Currently the Wexford whistler is easing her way into the Tokyo labyrinth of daily testing and strict protocols to become the first Irish person to officiate at an Olympic Games soccer tournament.

“It is super exciting,” said O’Neill, speaking outside FAI HQ earlier this week. “I totally got my mind into a bubble already, by adhering to protocols at home. I cannot wait to put my two feet on the ground in Japan and hopefully have a very successful tournament.

“It is going to bring joy and hope to the world to be able watch the Games, and for them to go ahead and that’s why we are super alert around the whole Covid guidelines.

“To be the first Irish representative to go out to an Olympic Games is a huge honour.”

O’Neill has the community games medals to prove she hails from a middle distance background as much as those days with Adamstown FC, and that is how she views her Olympic experience; as a conditioned athlete that can keep pace with finely tuned footballers.

“The referees do the exact same training camps,” she explained, “they do the exact same preparations because at the end of the day, we have to be as fit as the fittest player on the team and we actually have to be faster than them to catch up with the offside, so it’s great to get the recognition on that side of things and it’s a huge.

“I feel the very same going out, representing Ireland in an Olympic Games, and I’m super excited and honoured to do that and, again it’s a huge achievement and again it’s four or five years in the making, it’s not just overnight.

“My first sport was athletics, running around, watching Sonia O’Sullivan on TV, going ‘I want to be there one day’. I always wanted to be at an Olympics, representing Ireland, obviously I didn’t know what sport back then as you are only seven, but you go on and whatever pathways and opportunities bring you, you dedicate your all to it and your hard work.

“It proves to me that you have a dream as a kid and you never give up on it, no matter what path opens for you, you put your heart and soul into it and now I am on the eve of my Olympics dream.”

Maybe so, but like every competitor this summer, O’Neill is about to realise, if she did not already know, that the next four weeks will be nothing like any other Olympics. The narrow alleyways of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai are out of bounds. A sneaky bullet train to Kyoto’s gold leaf temple is prohibited. Any colouring outside the lines will be snapped and reported by ever vigilant locals.

“We’ll have everything we need in our facilities, there’s no need to go outside.” said O’Neill, clearly unaware of the ancient and unique experiences to be discovered across Japan’s pre-Covid landscape. “To be honest, I won’t have time. From the first week at a tournament, you’re in the classroom, doing seminars and then on the pitch doing training. Then you’re doing VAR work.”

The great VAR debate was unable to ruin the Euros. Well, maybe Jack Grealish’s inner thigh will disagree after the scars imprinted by Jorginho’s studs but, overall, instant replay was ignored for good reason.

“It depends on how you look at it,” O’Neill replied to a query about video replays making football easier or more challenging to officiate. “VAR is there as a tool and it is there to aid football going forward in the future. When it’s used properly and correctly it’s very useful.”

VAR did enter the realm of farce on several occasions during the 2019 World Cup in France with the hosts understandably disgusted with the muted technology after Kelley O’Hara’s unseen hand ball in the quarter-final.

“You must remember that VAR was only introduced in 2018 at the men’s World Cup,” O’Neill explained. “Then it was introduced in 2019 at the women’s World Cup. It was the first time there was integration of male and female officials in the one tournament. By the quarter-finals onwards it was implemented really well.”

What does VAR training entail?

“We basically go into a simulator. We go into the VAR room and have clips from matches. We do mini matches, pretending that it’s a live game.

“It’s the same as practical training. We’ll have mics for VAR, the guys will be in the room talking to us. Players will be in the game and we’ll make decisions.

“We’ll put about three or four hours per day into it and then have classroom work for the other half of the day. It’s full-on so the only thing you have to remember is to sleep and eat.

“It’s high intensity work but I wouldn’t have it any other way because I love it.”

So every assistant referee has the potential to be video assistant referee?

“We have specialised video assistant referees listed in the group. We are the on-field assistants. We’ll have the mics and then the specialised VAR officials are in the control room.

“We’re all VAR trained but have these specialists for the main VAR. Then you have the AVAR (assistant VAR) and AVAR 2s for the offsides.

“I don’t mind doing both but I’m an on-field match assistant. I love being in the thick of it, the middle of the decision-making and being there for the offside calls. I don’t mind working with VAR but maybe when I can’t run around anymore in the future!

“I’m one [who sees] the positives for VAR to be honest.”

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