It’s often said a referee isn’t noticed in a game until they make a bad call. For 90 minutes, they could be merely a spectator. The game goes back and forth between two teams while the referee calls the shots to ensure a fair game.
For Michelle O Neill, it’s a rare thing when she isn’t noticed. She has made history several times by becoming Ireland’s first female referee to officiate at the highest levels – World Cup, Super Cup and now, the pinnacle of any sport, the Tokyo Olympic games.
Even still, her noble and humble nature shines through. Being the first Irish person to referee at the Olympic games is an impressive feat but for O’Neill, she’s just doing her job.
‘’When I get to the big games and tournaments, it’s amazing. I always want to be better and get on a bigger stage. I can’t get wait to go out there and perform, as well as enjoying myself.’’
Wexford native O’Neill first found her love for sport as a child by trying every game and hobby the world had to offer. She tried hockey, tennis, swimming, even GAA for a while. There were few girls soccer teams around her home area of Adamstown which limited her options. She eventually got going around 17, playing with the senior women's team.
She enjoyed a successful soccer career in Wexford but as time went on, the challenges of playing three or four times a week began to take its toll. The love for the game was still growing and it was not going anywhere soon. O'Neill began to look at other routes to stay involved in the game.
‘’Towards the end of my playing career with Adamstown, I just wasn’t ready to give it up. I knew I couldn’t play for much longer, but I wanted to stay active in the game, so I got into refereeing. I started off doing the underage schoolboys leagues in Wexford. I kept playing for one more year and did extra games at the weekend. I could be doing three or four games in one day, followed by my own team’s training and match schedule. It was very busy.’’
Eventually, the day would come for her to choose between being noticed or noticing. She had belief in her refereeing skills and continued that path. O’Neill’s talent may have taken a while to surface but it was finally coming up for air. The following year, 2010, she received a call from the FAI School of Excellence. A two-year course which offers mental and physical training to become a referee at the highest level. If you're good, you could be selected for the panel of Elite Refereeing which means you can work at the senior games in the country. A huge step in developing a refereeing career - and it worked out for her. She received her call up to the panel in 2010.
Going from local underage games to the men’s National League in Ireland was a huge step. It’s a whole new level of pressure to get those decisions right. But it only added to the excitement for O Neill. She had a whole new area to work and perform in.
'’That was the first time I could see it as a career. Before that call, I had no idea there was a pathway or how to further develop your skills. It was my passion long before it was a job. One year, I was doing the schoolboys league in Wexford, and now I was doing men’s leagues all over the country.’’
"Around this time, I really started to see my own skill in the game. I worked hard, trained hard and knew I could be one of the best referees out there. I was starting to become known for my performances.+
Another recognition came in November 2011, when O' Neill was chosen to officiate the FAI Ford Cup Final.
‘’It was amazing. To work at the domestic final in your native country is a extremely proud moment. I kept thinking, if I could do this, there’s nothing stopping me from going further. I want to be the best.’’
Her calm, yet extremely motivated nature exudes in the conversation and it’s clear to see why she does what she does. Competent of keeping a calm and clear head while being outspoken and determined when needs be. Like any good referee. It‘s this attitude that got O' Neill recognised internationally. She wanted to aim higher than Lansdowne Road.
She earned her first FIFA badge in 2012, after being nominated by other members and referee officials. This is a prestigious moment for any match official and ultimately, a true sign of dreams coming true.
‘’What’s surreal is you get chosen for FIFA, UEFA etc because of your talent. Other members nominate you based on your performance and if you’re good, you get picked. It was amazing to know that other referees could see that in me. It means you have to be good at what you do consistently and be a good referee at every match, whether it’s an underage game or a big final.
''It brought me to 2012, where I did my first men’s UEFA final. I was literally standing at that final and thinking ‘’this is great, but I want to do more. How can I get this feeling, this passion more often’’. That happens a lot!''
That 2012 final was between Sweden and Spain at the UEFA U19 Mens' Championships. Based off this performance, she was invited to a FIFA seminar in 2014 for prospective assistant referees for FIFA Women's World Cup 2015.
These seminars includes practical work with players, theoretical work including video sessions, group discussions and trivia, plus physical and medical testing.
''I was invited to Qatar with 160 other officials. It got whittled down to 30 and I was the only 1 from Ireland. That was another big step up and it was seriously exciting. But still the tests were quite demanding so I wasn't sure if I even would be chosen.''
Luckily, her hard work paid off and she was headed on a a plane to Qatar just a few short months later.
The next step came for O’Neill when she was chosen to go to the 2015 Women’s World Cup. She did some of the knockout games before being selected to work at the quarter final, between USA and China. Her performance at that game brought a huge opportunity - to do her first World Cup final. Packed from pillar to post with star names, icons and trailblazers of women’s football in the last decade like Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach. The US would win the encounter 1-0, go on clinch the World Cup title.
''The final was amazing. To be chosen at that level, it was such a massive game for the USA as well. They needed to win to be taken seriously back home. I got to talk to captain Megan Rapinoe for a second which was surreal. It was amazing to be representing female that day, in the Women's World Cup and with a female team of officials.
''I was thinking ‘’how the hell did I get here’’ but you realise, you’ve put so much work and effort into it. It felt like a final for me too. There’s a split moment when the game is over where you realise what’s just happened. You hear the cheers and the roars. I am representing Ireland. I’ve just been in a World Cup final.'
You’ll often hear players thank their family for support in their winning speech. It’s not something you see or hear much of but referees need that support too. Training six days of the week, trying to maintain a high level of fitness and performance and stay at a top level is no mean feat. This made that 2015 final all the more sweeter for O Neill, knowing who was backing her at home.
‘’I felt so supported on my journey by people in Ireland. The amount of texts and well wishes I got from people all over the country was unbelievable. There were people with no interest in soccer, watching that game to see me and support what I do.
Standing in a large stadium with billions of spectators in the arena and at home, there’s no doubt a bit of pressure surrounds the game. So how does the top-referee stay focussed, with everything going on?
‘’There is a lot going on but I try not to think of it. My job is to stay in the right mindset and make the right calls. To Do my job and do it well. If I’m not at my best ability, my place will be gone. Unlike the teams playing, my performance is dependent on me. I can’t swap out if I get tired, I don’t have a sub.''
She also credits her family as being a safe space, often glancing up to them for support while standing on the field.
’'Some of my family came with me to that game and that’s what I focused on before kick-off. To look up at a stadium with over 60,000 people around you and look directly at your family and see their faces, was unreal. It was an amazing feeling that no one could ever take from me. It felt like I had won the game before the ball had even been kicked.''
Right now, she’s heading to officiate at friendly games in Wales and Belfast before entering a six week camp to prepare for the Olympics. In the days leading up to Tokyo, she will work on her fitness and knowledge of the game as well as some sports psychology exercises to be in peak condition for the games.
‘’When I start my 6 weeks training camp mode for Tokyo ,you won’t hear or see me for a while. It involves lots of high intensity training and preparing on the mental side of things. Basically, knowing that you will be on top of your game and knowing the rules for the Games. You need to be in good shape and be able to run around long enough when it comes to mid-July.''
But right now, she is looking forward to getting out and representing Ireland. She is the first Irish person to officiate at the Olympics.
‘’To be the first match official to represent Ireland is huge. It was a big deal at the Cup Finals and World Cups but the Olympics, it’s unbelievable. I wanted to go to the Olympics as a kid, but I never thought it would actually happen and that I would be a referee in it.
This is part one of a two part story. Check out Part Two now: Part Two: ''People Expect To See a Male Referee Instead of Me''- Michelle O Neill On Women in Sport - Her Spor