Being a referee definitely does not come without its challenges. Match officials are often subject to criticism and abuse, especially if people think their decision is incorrect. It can be a lot for the wrong person, to deal with that talk and judgement when trying to stay calm.
‘’You need to be thick skinned and able to deal with it. There will be days where it's a lot to handle. Someone in the stands is roaring at you for a decision you've made. And you're thinking, ''why am I here, what am I doing this for''.
“I mean, if a referee hasn’t questioned themselves at least once in their career, then they’re not human. You will question yourself. At the start of my career, People would tell me I couldn’t possibly know the rules or be educated enough to referee a game. It is had to get past that.''
As she explains, the negativity and doubt soon goes away when you look at the positives of the job. You remember how far you've come. Standing at a World Cup or FAI final means a lot more than someone getting mad.
''You remember the big moments of your career and then you’re like ‘Yeah, I do it for that. I do it for the love of the game. So, that’s why I’m here. You just refocus and you re-concentrate. Sure, there is a lot of negativity out there, but do you know what? There is also a lot of positive stuff out there with refereeing and we really have to start highlighting that more.''
There are also rules for verbal abuse at games which are often used by referees to take control on the field.
''When I’m in a game and a player or coach is giving out I have options. There are cards and rules for that. They can be disciplined. If it’s a spectator, I block that out. I know my stuff, what a foul is, what the offside rule is. I wouldn’t be on the field if I didn’t.''
Being a women in sport is tough and everyone knows it. It’s tough working upwards on those pathways and still having to prove yourself, yet Michelle O’Neill makes it look so easy. She’s bold and brave and never lets the naysayers get to her. Still it’s important to stamp out those judgements.
''In the early days I got a lot of resistance in my career because I’m a woman. People would call me uneducated and say that I didn't know what I was doing. I know that when I go out, I have to know the laws inside and out and be over-prepared in case of criticism.
''I've turned up at games and had people confuse me as a Michael, instead of Michelle, simply because they expect to see a male referee.''
That was far from the truth in 2019, when everyone would come to know the name Michelle O Neill. She made history by being a part of the first all-female trio to officiate at a high level within the men's game. The 2019 UEFA Super Cup between Liverpool and Chelsea, featured O'Neill, alongside French officials Stephanie Frappart and Manuela Nicolosi to officiate at the game. Frappart was the first female referee to work at a men's game at such a high standard.
''There was a lot of hype and talk because we were women. But we were there to do a job. People online were saying we shouldn't be there and we wouldn't do as good a job as the men would. So we knew the pressure would be there when we came on the field. We were there do a job, it just so happened we had to go out and do it pretty well.''
''We said before heading out to the pitch, let's take the gender out of it and do our job the way we know how. We ae here for a reason, we're good at what we do so let's show the rets of the world how it's done.''
As she puts it so concisely, you can control yourself and your circumstances and just leave the rest behind. O Neill emphasises that message where we not only need to talk about women in sport, we need to do so positively.
Obstacles aside, it’s important to note that the future of women’s sport has never looked more hopeful. It might not have seemed like a reality ten years ago but in 2021, O’Neill assures that women’s football is in a pretty good place.
‘’Women's sports are constantly growing and it’s changing for the better. The referee I worked with, Stephanie Frappart is officiating in the Euros. There are massive steps being taken. The games being streamed for the Women’s National League in Ireland is brilliant to see, to showcase their talent. It’s amazing for the girls. When I was playing, I didn’t know when we were playing or what sort of set-up we’d be in.''
When asked about her role models in the sport and refereeing heroes, the answer is simple: she didn’t know any.
‘’I never knew this pathway existed so in a sense, I’ve become my own role model. I put my head down and knew where I wanted to go. When I get to those tournaments, I look back and realise how many doors I’ve opened. There could be someone at home who has never seen a female referee. I wish I did have that, but at the same time I’m glad I can be that person.
Maybe I have to be the person to push those barriers and break the stereotypes. I didn’t see anyone doing this before so if I have to be my own role model, so be it. ‘’
O'Neill's advice for anyone out there with a dream is to see it. Visualize it as a reality, rather than a dream. She advises people, young and old to try their best at whatever passion they have. Dreams can come true, even if they seem impossible at one point.
‘’For anyone out there, dream big. I never, ever thought this would happen to me. It was a dream at one stage. You might not be the next referee but you could be the best soccer player, boxer, dancer, anything. Work hard and put that time in and you never know where you could end up.''
From the pitches in rural Wexford to state-of-the art grounds in the Olympics, it’s safe to say anything is possible when you are as determined and motivated as Michelle O Neill.