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Irish referee hoping to inspire more females with appearance at World Cup finals

Michelle O’Neill will represent the country at this summer’s tournament in Canada.

O'Neill is an assistant referee in the SSE Airtricity League.
O'Neill is an assistant referee in the SSE Airtricity League.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

REFEREEING HAS taken Michelle O’Neill to parts of the world she may not have visited otherwise.

When I called the Wexford native early this week, she had just returned to Ireland from Malta, where the preliminary round qualifiers for the 2017 Women’s European Championships were taking place.

It is straight back to her day job as a swimming instructor before a trip to Zurich this weekend for a UEFA seminar ahead of this year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The 34-year-old has been chosen as one of 44 assistant referees for the finals, which begin on June, meaning she becomes only the second ever official to represent Ireland at a World Cup — following on from Eddie Foley, who was a linesman at France’98.

“I’m absolutely over the moon as it’s an amazing opportunity and the achievement of a lifetime in terms of a referee’s career,” she told The42.ie.

“It’s a massive honour to represent Ireland and female referees. This is the highest level you can get and you dream of things like this. When I started refereeing I would never have thought it was possible.”

A keen footballer for Adamstown and Wexford, O’Neill turned her attentions to the other side of the game in 2008 and began at local level but soon worked her way up to the FAI Referee School of Excellence.

“It’s a massive preparation for young referees coming up,” she explains. “We went through fitness testing, video analysis, offside testing and you have mentors and observers there for support.”

At national level, O’Neill referees in the Women’s National League (WNL) while she also works as an assistant in the SSE Airtricity League. With the likes of Paula Brady and Sinead Forde, she is leading the way for women’s refereeing and hopes her achievement encourages more to get involved.

“Since I first came on board with the School of Excellence I’ve seen a huge growth,” she says. “We now have female development seminars and a lot more women are becoming involved at local level as well as national.

This year alone, there are another four female referees there and hopefully my status at the World Cup will inspire and encourage more females to get involved from a young age.”

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Supporters can often go over the top when voicing their anger but O’Neill maintains she isn’t singled out for abuse from the terraces because of her sex.

“When I started years ago, fans would have singled out female referees and supporters can be boisterous in getting their opinions across but at the end of the day I think we’re all treated equally as officials and everyone gets it the same now.”

Originally published at 16.12

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Ben Blake

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