Michelle makes history
Bree woman Michelle O'Neill was part of a trio of history makers at the the UEFA Super Cup final in Istanbul
When Bree woman, Michelle O'Neill stepped out on the pitch for last Wednesday's UEFA Super Cup final between Liverpool FC an Chelsea FC in Instanbul she was part of an all-female team of match officials creating world history.
Along with match referee, Stephanie Frappart, and fellow-assistant referee, Manuela Nicolosi, Ms O'Neill was one of three female officials overseeing a major men's final for the first time ever.
Their momentous and history-making exploits followed on the back of a very successful campaign during this year's Women's World Cup which saw the trio take command, literally, at the very highest level of world sport.
However, to a certain degree officiating at the Super Cup final was even more significant as it helped break down gender bias but for the three women involved there was more to it than that as Ms O'Neill explained to this newspaper when she spoke to us following the game.
Exemplary in their performance the women showed how a soccer match should be controlled and that was what they set out to do.
'We wanted to do the best possible job we could do as a team of officials,' she said,
While acknowledging the historic nature of the occasion and expressing hope that the women will inspire other females to follow in their footsteps she said it wasn't just about women refereeing a men's game.
'We wanted to make sure we did a good job purely from a refereeing point of view regardless of whether we were female or male; we just wanted to do a good job and show how we feel a game should be refereed.'
They did an exemplary job which was highlighted by the wave of support the officials received in the wake of the match.
Prior to kick-off a lot of the focus was on the fact they were female taking charge of a men's final, however, after the final whistle the attention was more focussed on the excellent job they did and that gave the officials a lot of satisfaction.
As with players the preparation for the game was intense although the women only found out they were taking charge of the Super Cup final 10 days before kick-off.
'We found out 10 days beforehand but we are always prepared physically anyway but a lot of work then went into studying the teams and how they play,' said Michelle.
'We try to get to know the players and for me it helps that I played as well because I know all the tricks,' she added.
Originally from Enniscorthy, Michelle grew up in Bree and now lives and works in Wexford.
In her playing career she was involved with Enniscorthy United, Wexford Celtic and Adamstown and around 2008, as she came to the end of her own playing career, she became seriously interested in refereeing.
'I always wanted to be a ref and Mark Hogan came up to me one day after a county team game against a college from the USA and said there was a course starting that Monday and I was to be there,' she said.
'I went along and I suppose the rest is history,' she added.
From her initial couple of games in charge she knew it was what she wanted to do: 'I just loved it.'
Some eyebrows were raised initially when she oversaw schoolboys league games but her reputation as being a fair and honest ref soon saw her endear herself to players and managers.
If Michelle O'Neill was in charge the teams knew that everyone would be treated fairly but they also knew she wouldn't take any messing,
'I will not take dissent from anyone and I remember the first time it happened I sent the player off and people knew from then that I wouldn't take it,' she said.
'It's about football and I am there to make sure it's as fair a game as possible,' she added.
'After about a half a year of doing it the gender distinction disappeared and I just became known as 'the ref'.'
Michelle entered the school of excellence in 2009 into 2010 and got involved in league of Ireland games.
After that she was involved in the men's cup final in the Aviva and her progress up the refereeing ladder did not go unnoticed by UEFA and FIFA, however, last week's historic achievement was the culmination of over 10 years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice.
'FIFA noticed me, and you're assessed in every game you do,' said Michelle.
'They have observers and they would go around and spot you in tournaments and then put your name forward,' she said.
She first teamed up with Stephanie Frappart for the UEFA U19 tournament in 2012 and in the summer they were assigned to the Women's World Cup.
'If you are the best person or people for the job then you should be doing the job,' said Michelle, highlighting her very down-to-earth approach to the task of match officials.
The women's world cup was held over 42 days and having overseen the final Ms Frappart was appointed to the final of Super Cup final.
'We were then appointed as her team,' said Michelle.
Preparing for games like that takes an immense amount of work but the philosophy for Michelle is simple in theory but maybe not so easy in practice: 'It's high intensity so the aim is to be the fittest and sharpest person on the pitch.'
In preparing for the Super Cup final the match officials oversaw two men's league games in France and in the days leading up to the final they studied both teams through video analysis.
'It's the very same as for a coach,' said Michelle.
'You study the teams, see how they play, find out what they're likely to do,' she added.
Prior to the game she said the didn't give a thought to the occasion or the significance of what the women were about to do.
'I prepared myself mentally for the job in hand and I just wanted to do what I needed to do,' she said.
However, just like in the world cup, once the final whistle blew then a wave of emotion hit the officials.
'In the world cup it was very emotional because at the end we thought 'we were there, we've done it',' she said.
'There were 77 match officials and 48 assistant referees and with 51 matches and [you think] you have worked so hard and to be selected as the final ref and [officials] is huge,' she added.
'Doing the world cup was huge and it was the culmination of five or six years preparation.'
She said the feelings ahead of the Super Cup final were different because of the historical significance.
'It was different because we were refereeing as the first female team of officials ever so it was a different emotion and we had to perform,' she said.
'However, we were just match officials and we set out to do the best job we could,' she added.
'We didn't care about being female, we were just there to ref the final and we just wanted to show this is how you ref a game.'