Trailblazing ex-striker O'Neill lines out as assistant ref at World Cup final
A former star striker credited with progressing women's soccer yesterday represented Ireland at the Women's World Cup final as an assistant referee.
Michelle O'Neill, from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, was selected as an official for the final between the USA and the Netherlands at the Groupama Stadium in Lyon yesterday.
Ms O'Neill (40) had already worked as an assistant referee at the 2015 World Cup in Canada - making history as the first Irish woman to referee at the tournament.
Shane Dunphy, who coached Ms O'Neill for around a decade at Adamstown AFC in Wexford, said she was the club's top goalscorer and she showed "incredible determination" within the sport and as a dedicated mother.
Mr Dunphy eventually ended up refereeing with Ms O'Neill and he was amazed by the steel she'd shown throughout her soccer career.
"Michelle was always determined, she was an exceptional player and she made soccer popular with women in Wexford when it wasn't prior to that," he said.
"She was playing from around the age of 14 and was the top goal-scorer but she always wanted to referee. She's at the top of that now and is again influencing more women in Wexford and across Ireland to think of this as a career option.
"She's really breaking ceilings and is exceptionally talented. But she's showed determination throughout her life from what I've seen.
"She used to drive up and down to college and back to play for Wexford and then she'd go home to look after her son, Evan, who's now in his early 20s.
"She was a young mum and she was always dedicated but fully committed to her child too. And she's also campaigned for gay rights. Michelle does absolutely nothing by halves and today is a proud day, one she deserves so much."
Ms O'Neill regularly updates her social media with images from her soccer career.
Speaking to the FAI before jetting off to the World Cup in France, Ms O'Neill said: "It's a huge honour to be representing Ireland. It's so exciting."
Ms O'Neill recently told how during one match she was called "Michael" by mistake. In that instance the person apologised for their error, but Ms O'Neill said it had made her feel she needed to perform to a really high level.
She began to officiate in 2008 and was contacted by the FAI's School of Excellence. She's now often seen at SSE Airtricity League, Women's National League, FAI Cup finals and internationals.
Ms O'Neill had been working as a swimming teacher and she has spoken of the joy she gains from seeing the development of the children of Lady of Fatima special needs school in Carrigeen, Co Wexford.