Michelle O'Neill to officiate at UEFA Women's Euro Finals
The Wexford native has been well known on the SSE Airtricity League circuit as one of the country’s top assistants while also refereeing in the Continental Tyres Women’s National League.
Her consistency on the line has seen O’Neill, 38, rapidly progress on the international scene. In 2015 she officiated at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada and domestically she continues to impress in high profile encounters.
In March this year she worked with Polish referee Monika Mularczyk on the UEFA Women’s Champions League quarter-final between Lyon and Wolfsburg.
“I was at the preparation workshop in Netherlands last week and we were put through our paces in terms of fitness testing, analysis and overall preparation. From there, once you passed the fitness test you were basically heading to the Euros so I was pleased when we got the confirmation email when we got home,” said O’Neill.
“Its a great personal achievement and I’m very proud to be the first Irish female to go to the women’s UEFA European Finals. Damien MacGraith was at the men’s Euros last year so it’s great to do the same in the female game.”
MacGraith worked with a Scottish team but O’Neill will not be restricted to just working with one particular team and she believes her adaptability through working with different teams of officials in the SSE Airtricity League stands to her.
“You could be partnered with anybody really. A couple of people failed their fitness tests so won’t be going to Euros so there is a limited number of assistants given this opportunity.
“For me it’s one of my strengths that in Ireland we change referees every week in the men’s league so your adaptability needs to be strong. You have to learn how the referee you are working with operates - their gestures, their body language.
The communication is all in English anyway. I try and learn from the referee and what she needs from me. It’s a good trait I have from working with so many different referees here.”
While O’Neill still referees in the Continental Tyres Women’s National League her career path is firmly focused on being an assistant at the highest level.
“I enjoy refereeing in the WNL and it helps with recognising fouls but being assistant is so specialised and refereeing so specialised they are basically different career paths,” she said.
“I want to be the highest level I can be as an assistant and I’m happy with the career path I’m on and I’m delighted to represent Ireland as an assistant.”
As a swimming instructor by profession, O’Neill is naturally fit and her pace has been a big asset in the rigorous testing that assistants are put through. Her workload is very demanding and her dedication to the game is impressive.
“When you go up to the senior internationals in women’s football the pace is very fast. The players are getting more tactical and technical and fitness levels going up so we have to be able to match that,” she added.
“Even for us as officials the fitness levels of female officials are on a par with the men’s.
“The sprint testing consists of a ten metre sprint, then back sideways eight metres, back sideways eight metres again then another ten metres sprint back to the start and you have to be under 10.9 seconds to pass. I did it 9.8 seconds so I was one of fastest.
“Then you have to do five 30-metre runs in under five seconds. My average was 4.5 seconds. That’s basically the same as the men’s test. You also have to do forty 75-metre runs in 17 seconds with 25 metres walking in between and 20 seconds recovery. The male officials have to do the same runs in 15 seconds so there’s only two seconds difference with female officials.
“I was a striker when I played so pace was always an asset and I’ve always worked on agility and speed in my fitness. We are also constantly in touch with FIFA with training plans. We’re monitored through our polar watch and they’re seeing what we’re doing week by week.
“Kieran McKeown is our national coach and Jean Paul Baptiste is our coach from UEFA and they can access our training times daily. We train every day.
“I could have a men’s game on the Friday then a WNL game on the Saturday but if you prepare well and do active recovery on the Sunday you should be ok.”
While O’Neill will still be working on domestic games, she will head into the tournament looking to make a positive impression for Irish officials.
“From now until the tournament we have a six weeks training plan, it’ll be mapped out what we’ve to do and then when we get there will have another fitness test then a three-day workshop so we know what the coordinators expect from us in the games.
“There’ll be analysis and a lot of material available to us, even a sports psychologists should we need them. We’ll be a team and train together throughout the tournament and it’ll be fairly full on for the three weeks.
“This appointment for myself is up there with being at the World Cup in 2015. To get to a UEFA Finals is difficult so it’s on a par with getting a World Cup in my view. There’s a lot of assistants out there so to be one of those selected is such an honour.”