Echo Sport Replay: Olympics, Euros, World Cups - O’Connor on the heights scaled in becoming one of the top umpires in the world

By Stephen Leonard

IN THE early hours of a hot July morning in Atlanta in 1996, Ray O'Connor is asked to take a call in the reception of his hall of residence.

Upon answering it, he is met with a most unexpected request for a TV interview because the exciting news of his appointment as umpire for the Men's Hockey Final at the Olympic Games has just broken back home in Dublin.

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Glenanne Hockey Club stalwart Ray O’Connor pictured at his local golf club Stackstown. The Ballinteer man umpired at three Olympic Games, three European Championships and four World Cups, officiating in both the Men’s Finals in Atlanta 1996 and Athens 2004 Photo by Paddy Barrett

It is to prove the first of many such entreaties by the Irish media for a little time with the Ballinteer man and Glenanne stalwart ahead of his involvement in what would be the biggest match in the sport worldwide and certainly one of the biggest in his career as an umpire.

For O'Connor, who, by this stage, had already officiated at two European Championships including the 1995 Final, the sudden attention he was receiving served only to underscore the significance of his appointment.

Refereeing the 1996 Summer Games decider between Spain and the Netherlands was certainly among the highlights in a 21-year-long career at the top that encompassed 178 internationals including three Olympic Games, three European Championships and four World Cups.

The first steps on that long road were made in Glenanne Hockey Club in Tallaght, where O’Connor’s son Sam and daughter Kate still play today and where both he and his wife Anne coached for many years.

It was a journey that would see him become one of the best umpires in the sport and lead the Federation of International Hockey (FIH) to draw on his vast experience for the teaching of future generations of officials across the globe.

“I was probably 22 when I started umpiring matches, but when I was 26 I decided to stop playing so as to focus on umpiring and try and make a career out of it” recalled O’Connor.

“Officiating is very much a challenge. There is no easy game.

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Ray O’Connor (centre) with reserve umpire Henrik Ehlers from Denmark (left) and second umpire, Australia’s Don Prior, ahead of the Men’s Hockey Final at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta

“You certainly had to concentrate a lot and there were a lot of skill sets that you didn't know you had, but that you needed to have- man management, understanding people, understanding emotions.

“I always compare it to a golfer. Every mistake you make will put you back and can change the outcome.

“If a golfer has a brutal day on a Thursday in their four-day tournament, it's the same principle. Every shot is important for them, every hole is important.

“So when you head away to do a tournament as an umpire who need to be on the top of your game, you need full belief in everything you do.

“There will be storms and experience teaches you how to manage the storms. Like everything in life, the worse mistake you can make is to compound one.

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1956 Olympic gold medallist Ronnie Delany presents Ray O’Connor with an award in recognition of his achievements at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta where he umpired a number of men’s hockey matches including the Final between Netherlands and Spain

“Integrity and honesty will get you through always. Manage it, because it's the next decision that will be the important one. Don't compound the last one.

“I joined the Leinster Hockey Umpires Association (LHUA) and quickly moved up the Irish ranks, doing Inter-Provincials and Irish Senior Cups. I would have done 12 Irish Cup Finals.

“My first international was the Home Countries- England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. That was me up and going. Now I'm into international hockey.

“Within hockey, club hockey is very big now in Europe. We have the Cup Winners Cup and the League Winners Cup so I would have travelled to them every year in the likes of Spain, Poland or wherever.

“My first major tournament was the European Championships in '91 in Paris. I did seven games and my last game in that one was the fifth/sixth play-off which was between France and Spain. It was a great game because France was the host nation.

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Ray O'Connor

“The next European Championships were in 1995 and it was one of the biggest men’s tournaments hosted here in Ireland. It was hosted in UCD.

“At that stage I was on the top of my game. I did nine games in that tournament over the two-week period including the final between Germany and Netherlands. Germany won on a penalty shootout.

“My experience of that was that I was now at home. I was in Dublin in UCD. I don't know how many Irish Senior Cup finals I would have done there.

“You'd have had one man and a dog at them, but now you're at the same venue and there's televisions and there's people who want to interview you.

“That's all the nervous stuff, but when you get on to the pitch and you blow the first whistle to start the game, you're doing what you know and you don’t really think about it. It's just everything around that game is what makes it very nervous.

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Ray O'Connor with the late Eduardo Ruiz from Argentina. Both men umpired the Men's European Hockey Championship Final in Dublin in 1995

“That was my first major final and that evening the head of the FIH was there and I got the nod that I would be in the team for the Atlanta Olympic Games the following year.

“In that tournament [the Europeans] we had 16 referees and they're from all over the world, from Argentina, Japan, Germany, Holland, Egypt, so all of a sudden you've made friends with people from all around the world.

“Hockey is a family sport big time throughout the world. It's even known at international level as the hockey family.

“I did the Final with an Argentinian umpire and he's your friend for life because the two of you are out there living and dying by each other. You share that experience.

“I went to Atlanta the following year, but in the meantime you try to get exposure to different cultures because when you go to an Olympics you might not be umpiring in your own continent.

“So I did a five-test match series in India before I went. I did five cities over ten days with India playing Pakistan in five games.

“They were on a tour to raise money for themselves for the Olympics and myself and a German umpire travelled with them. It was like a big circus because over there you had crowds of about 50 and 60 thousand at all of those games.

“You're experiencing different cultures, plus you have different hockey styles on the pitch, you have different emotions.

“Like if you ever did a game between he likes of Germany and Japan, you have one crowd with anger in their faces and the others are bowing at you, and you've probably given the same wrong decision to both.

“But this is preparing you for Atlanta. An Olympic Games is the most amazing experience of them all.

“You have your uniform day, you're off getting trousers and socks, shirts and blazers. You're completely kitted out.

“The opening ceremony is an amazing thing. The teams come into the stadium alphabetically and one memory from the opening ceremony in Atlanta was Muhammad Ali lighting the flame. That's a special moment.

“Then you're into the tournament. You're down in an unbelievably hot place and you're now into humidity like you've never experienced and you're trying to survive that.

“Once again I did a lot of games in Atlanta and then low and behold, they appoint me to the semi final and final.

“That was a bit scary. I'm five hours behind Dublin and the news broke there. I was asked to take a call in reception.

“Someone wanted to do a TV interview and Jimmy McGee was there and he wanted to chat. Now the nerves kick in because now I'm involved in something that I'm not used to.

“Messages were coming in and people want to talk to you, 'What's it like to be the first Irish man to do an Olympic final?'

“The Atlanta Final was the Netherlands v Spain. It was a great game. The Dutch would have been red-hot favourites, but the Spanish took off and went 1-0 up. The Dutch got a few penalty corners and slotted three in a row, and the game finished 3-1.

“I sent a couple of players to the sin-bin in the game alright. It got a little bit heated.

“At that time, they had decided to do away with the offside rule in hockey, but they never changed rules in an Olympic year. They never became official until the Olympics were over.

“So I have the distinction of being one of the last two umpires in the world to umpire offside in hockey because the Atlanta Final was the last match that had it.

“So I got my big day and my gold medal. It's not quite like an athlete. You don't get the big presentation. You've achieved your gold medal. You went there and competed with 16 others and you came out top.

“Atlanta was the Michelle Smith Games, four medals. We all came home on a Delta flight into Dublin.

“I'm travelling way back down in coach I can assure you and Michelle is up with the Olympians in first class as you can imagine.

“When you're leaving the plane, you come to the front and there's a door to the right and left.

“They have the one on the left open with a stairs to meet the cameras and, me being me, I turned right and slipped out the back way. I got my bags and met the family, my kids and my mother. I was happy out with my little medal in my arse pocket.

“We have a competition called the Champions Trophy which is the top six teams in the world play each other and I was at that for the next five or six years after that.

“Then there was Sydney. Of the five Olympics I was at, that was just the best Olympic Games ever.

“It was a family affair, the city welcomed everybody. There was something very beautiful about Sydney.

“I actually did my 100th international in Sydney. That's a big milestone in hockey. I went on to do 178 in the end, but that was a good one.

“That was Argentina against Germany in the pool games. I think Germany qualified for the quarter finals out of that match.

“Both teams came around at the end of it and we had a little celebration to congratulate me on my 100th game. It was very nice.

“In 2001 we had the Indoor Hockey World Cup in Leipzig in Germany and I umpired the final in that.

“And a year later, I headed to the 2002 Hockey World Cup in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where I also umpired the final.

“That was another big moment. Germany played Australia and Germany won 1-0 and that was played in a stadium in front of 27,000 people, humidity was around 70 percent and it was around 40 degrees of heat. But that was a magnificent experience.

“I've been back to Malaysia many times since, because I do a lot of coaching of umpires across that continent.

“In 2004 we had Athens. My mother was 84 and she had a stroke and she was in Loughlinstown Hospital for about a month, so I was in and out.

“She would have been on my bicycle all though my career. She loved it and she was sports mad herself.

“But I was due to leave on a Saturday morning. We were going to Rome for a weekend of team building and then we were flying on to Athens on the Wednesday.

“But my mam was still there in the bed after her stroke and I'm going from foot to foot. I don't know what I'm doing. 'Am I going, am I not going?' That whole week was this way.

“I decided I was going on the Saturday morning and so I went over to the hospital on the Friday evening and my mam had passed away.

“I rang my umpire manager and I told him. 'He offered his condolences and said ‘I'll see you Tuesday. We're leaving Rome at about six o'clock for Athens.'

“He would have known there would have been a funeral and it ended up we had a great weekend at home, a great funeral, it was a celebration of her life.

“I met the gang on Tuesday. They were all very sympathetic and off we went to Athens.

“It was probably the best umpiring tournament I've ever had. Right from the start I was switched on. My mother was sitting on my shoulder, right the way through. I did all my games, semi final and final.

“I was well prepared because I knew I was going to Athens which is a wicked hot country.

“The only saving grace we had was that our stadium was down by the sea. An odd breeze would come in from there.

“I would have done about seven games. The average would have been six or seven, but it depends on how people are going.

“In the Olympics, I'll be very honest with you, if you're not performing you just don't get another game.

“These teams have been training for this for four years and now is not the time to be practising with officials and umpires.

“So I umpired in the final between the Netherlands and Australia and that was decided on a golden goal. Australia won their first ever gold medal and it was the first time ever there was a golden goal in an Olympic final.

“After Athens we all flew out into Rome and then we picked up an Alitalia fight and on my flight was Cian O'Connor coming home with his gold medal. He was up front as well on the flight and he came home to all the razzmatazz.

“Now I hadn't decided to quit at that stage, but what happened was that I came home and it took me nearly six weeks to get my energy back. I can remember getting back into work and I was really exhausted.

“I was now 47. The demands of the tournament, besides the demands of getting ready for it, were very tough, and in those temperatures as well. And four years later the next Games were going to be in Beijing.

“So that December I said 'I'm going to hang up the international boots.'

“So I wrote to the FIH and they immediately grabbed me to become an umpire manager straight away. There were even more tournaments to be done around the world with that, so it got even busier.

“I went on as umpire manager to Beijing which was an amazing experience. It was a fantastic place and the organisation was done to within an inch of its life. It was just a beautiful tournament.

“I was in London twice, both for the Olympics in 2012 and later the Womens’ World Cup in 2018

“I didn't go to Rio because I had just finished London and I took a break for a little bit.

“I don't know how Tokyo will go, but I was there to have a look at the venue for them.

“I'm still travelling the world. I would do a lot of seminars now. I do them for young umpires and now I'm coaching umpire managers how to use different technologies and how to read a game, read a person and teach them the different skill sets they will need.

“About three years ago I moved over to the ladies side. I was asked to help increase the quality of the officials on that side and that's why I did the World Cup in London for them in 2018.

“In that tournament the Ireland Women’s team won silver. It was a special moment in that all of a sudden the stands started to fill with green, white and orange.

“I was absolutely thrilled for Graham [Shaw, then Ireland Head Coach], another Glenanne man in the pack.

“Glenanne is a wonderful story. The contribution they have made at the top level now is huge. From a little club in Tallaght, it's a phenomenal story when you stand back and look at it. The club has punched way above its weight.

“So I was the umpire manager in London for that and I was umpire manager then when they [the Ireland women’s team] qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games in Dublin.

“My mother, when she was alive, kept a scrap book with all newspaper clippings, which she left for my young lad Sam, who’s an Irish international. So that's there for him, and it’s great.

“When I started umpiring all those years ago it was like 'Why would you do that? Sure playing is great, why would you want to umpire?'

“It's different nowadays because every referee and official is very young. They take it on as a career nowadays.

“But I enjoyed it all. There were some great times and I got a great buzz out of it.”

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