27 Nov 2021

Is this 78-year-old Tipperary man Ireland's oldest referee?

Billy O'Donoghue has been refereeing soccer matches for 34 years

Billy O'Donoghue

“There’s a great feeling of satisfaction when you walk off the pitch knowing you’ve had a good game. It’s like winning a cup final,” says referee Billy O’Donoghue. Picture: John D Kelly

The games in which he officiates don’t feature highly-paid players or have access to VAR. Most of the time they don’t even have neutral linesmen, or assistant referees as they are known in the modern game.
It’s a role where you must tog out in all weathers and where verbal abuse is sometimes hurled in your direction, as you try to go about your business and keep order on the pitch while implementing the rules as fairly as possible.
Yet Billy O’Donoghue’s love and passion for being the man in the middle burns so brightly and has endured for such a long time that, at 78 years of age, he is still refereeing local soccer matches at adult (junior) and underage level, some 34 years after he took charge of his first match.
“There’s a great feeling of satisfaction when you walk off the pitch knowing you’ve had a good game. It’s like winning a cup final,” he says.
Is he Ireland’s oldest soccer referee?
“I don’t know, I’ve never asked,” is the reply.
It’s a role where you don’t have action replays to help with decisions. Those same decisions that could have a huge bearing on promotion or relegation, the destiny of a league title or a cup final must be made in a split second.
“Once you make the decision you can’t unring that bell,” he says.
During his long career, Clonmel man Billy has been physically threatened and players have thrown punches at him. During one match in Kilmanahan, near Clonmel, he was chased out of the pitch by an angry spectator, only returning to finish the game once the man had been calmed down by other spectators.
On another occasion a player pulled a corner flag out of the ground and threatened to strike him with it.
However, even those hair-raising incidents haven’t dampened his enthusiasm, and he says the TSDL (Tipperary Southern and District League) and FAI have always been supportive to officials.
“You can have great fun with some of the players. It’s very rare now for players to fight on the pitch and players overall are pretty well behaved. They have respect for the referees and their opponents.”
He says that the offside rule and the awarding (or not) of penalties are the most critical areas in which a referee operates. And the biggest problem with penalties is with players trying to con referees.
Billy’s involvement in refereeing grew out of his early love of sport, and particularly soccer, with matches played among young friends in Thomas Street, Clonmel, where he was born and reared, and the surrounding areas.
“Growing up in the late 50s, people started talking about the Busby Babes. Nobody had a television but you might read about Manchester United in an English newspaper or see a report about the club on a newsreel in the cinema.”
He was hooked as a 15-year-old by the time of the Munich air disaster in 1958, when 23 people were killed, including many of the Manchester United team who were returning from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia.
The first televised match he saw was the 1963 FA Cup Final, when Manchester United beat Leicester City 3-1. A neighbour, Barry O’Donovan, brought Billy, along with his brothers Michael and Frank to a friend’s house on the Western Road in Clonmel to see the game.
“In my house we were all mad Man United fans, including my other brothers Noel and Paddy. Our sisters Pam, Mary and Kate gave out about us talking about football all the time. We used to listen to the results on BBC radio on Saturday afternoon. It was a different world.”
They were also avid followers of hurling and Gaelic football, especially when Billy’s brother Paddy started playing with the Tipperary senior footballers.
However Billy’s first love was soccer. He recalls he and his brothers hiring a car and driving to watch Waterford and Limerick playing in the League of Ireland, matches back in the day that attracted sizeable attendances.
When his brother Michael started playing with Clonmel Hibs, Billy also became involved with the club in the early 70s, as well as serving on the management committee of both the County Tipperary League and then the TSDL when it was formed in July 1977.
On many weekends Billy returned from Saturday matches at Old Trafford and Anfield to play a game with Hibs on Sunday. Travelling to his beloved Old Trafford was a hobby he kept going for many years.
With Billy as manager, Clonmel Hibs won the inaugural TSDL first division league in 1977-78, the club enjoying many successful seasons before folding in 1986.
“By that stage it had run its course,” he says.
Still a member of the league management, he started refereeing around the mid 1980s to help the TSDL finish the season when a referees’ dispute broke out. He officially took charge of his first match on September 13 1987, a league game in Monard between St Nicholas and St John’s of Carrick-on-Suir.
“I was 45 when I started. I didn’t have any great ambitions to be a referee. I said if I get five years out of this it’ll be magic. I immediately liked it, even though the first three months is the most difficult time for a referee; you have to learn how to deal with people, and you meet the most aggressive people and the nicest people.”
He says he learned the most about refereeing during Clonmel’s pub league.
“You needed moral courage in those matches. It was all fun and games until it came to the knockout stages, with bets placed on some matches.”
One summer, when nobody else was available, he refereed the entire pub league, which included approximately 40 matches.
He says that referees have something to deal with every minute of every game.
“The worst thing that can happen to a referee is to let your mind wander. Refereeing is all about focus, being aware, and it requires 100% concentration. You also have to make sure that conflicts between players don’t develop.”
As long as he has been a referee, he says there’s never been a game that hasn’t thrown up some surprise, whether it’s in Clonmel, Ballingarry or Donohill.
“You see players doing something incredible, such as Paul Kennedy scoring from the halfway line for Suirside in the last game before the first lockdown. If there were cameras there they’d be showing it for years.”
As someone who never smoked or drank alcohol, Billy maintains the required level of fitness with regular walks and by keeping busy in his daily life. He also believes in getting plenty of rest.
He found it hard to re-start physically when matches recommenced after lockdown, but schoolboys and schoolgirls matches helped him to readjust.
Billy’s career was interrupted in 2000 when he had a fall during a delivery while working as a driver with Vale Oil and injured his shoulder. He also suffered a kidney infection around the same time.
His wife Joan - who he says has always been a great support to him - sensed he was getting restless during his enforced absence from the pitch.
As he gradually recovered, he decided to take up the whistle again at the age of 57, after nine months out of the game.
“I decided I had more to give,” he says.
During his long career Billy has had the honour of being the linesman (or assistant referee) at two Munster junior cup finals and one FAI junior cup semi-final.

Has he thought about the time when he will finally have to hang up his whistle?
“When I feel that because of a lack of mobility or fitness, or that I’m not doing myself or the two teams justice, then I’ll step away. You have to be honest with yourself.
“But right now, I just love refereeing.”

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