Ray O'Connor retires after glittering 25 years

His name may not appear in “Faster, Higher, Stronger” but Ray O’Connor can be regarded as one of Ireland’s most accomplished Olympic representatives.

The umpire retires his whistle following Saturday’s meeting of Monkstown and Pembroke after 25 glittering years of umpiring which have seen Ray twice take charge of two Olympic finals – in Atlanta and Athens – as well as two World Cup finals and a host other high profile matches.

The beginnings came on the indoor circuit, way back in 1983.

“I started with indoor which was big back then; umpiring after I had played with my shinpads still on.

“That’s what gave me the buzz and then moved on into outdoor and interprovincials then Ireland eventually gave me an international appointment and that was it.”

He received his first international appointment just three years later as New Zealand visited Scotland as part of their World Cup preparations. A first tournament came in 1990 at the Intercontinental Cup – a forerunner for the World Cup qualifying tournaments – and was quickly followed by the European championships in Paris.

His first major final on the international stage at the next running of the Europeans in his native Dublin which precipitated his step up to the next level.

O’Connor soon established himself as one of the world’s best when he was given the final at the Atlanta Olympics – also creating a piece of history as the last umpire to ever blow for offside. The World Cup final in Utrecht followed and from then on was one of the first names on the umpire’s roster at the world’s top tournaments.

In total, he clocked up 220 internationals across indoor and outdoor, including three World Cups (two finals), three Olympics (two finals) and seven Champion’s Trophies (five finals).

When looking back at his favourite memories of his career, O’Connor picks out the Sydney Olympics as the most ‘perfect’ event while also fondly remembering a whistle-stop tour of India.

“One of my most memorable tours was India against Pakistan; five test matches in five cities, travelling the length and breadth of the country in eight days in India with an average crowd of 45,000 – very educated crowds, they just love their hockey.”

Asked whether that was a difficult situation to handle, O’Connor reckoned that matters closer to home, though, were harder to handle.

“Leinster was tough. Irish stuff is always tougher. It’s a different type of quality and management skills required for domestic games, a different set of skills.
“It’s also far easier to concentrate at international level, especially when you’re trying to get to the final of a major tournament – concentration was never a problem for managing yourself.”

As for his last match, he finds Monkstown and Pembroke an easy enough match to handle, especially as the skill levels between the team have become much closer. Fittingly, he will take charge of the game with Geoff Conn who has made major steps to following in his footsteps.

Conn has been part of a team of European umpires which O’Connor has been heavily involved in developing.

Indeed, the next phase in his hockey career is already well underway, taking on the role of umpire manager at the Beijing Games last year and has just returned from the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup where he performed the same role.

As for his retirement from whistle-blowing, he gives a suitably matter of fact response: “I have to do a last game so tomorrow is it.”

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