August 11th, 2020


Evergreen Armagh gaelic referee Owen Reel hasn’t let the threat of coronavirus put him off officiating this season in spite of turning 70 during lockdown.

Veteran whistler Owen has enjoyed being back out as the man in the middle since the action returned in recent weeks even though he has moved into the high-risk age group.

Having taken charge of a few friendlies before a brief break in Sligo with wife Philomena, Silverbridge clubman Reel refereed Saturday night’s high-scoring Armagh LGFA Division Three match between Cullyhanna and Clonmore.


Image preview

“I started refereeing about 37 years ago, probably because I wasn’t the type to say no and got talked into putting my hand to the wheel like with a lot of things in football, but as the years went on, I really enjoyed it,” he reflects.

“I’ve made many friends – and maybe a few enemies – but you get around the clubs, get to know a lot of people and now, at my age, there’s a social side to it.  It gets me out and active rather than just sitting in the house.

“Speaking personally, it wasn’t a hard decision to go back because lockdown was very frustrating, with not much to do.  I come from an era when we had few facilities (in gaelic) so it was sad seeing all these good grounds not able to be used, in that fine weather too.

“It’s great to see the football back on, though obviously the threat from coronavirus is still out there as we’ve seen in recent days,” reflects Reel, whose former club Killeavy has been hit with an outbreak of Covid-19 involving multiple positive cases.

“Between men’s matches and ladies, boys and girls games, there are a lot of fixtures but refereeing a couple of times a week should probably be enough for me.  I’d a big birthday during lockdown but, having had major surgery 13 years ago, I’m grateful to be able to be at it.

“I think myself and Seamus O’Neill from Lurgan are around the same age and Charlie O’Hare is maybe a couple of years younger.  Nobody has told us to stop and, like most sports, they’re glad to have people prepared to do the job.

“People say you get no thanks for it, but you don’t expect thanks as such.  I generally get on well with players and, because I’m a bit hard of hearing now, I can get away with turning a deaf ear to the odd bit of foolishness for an easier life!,” he chuckles.

Not one of those frustratingly fussy refs, Reel refreshingly lets games flow and he laughs at the suggestion that he might have finally got his first ever set of red and yellow cards for his 70th birthday!

Having started playing gaelic football for Silverbridge aged 14 and given great service to Killeavy over many years after relocating to Meigh, he’s now back in his native area and attached to his first club again.

Reel has also spent three decades going the extra mile for Armagh ladies football, from chairing their County Board to generously donating refereeing fees and every unglamorous job which has needing doing.

Image preview

“I don’t hold any positions at this stage so I can just give a hand now and again rather than feeling tied to it,” insists Owen, with a modesty which doesn’t do justice to his continuing contribution to the female side of the sport, including being heavily involved in the ongoing development of McKeever Park in Killean.

Now with Owen’s daughter, Sinead Reel, following in his footsteps as Chairperson, Armagh LGFA are engaged in a very ambitious project which will see the Orchard become the first county in Ireland to have its own dedicated ladies gaelic training facility.

Bringing the vision to fruition is a huge financial challenge, which the economic effects of the pandemic will exacerbate, but the impressive volume of work being done on a voluntary basis is significantly lessening that burden.

“I was over there for a few days doing a bit of digger work and we’ve got the posts up now so it’s shaping up pretty well.  It’s a big undertaking but is going to be a great resource for girls across the county when it’s completed,” he says.