BY GER McCARTHY
IT IS 17 years since Michael Collins won his Celtic Ross Sports Star of the Year Award but the memory remains a special one to the one-time All-Ireland football final referee.
Married to Eileen and living in Clonakilty with their son Michael Francis, SuperValu Clonakilty employee Michael Collins was crowned sports star of the year back in 2001 following a stellar year for the West Cork GAA official.
A 12-month period that saw Collins officiate at the Ulster football final in Clones and various other stages of the All-Ireland series, culminating in a special September afternoon at Croke Park.
‘Winning the Celtic Ross Sports Star Award is something you never forget,’ he says.
‘I suppose, in truth, I didn’t expect to win it even though 2001 was one of my best ever years, having officiated at the All-Ireland football final between Meath and Galway at Croke Park. Being a referee, it was great to get the award because GAA match officials were and still are rarely recognised for their achievements.
‘At the time, I remember saying just after I accepted the award that this was for all referees, not just me. I felt it was important to say that on behalf of referees considering the service we have given to the GAA and other sports as well.
‘No doubt about it though, 2001 was an amazing year for me, refereeing an All-Ireland between Meath and Galway teams who were both at their peak back then. I received the monthly Celtic Ross award the previous July and probably got that on the back of being in charge of the Ulster final between Cavan and Tyrone.
‘That was another huge honour for me and I loved every minute of officiating that final up in Clones. There is always something extra special about Ulster final day, especially up there as the atmosphere is electric. The pitch is always in superb condition too which only adds to the occasion.’
Collins began his refereeing career in 1985, taking charge of a West Cork Junior B football league game in Barryroe. Within four years Collins had progressed on to the county board panel of referees.
In 1994, he made his inter-county debut when he was asked to take charge of a Munster minor championship game between Waterford and Tipperary. Collins’ first taste of senior inter-county action was Limerick and Tipperary’s 1998 Munster championship clash before eventually making it all the way to Croke Park for the All-Ireland football decider three years later.
Seventeen years on and Collins makes a point of acknowledging the huge support his family, friends, local GAA club Clonakilty and the many teams of fellow match officials have given him throughout his refereeing career.
‘I was lucky enough to always have a dedicated team of umpires and linesmen with me down through the years and they deserve recognition too,’ he says.
‘On the occasion of the All-Ireland final back in 2001, I had my brother Martin with me as well as Jim O’Reilly, Kieran Hegarty and Denis O’Sullivan. I have had tremendous help and different people who officiated with me every year since then, right up to my intercounty retirement in 2017.
‘That’s why getting the Celtic Ross Sports Star Award was so special because referees – rugby, soccer or GAA – had never previously received such an accolade. People forget that, without referees, there are no games, so receiving any kind of award is a big thing for us.’
There have been many worthy Celtic Ross Sports Star Award winners since the event’s inception 20 years ago. Yet, Michael Collins’ 2001 accolade remains one of the most important as it acknowledged a dedicated referee’s contribution to the GAA on a local and national level.