In his 1992 football memoirs, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby remarks on the ‘maleness of it all’. Rebecca Welch’s appearance yesterday as a referee in a Football League match between Harrogate Town and Port Vale is a sign of how much things have changed.
It is not surprising, however, that there are sceptics. After all, we live by a creed which demands we promote women because of their sex and makes heretics of those who describe any feature of that sex. But Welch's performance made it clear that female referees in the men’s game are a good idea.
First, the players seemed to afford her greater respect than they might otherwise to an official. This was most apparent after an incident in the 23rd minute. Welch waved on play after a Vale defender tripped Town striker Connor Hall from behind in the penalty area. When Hall began to remonstrate with Welch shortly afterwards, his own teammate Thomson pulled him away, despite it looking a good claim. Despite a few towering over her, none of the players tried to intimidate the referee as normally happens.
Any fears that the elevated decorum between players and official would result in a gentle affair were dispelled. On the contrary, the match was incredibly physical. There were 31 fouls, but Welch only showed two yellow cards, both in the second half. It was bitty at times, but in an age when football is so sanitised with sanctions for the most minor infractions, including taking one’s shirt off after scoring and celebrating with one’s fans, this was welcome.
Welch seemed to enjoy the players kicking each other, cheekily smiling at them on several occasions to get on with it. In the 47th minute the Town right winger and the Vale left-back shuffled to compete for a ball looped high in the air. Just before he jumped to head it, the Town player shoved his opponent away with both hands – no whistle blown.
Yet whenever a man took a hard knock, Welch ran over and caressed him. Anyone who has been clattered by some great ape on a bitterly windy day in Yorkshire must have liked this. Was she more tactile than a male referee? At the end of the match, when each player came to shake her hand she dispatched them with a slightly patronising pat on the back. It was exactly what 22 men who had been artlessly hoofing the ball around for 90 minutes deserved. Both teams alternately made use of the high wind, booting it as far as possible or seizing upon exocet style restarts. For around 40 minutes in the second half the match degenerated into a series of throw-ins. These were punctuated by players trying Cruyff turns immediately followed by Andrea Pirlo-esque passes which never reached their intended target. Were they trying to impress Welch?
It would be interesting for psychologists to undertake surveys of games with female referees while being able to control for crowd influence during the fan-free Covid period. If Google is anything to go by, fan reaction is entirely predictable. I naively searched ‘female referees in football’ just to see if there were other examples. Of course the first hit was ‘Meet the 10 hottest female football referees in football’ on a website ludicrously named ModernGhana.com.
What will happen when the crowds do return? It is predictable enough that the inevitable low levels of sexist chanting will be met with major anti-sexism initiatives. Like other cultural institutions, football will be further sullied by the intrusion of politics. This is a pity: the beauty of the game is that it is the last quarter of mainstream society which is fundamentally anarchic.
In any case, good referees like Welch hardly need such 'help': they can let their performances do the talking. Welch refereed in such a pleasing way that she deserves a better class of match. Hopefully she will be granted it since the referees’ boss, Mike Riley, was watching at Wetherby Road. This was a little ironic, as his term has overseen a dreadful decline in the standard of officiating. It only makes logical sense then to widen the selection pool by encouraging more women into the game, which should also cause the men to sharpen up when their jobs become under threat.
Harrogate Town seemed to celebrate Welch’s appointment to officiate by announcing their own appointment of two Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officers the day before. Perhaps they ought to have put more resource into the patchy pitch, or indeed the team: they were soundly beaten 2-0.