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.