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Interview: Rebecca Welch – the North East ref making English football history

Washington-born ref Rebecca Welch will make history on Monday as the first woman appointed to referee a game in the Football League. Hannah Bowater caught up with her to discuss her journey, refereeing pathways for women, and her preparation for her EFL debut.

Hannah Bowater: Firstly, congratulations on being appointed to referee Harrogate v Port Vale on Monday in League Two. How are you feeling?

Rebecca Welch: I’m nervous for every single game – it doesn’t matter what game it is, whether it’s a top of the league women’s game on TV or a game locally, I always get butterflies in my stomach. I think that’s a good thing because if I’m nervous it means I care. But I won’t approach it differently to any other game.

I’ll prepare the day before training wise, and on match day I’ll prepare exactly the same way. Nothing will change for me because I wouldn’t give any game any more respect than I would give all the others. Of course, the men’s game is a big step up – the National League was a big step up for me a few years ago so this will be an even bigger step up. I’m looking forward to it – I’ve been to Harrogate a couple of times so it doesn’t feel like I’m going to a brand new ground, it’s quite close to home. I’m looking forward to it.

HB: What got you into refereeing in the first place?

RW: To be honest I never ever wanted to be a referee – people think ‘Oh, whatever’ but I didn’t. I played footy. I think I did it because I wasn’t actually that good at playing and it deflected from me being so bad. One of my really good mates was a ref and she said, “Why don’t you go and do the course if you think it’s that easy?” So I did.

Bristol City Women v Reading Women - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

HB: Do you see more women refereeing in the men’s game in the future?

RW: I do – we’ve got quite a few at the lower levels, but what people don’t always understand is it takes around five to ten years to go through the levels.

You can’t say someone who’s a Level 5, “Oh well because you’re a woman, now you can go and ref in the Premier League,” because that’s really unfair on the guys who worked for years and years to get there. We’ve got some really good girls at Level 3, so semi-professional, so they’re probably only about three or four years away from the Football League – but obviously then there’s another couple of years to get to the Premier League.

I think we’ve more than doubled the amount of female officials we’ve got within the last four or five years, and obviously the implementation of the Women’s Super League has had a massive effect. There are definitely more women coming through – we’d like to see more, so I think it’s just about promoting it more and being a lot more visible – kind of like what we’re doing now.

I hate being on interviews and on TV and stuff, but if it inspires younger girls to get into it then fair enough.

HB: Would you say that the pathways are improving then for women going into refereeing?

RW: Yeah, definitely. A couple of years ago they introduced the Female Referee Pathway, it’s a pathway where not all females want to referee men’s football, but in order to get promoted up the ranks you’ve got to go through the male pathway. So they created the female pathway so that they could get promoted to the WSL quicker. I think that came in in 2019, and it’s attracted a lot more female refs.

HB: Female refs have been officiating in rugby union for a while. Why do you think it’s taken football so long to catch up?

RW: I’m not really sure. People say, “Why have we taken this long to get there?” but I’ve only been a ref for 10 years. So actually, I’ve progressed quite quickly. Some of the lads who’ve been on the list for 15 years are not even at the level I am.

Obviously it’s challenging because we’ve got some really good referees and you’ve got to be in the top one or two per cent; 0.5 of a mark can literally stop you from getting promotion – that’s how tight the margins are. As well, a lot of my friends who are refs have stopped to have babies – one girl has just had a little ’un and that takes her out for a year, maybe more, so there is always that factor – but for me, I think I’ve gone quite quick.

Fiorentina v Slavia Praha - UEFA Women’s Champions League Round of 32: First Leg Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

HB: How confident are you in the EFL to protect you if there’s any abuse from players, staff or crowds due to the fact that you are a woman?

RW: I think the EFL protects all referees in that way, but I’ve never received any abuse first hand, I’ve never heard anything.

Nobody’s called me out because I’m a woman or anything like that. Obviously not everybody’s as fortunate as that so there are some women who’ve had that, but I’m probably one of the lucky ones who hasn’t.

Players are always going to get frustrated with referees because we’re making subjective decisions which, if they’re against their team, they are rarely going to agree with. So there’s a difference between somebody challenging you on a decision and abuse. I think people often think that going out as a referee for 90 minutes you get like torrents of abuse from the fans and from the players – actually the reality is it’s not really like that.

HB: When there’s fan reaction to a decision not going their way, is it hard to separate that from it being a personal reaction against you?

RW: I know what I’m like when I go and watch football – if a decision goes against your team then it's 100 per cent wrong! It doesn’t matter if it’s right or not – that’s just how football fans react.

In the beginning, especially at grassroots, it really used to bother me because you’d think “Oh my God! Have I got that wrong?” I think now, you don’t even take any notice of it because some of the crowds I’m in front of, when there’s more you hear less.

When there are fewer fans you hear everything. Sometimes you have a little chuckle to yourself because you think well, we know we’ve got that 100 per cent right but it’s just their passion for football really.

HB: There have been proposals in the news recently about referees being mic’d up. Do you have any opinions on that?

RW: I think people would find it quite boring!

All we chat about is who touched the ball last, if the ball’s going to go out of play – I don’t really think there’s much that people would want to hear. I understand that when you’ve got VAR and people want to hear an explanation of the situation, but for somebody to listen to me for 90 minutes – they’d switch off after five. I don’t think there’d be anything that would interest them. We speak to the players and the players ask us questions constantly throughout the game and we answer them – that’s how the relationship goes.

Do I think it will happen? I don’t think it will but I know it’s happened in other countries so we’ll see. Technology’s expanding so God knows what it will be like in 10 years.

Barrow AFC v Blackpool - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Kevin Barnes - CameraSport via Getty Images

HB: You’re also now on the UEFA List for Female Referees so, with that in mind, is that something you hope to go further with? Maybe some matches in Europe or on the World Stage?

RW: There are different levels within UEFA, with the top level being the elite. I was promoted to elite in December so I can’t go any further there, but that opens up the opportunity to go to the Euros next year in England and the World Cup in 2023 in Australia.

I’m working towards that every day – they need you training every day, eating right... it’s like Big Brother – they’re always watching you!

HB: So, back to tomorrow – what’s your build up going to be like? Do you have any pre-game rituals or routines?

RW: No, not really. I’ve got a great team with me on Monday – all lads from the North East. So I’d imagine we’ll have some really good banter once we get to the ground. I’m not one of these superstitious people.

My dad always says – and I don’t really notice – but when I blow the whistle to start the game I always lift my leg. I see it but I don’t realise when I’m doing it – maybe that’s just a habit I’ve got but rituals? No, none really. If I had a ritual, I’d probably forget to do it.

HB: And just finally, I’m assuming your friends and family are chuffed to bits for you...

RW: Yeah, they’re all made up.

My mam doesn’t really know what it means – she hasn’t got a clue. She put on Facebook the other day “Well done, you’re going to operate in the big men’s league.” She really doesn’t know anything about football. But my dad thought he’d died and gone to heaven the other day when my mam said “Alan, turn Coronation Street off and put Sky Sports News on!”

He texted me and said “I wish you drove a Formula One car as well!”

But yeah, they’re all super proud and they’re going to stream the game on Monday so they can watch me at home.

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