Meet Rebecca Welch, the English Football League’s first female referee
She is football’s reluctant trailblazer, an NHS administrator who took up refereeing just to prove a point to a friend during her amateur playing days.
On Monday, however, Rebecca Welch makes history as the first woman to officiate a men’s English Football League match, while readily admitting: “I never really understood why anyone would want to take that route”.
The hostile world of refereeing was never an ambition for the 37-year-old, but Welch has out-performed male counterparts while rising through the ranks of the grass-roots and women’s game.
Blowing the whistle to start Harrogate Town’s game against Port Vale could be just the first of many milestones. Senior figures in the game are privately tipping her to become the Premier League’s first woman referee.
Welch reflected on a “whirlwind decade” since she was playing for Durham and Nissan Ladies, and regularly shouting at the officials in charge. She only began training after one of those referees, who happened to be her friend, told her: “If you think you can do any better, why don’t you have a go.”
Since then, Welch, from Washington in Tyne and Wear, has gone beyond the challenge. She has already taken charge of the 2017 Women’s FA Cup final and men’s matches in the National League, and she is now in contention for Fifa selection for the Women’s World Cup in 2023.
She is not strictly the first woman to officiate in the EFL on Monday as Amy Fearn refereed a Championship match for 15 minutes in 2010 as an injury replacement, but never before has a woman received an official appointment.
Welch described her appointment for Monday’s match as a “a shock”, but Carol Shanahan, chair of Port Vale FC, told the Daily Telegraph it was overdue, and she was “absolutely delighted” that her club would be playing a part in helping make history for women in the game.
Football has already seen three female assistant referees in the Football League – Fearn, Wendy Toms and Sian Massey-Ellis – and Welch admitted it felt strange to be thrust in the spotlight. However, despite never envisaging becoming a referee, she said she is “extremely proud and my family’s extremely proud as well” to be making history. “I do think it’s important to show that women who are in the top one per cent of their category can proceed to the next level so it definitely makes others down the period look up and know that they can achieve the same,” she added.
Welch, who earns £120 per National League match, is aware of well-publicised cases of sexism towards female officials in the past but says she has never encountered that personally.
Looking back on her unlikely route into refereeing, Welch said the fixture is “amazing for me”. “I got into refereeing through a good friend of mine who was a referee but I never really understood why anyone would want to take that route,” she said. “My journey through promotion has been a whirlwind over the past 10 years.”
Welch had been working at the NHSBSA, which provides management services for the NHS surrounding repayment of prescription costs, but she “decided to take a career break” as her refereeing progress gathered pace.
“Sometimes it hasn’t been easy but that’s down to the fact that I’m a referee and your decisions are going to be unpopular for 11 players on the pitch, but certainly I’ve never experienced someone criticising me because of my gender and being a female referee,” Welch said.
Welch’s well-deserved appointment brings a female Premier League referee ever closer
By Molly McElwee
When Rebecca Welch stands at the centre of the pitch at Wetherby Road on Monday, she will be doing the job she does week in and out as a referee. But in blowing the whistle to mark kick-off between League Two’s Harrogate Town and Port Vale, she will be setting a new and important precedent in English football, becoming the first woman appointed as a referee in the EFL.
It is well-deserved. Welch is the highest-ranking female referee in English football, has refereed in the National League for the past three seasons and has taken charge of the Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley among other fixtures. She has spent 11 years working her way up the ranks to mark this new professional milestone – and because she is making history, this is also a new step for women to tick off.
Marking firsts like this for women in football matters, especially in a space where they have not always been fully welcome. Ten years ago, a sexism row erupted over Sian Massey-Ellis officiating as an assistant referee in the Premier League, the dinosaur view that women cannot grasp the offside rule seeping into punditry. A decade on, Massey-Ellis continues her work as a consistent and leading official at the top level of the game, and Welch says her move into the EFL is the legacy of that.
She says the adage, “If you can see it, you can be it” applies to her story, and she hopes her appointment will spur others on as Massey-Ellis did for her. “Initially I wasn’t really aware of being appointed as the first female referee,” Welch said on Tuesday. “But when you reflect on it [and] think you’re the first woman ever to do this, I’m extremely proud. It shows there is a real opportunity to young girls who are wondering if they are able to take the whistle… they can aspire to be an EFL referee or like Sian Massey-Ellis in the Premier League.”
To be clear, there is work still to be done to eradicate sexism in football. But Welch taking her place in the elite men’s game in England, along with referees in Europe like Stephanie Frappart and Kateryna Monzul – who both became the first women to referee men’s World Cup qualifiers last weekend – help silence outdated views, and move the sport on.
Monday’s League Two clash is no glitzy affair. Like all referees, Welch has to earn her stripes and move up the ladder accordingly. But the television cameras will be there, and viewers will see a woman take charge of an elite men’s match in England. Welch believes it is only the beginning: “If it’s not me, I’ve got no doubt, in the next 10 to 15 years, we will see a female referee in the Premier League, [but first] we’ll get Monday out of the way.”
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