Rebecca Welch delivers commanding performance in historic EFL debut
After the final whistle, when Port Vale had recorded a convincing 2-0 victory over Harrogate Town, the referee Rebecca Welch stood in the centre circle, her two assistants by her side. One by one each of the players came over to shake her hand. Then both managers trotted up and congratulated her on her performance, before the Vale goalkeeper Scott Brown slapped her warmly on the back. Up in the main stand of the EnviroVent Stadium, her boss Mike Riley, the general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited was effusive.
“She was excellent,” he said. “Had a really, really good game.”
A woman taking full charge of a league fixture had been a long time coming. And Welch did not look remotely out of place. In fact, so calm, cool and together was she, the 37-year-old from Washington, in Tyne and Wear, appeared to have been doing this for years. Which, in a way, she has. Welch is not the recipient of some kind of positive discrimination. She has worked her way up across a decade to be in this position. She has taken charge of Women’s Super League games, in both 2017 and 2020 she refereed the FA Women’s Cup final. She knows what to expect. What was obvious from the moment she blew the whistle for kick off was that both teams were going to treat her exactly as they would a male official. Which, on Harrogate’s patchy, worn surface in a blustery April wind, meant she would be obliged to conduct her work to a relentless soundtrack of cries of “ref, ref, ref,” punctuated at points of particular excitement, by “ref-er-reeee!”. Every decision she took was applauded enthusiastically by members of the side who gained the initiative and was greeted with a growly moan by those penalised.
“Of course there were decisions which should have gone our way,” said the Harrogate captain Josh Falkingham. “But you can say that about any ref when you lose.”
This is the thing in a virtually deserted small ground under covid restrictions, you can hear everything on the pitch. Like when she stepped in to admonish Port Vale’s David Worrall after he had left Harrogate’s Dan Jones in a crumpled heap on the turf. “He pushed me ref”, Worrall barked in injured innocence as he chased Welch back to the centre circle. She merely turned round, smiled and suggested he “just get on with it”.
It was how she dealt with much of the incident in a game between the sides placed 15th and 16th in League Two. This was an encounter best described as physical, an unyielding push-me-pull-you scrabble, when the ball was in the air more often than it was on the grass and the principal attacking weapon was the howitzer long throw. Welch watched the organised chaos with a gimlet eye from a slight distance, letting play flow without the need to constantly interrupt. And up in the main stand, everything she did was under similar scrutiny.
Being a referee, she suggested in an interview before the game, is like being under the gaze of Big Brother. In this case, the eyes were those of Riley and a posse of observers, each of them recording Welch’s every move in notebooks or on i-pads.
They all liked what they saw. She was calm, composed, unflustered, refusing to be influenced by players at times towering over her. She ignored a chorus of pleas for handball after Harrogate’s Jack Muldoon had sashayed into the Port Vale box and his shot hit a defender. And when Connor Hall, the Harrogate centre back and a man the size of a small tower block, went down in the Port Vale penalty area she merely shook her head as he chased her up and down the pitch imploring “how was that not a foul, ref?”
Nobody used their physical scale in the attempt to influence, Vale’s Cristian Montano even apologised after he had collided with her. And, apart from a couple of unarguable yellow cards, her most significant intervention was when the visitors took the lead after Worrall connected with Oyeleke’s smart crossfield pass to slam a volley beyond James Belshaw. She was obliged to trot over to the corner flag to bring a halt to celebrations that threatened to extend way beyond lockdown into June. She had to do the same when the substitute Curtis Guthrie scored a second to allow Vale to record their fifth victory on the bounce. It was a chastening defeat for the home manager Simon Weaver, but he made no attempt to blame the referee.
“She was really very good. She made all the important calls and all of them were right,” he said. “It’s about time we had a woman in charge.”
After this performance by Welch, it will not be the last time.