It is said that the sign of a good performance from a football referee goes unnoticed. That was always going to be a tall order for Rebecca Welch, who became the first woman to referee a Premier League game in Fulham’s 2-0 home defeat to Burnley on Saturday.
In the splendor of history and the adrenaline rush of 22 rule-breaking millionaires, it was like asking a white hen to stay back in the burrow. It wasn’t at the top as far as gender milestones go, such as Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman in space, but it was certainly a maiden voyage into a potentially hostile environment.
Perhaps Mary Earps, the England women’s football team goalkeeper who won the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award last week, has eased some of the pressure. This moment showed that football is no longer just a “man’s game” in the eyes of the nation.
On the other hand, given the reaction in some quarters to Earps’ victory, the burden may have increased on Welch’s shoulders. Former player, manager and England international Joey Barton, who represented the Tyrannosaurus School of Scholars for just 17 minutes, dismissed Earps’ award as “more bloody nonsense”.
But Welch himself wasn’t in the mood for nonsense. She declined two major foul calls within the first ten minutes, giving the strong impression that she wouldn’t tolerate grown men falling over. Maybe she was looking for more play for women.
After 25 minutes she received her first boos and some half-hearted shouts of “You don’t know what you’re doing” when she dismissed Fulham’s Calvin Bassey for a foul on Josh Brownhill. It felt like she had arrived, the rite of passage of her first yellow card in the Premier League.
Harsh? Just? However, it became apparent early on that she was not a “homer,” that is, not one of those referees whose decisions are based on local support. And she wasn’t the unpopular guy in black, an attention-seeking whistleblower.
The most controversial moment of the first half came in stoppage time when Welch rejected a penalty appeal from Fulham for handball. VAR supported their decision, but as they say, I saw it given.
The truth is that referees haven’t had a golden season so far this year. There were all sorts of controversial decisions, made worse by a questionable application of VAR. The issue that most concerns players, managers and fans is clearly not gender but competence.
If the likes of Barton and other less prominent social media trolls seem to be out of step with the times, then it’s worth remembering that it’s barely more than a decade since celebrated Sky Sports duo Andy Gray and Richard Keys, who believed they were no longer on the air, was completely over the moon. I am calm about the denigration of female officials and other women in the industry.
Both criticized Sian Massey, one of the first female assistant referees, after she made a narrow (but correct) offside decision. “Someone better go and explain the offside situation to her…,” Keys said.
“Yes,” Gray replied, “can you believe that?”
“The game has gone crazy,” Keys complained, mocking Karren Brady for highlighting sexism in football. “Do me a favor, darling.”
The usual sexist joke about women and football used to be that they couldn’t understand the offside rule and it would be better to put the kettle on. Gray and Keys’ firing (after more footage of their “prehistoric banter” emerged) was a jarring shock to the male-dominated system.
Nowadays it is common for women to moderate football discussions on television and provide expert opinions. However, the progress of female officers has been less rapid and conspicuous.
Welch, 40, also became the first woman to take charge of an English Football League game when she took the whistle in a League Two match between Harrogate Town and Port Vale in 2021.
She was praised for her “resilience”, a quality surely needed by all referees as the fury of a packed stadium brings nightmares. Maintaining focus and exerting control over two groups of fiercely competitive men while thousands loudly question your lineage is not a task for the faint of heart.
Fulham vs Burnley is as soft a landing as possible in the Premier League. As Hugh Grant, who was in attendance, is a regular visitor, it is fitting that the atmosphere at Craven Cottage tends towards middle class restraint. As Welch and her assistants did a pregame warmup lap, she received polite applause from Johnny Haynes in the stands.
Things got heated in the second half when Welch handed out a few more yellow cards. However, she maintained a calm and collected authority, always alert and on guard, and never intimidated by the situation.
There are even tougher tests ahead, but you could say that on her Premier League debut she almost unnoticed experienced the familiar fate of many women in a male-dominated workplace. In this case, there is no higher praise.