Sunday Sit-Down with… Rebecca Welch
Tomorrow Rebecca will make history as the first female referee to be appointed to a match in the men’s English Football League. Today, she’s our Sunday Sit-Down
By Becky Hardy
Having entered into the world of professional refereeing at the comparatively ‘old’ age of 27 (she’d worked as an administrator in the NHS before that), today Rebecca Welch is on the brink of making history. She has become the first female referee to be appointed to a game in the men’s English Football League [EFL] – and will be taking charge of the League Two clash between Harrogate Town and Port Vale tomorrow afternoon.
Now the highest-ranking female referee in English football after only 11 years on the professional circuit, the County Durham native has already officiated the Women’s FA Cup Final twice, but credits her appointment to tomorrow’s EFL match as the ‘biggest achievement’ of her career so far. And it promises to be not only a hugely positive move for Rebecca personally but also for women in football.
Alongside the likes of Sian Massey-Ellis – the Premier League’s first female assistant referee, who now seems like more of a regular fixture in the league than Man City versus Liverpool – and Amy Fearn, who came on as an injury substitute to referee an EFL match in 2010, Rebecca is blazing a trail for female match officials to be accepted into the top flights of English professional football.
We caught up with Rebecca to find out what the appointment means to her, the truth about being a woman managing a ‘men’s game’, and who inspired her growing up in the North East.
How are you feeling ahead of Harrogate Town vs Port Vale?
Really excited! It was a bit of a shock when I got the appointment. It’s obviously what I’ve been working towards for the last few years, but to be given the opportunity to go out and referee in the EFL is amazing. And to make history as well, it just adds that bit more significance to it all.
How did your appointment to the game come about?
I’m currently refereeing in the National League, so it’s classed as being a ‘Step One Referee’. You get graded on every game; you get watched by an observer who’ll come and mark you on different competencies. Then at the end of the season, you’re put on a merit list. It’s a bit like being a football club, really: you go out and, if you do well, you get points. If you finish near the top of the merit list, you’ve then got a chance to go up to the next level.
Around this time of the season, they’ll give the refs who are performing well development games. Some of the lads have had them already, but obviously there hasn’t been as much hype about them! But it’s a protocol that they go through most years. So I’m not there yet – just because I’m reffing this game tomorrow doesn’t mean that next year I’ll be in the Football League. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
It’s an achievement which has been 11 years in the making. What made you first decide to become a referee?
It’s a bit of a strange one, because I think most people go into reffing because their mam or dad has done it, but I don’t have any family history of refereeing. My really good mate, she was a ref, and she used to ref some of the games on a Sunday when I used to play local league football. I always used to give her a bit of grief about her decisions, so she just turned round to me one day and said: look, if you think it’s so easy, why don’t you try it?! So I did! But even when I was doing the course I wasn’t thinking to myself: right, I’m going to be a ref now. I just went along to educate myself more about the sport I played every week. It all just took off from there.
You started by reffing a lot of local games, right?
Yeah, I got involved in the men’s and women’s local leagues in Sunderland and very quickly started absolutely loving it. Some people probably think there isn’t many jobs worse than being a referee, but honestly – those matches in Sunderland on a Saturday afternoon and a Sunday morning, they’ve absolutely built me up to where I am now. Had I not been given that opportunity to operate in those leagues, there’s no way I’d be about to ref in the EFL.
Have you ever got much stick for being a female ref?
Obviously being a ref is never, ever plain sailing! But no-one has ever come to me and said: that decision you made was wrong because you’re a female. They’ve said it’s wrong because you’re a ref! You’re always going to please 11 players while annoying another 11 players with every decision you make. But I do know it happens – I know some people who’ve had criticism purely because they’re a woman. But honestly, hand on heart, I’ve never experienced it myself in 11 years as a ref.
I’ve been accepted really well, especially in the North East when I first came through. At the start, some of the players would be like: oh my God, the ref’s a girl! But not in a bad way, it was more just surprise because they weren’t used to seeing female refs. Then I started turning up every week and you just get to know people and they get to know you. I enjoyed it so much, it never felt like I was going to do a job. I think that’s really why I stuck at it.
Have you got your sights set on the Premier League in the future?
Hopefully the next step will be the EFL, that would be absolutely amazing. I’m one of those people who never really plans ahead. I just ref the next game that’s on the cards. I never think: ok, at the end of this season I want to be in the top 10, because it’s such a long season and the competition’s really high. I just set my sights on the next game. As my Mam always tells me, I just do my best. Listen, it would be great to referee in the Championship or the Premier League, but the competition is tough. But if I’m good enough, I’d take that next step tomorrow.
Do you know if you’ll be involved in the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 yet?
Not yet. The selection process won’t take place until next year. But by being on the seasonal list of referees, you work towards going to the Euros. It’s quite demanding – you’ve got to show that you’re training all the time and you’re getting decisions right. There’s no guarantee that any one referee will go, so I’m just working towards putting myself in the best possible position to be available for selection.
You’ve already become a role model for women and girls everywhere. Who were some of your role models growing up?
That’s really difficult, because I’m 37. I know I’m not old, but I honestly don’t think there were that many female role models in the media when I was growing up. So I’d always say my role models were my Mam and Dad, because I was always surrounded by love, I was out on the street playing with all the other kids, I just had a great childhood. But there never seemed to be any female role models in the media, and they were probably something I looked for.
I think that’s why it’s so important now, because young girls and young lads put a lot of attention on the people in the media. If we can portray a good image and if kids can see people like them in places they want to get to someday, then hopefully they’ll think to themselves: well if they can do it, I can do it. It’s important that we embrace and advertise that. That’s why tomorrow’s match, for me, is a lot more than a game of football. It’s a message to younger girls – and women of any age really – saying that if I can do it, so can you.
What would you say to encourage other women and girls who may want to enter any industry in the future that has been traditionally male-dominated?
The main thing is, if you’re going to do something, go into it and give it your full commitment. Work really hard, but also make sure you enjoy it. I’m a great believer that if you enjoy something, you’ll always be that little bit better at it. Speak to other people, too. I’ve got two sets of friends that I go to – I’ve got a group of referees who understand what I go through as a referee, but also I’ve got a group of people outside of that, who just want to talk about normal, everyday things. So, for me, it definitely comes down to commitment, enjoyment and having that support network.
What do you love most about refereeing?
I’ve got the best seat in the house for every game I go out and referee! I’ve always loved football and I’d have loved to have played it at a high level, but I just wasn’t good enough. Being a referee gives me the opportunity to go out and be involved in leagues that I’d never have the opportunity to be involved with otherwise.