The Football Association switchboard was inundated with calls yesterday. Andy Gray and Richard Keys may be interested to know that a high percentage of them were from women, asking how to qualify as a referee. "We've had lots of interest from women wanting to officiate," said Kelly Simmons, with a chuckle. As head of the national game, Simmons is at the fore as the FA attempts to make English football inclusive and resistant to discrimination of any sort.
Despite being "very disappointed" by the sexist comments that Keys and Gray directed at the assistant referee Sian Massey on Saturday, Simmons is delighted that the Sky Sports presenters' views on female officials not knowing the offside rule appear to be inspiring increasing numbers of women to prove them wrong. There are 853 active female referees registered with the FA and officiating throughout England, largely at grass-roots level. While they are outnumbered by more than 26,000 male referees, the FA hopes that the women's contingent includes a handful of budding Masseys.
"Sian is very brave," said Simmons. "She's a terrific role model." At 25, Massey, who turned professional last March and has passed the same fitness tests as male officials, made her Premier League debut in Sunderland's home defeat by Blackpool at Christmas. Her performance failed to provoke a complaint from either of two sometimes "old school" managers, Steve Bruce and Ian Holloway.
Massey has made a rapid ascent of a dauntingly steep ladder. It runs from level 10 (grounded, inactive), through nine (trainee) and up via assorted unglamorous non‑league rungs to level two (the Conference and FA Premier League reserves). Level one is the Football League and Premier League. After that comes admission to the Fifa list, and internationals.
Wendy Toms, a parcel post manager from Dorset, made history in 1991 when she served as the Football League's first female fourth official, in a game between Bournemouth and Reading in the old Third Division. Shattering a glass ceiling at least every other season, Toms became the first woman to referee a Conference game and run the line in the Premier League.
Toms, now 48, was the subject of sexist comment from, among other managers, Gordon Strachan. Amy Fearn, née Rayner, more recently faced the wrath of Mike Newell. Fearn refereed the final 20 minutes of a Championship fixture between Coventry and Nottingham Forest after Tony Bates suffered a calf strain.
Four years earlier, when running the line, she had enraged Newell, who was then in charge of Luton Town, after making a penalty call. "She should not be here," trumpeted the former Blackburn Rovers striker. "If you start bringing women into refereeing you will have big problems. It's tokenism for politically correct idiots."
Fearn, who started refereeing as a teenager because the £7 match fees in the Rugby District League compared well to the effort involved in a paper round, has said: "I'm an accountant as well as a referee so it's a combination which makes a perfect excuse for having no friends. You can't get offended. I just take it with a pinch of salt. I don't take it personally and I don't feel under any extra pressure."
For all such brave words, the Fifa‑listed Scottish referee Morag Pirie, who has been an assistant referee in Champions League games, fears that Keys and Gray may have placed female officials under unacceptable mental strain. Early in Pirie's career the former Albion Rovers manager Peter Hetherston claimed that she "should be at home making the tea for her man", instead of waving an assistant referee's flag.
"They [Gray and Keys] need to get with the times," Pirie said. "They should try officiating themselves and see what's it's like. It's a hard enough job without attitudes you think would have gone out years ago but are obviously still there."
The 35-year-old suggests that things may be slightly more enlightened north of the border, where, encouraged by her example, the Scottish FA has seen the number of female referees on its books rise to 59.
"You need to make a lot of sacrifices to get this far," said Pirie, who has officiated at men's matches in Cyprus and Finland. "It's a hard job and a lot of people think you shouldn't be there – once they see you can do it they're fine, though. You get a lot of comments out there but you just have to rise above it. Sian Massey will know she just has to ignore what they are saying. She should be proud of what she has done and it should spur women on to follow her. The opportunities are massive. If women put in the effort and work hard the rewards, things like running the line in Champions League matches, are huge."
With the game across the UK lacking referees of either sex – up to one in three grass-roots games proceeds without proper officials – the importance of the inspiration offered by Pirie, Toms, Fearn and Massey cannot be underestimated.
Simmons said: "I hope attitudes to women referees will change in a similar way to feelings about female football commentators. There was a big fuss at first but their presence is now seen as normal."
even if this is temporary it's a good thing. smh at newell though. mods tell me if I need to correct anything!