Throughout May and June, The FA is reviewing the impact of The Gameplan for Growth strategy on the women’s and girls’ game; this week reviews the growth in the number and quality of female referees, with two Somerset FA officials at the heart.
Launched in March 2017, the strategy pledged to tackle ambitious targets to double participation, double the game’s fanbase and create a high-performance system and world-class talent pipeline for England teams to achieve consistent success on the world stage. After four seasons the strategy is now concluding, and in the coming months The FA will outline its continued support for the women’s and girls’ game with the launch of the 2020-2024 strategy.
- 2,146 female referees across all levels of the game – 72% increase since 2016
- 63% of games in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League with a female referee in 2019/20, a 20% increase over the last four seasons
- 55% of games in the FA Women’s Championship with a female referee in 2019/20, a 25% increase over three seasons
- The introduction of a match official evaluation system in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League
- 98.3% of correct decisions made by match officials in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League
- 115 referees attending The FA’s Grassroots Development Day in 2020
- Four female referees and five assistant referees now on the FIFA list of match officials
Joanna Stimpson, Women’s Professional Game Refereeing Manager
In 2017 I was recruited as The FA’s Womens Refereeing Manager with two main objectives, to increase the number of female referees across both the women’s and men’s football pyramids and to raise the standard of the referees operating in the rapidly evolving women’s game. The overriding ambition was for The FA to become a world leader in women’s refereeing.
My journey into the world of refereeing originated as a player. I played for my home club Street FC and like anyone at a local club you get roped into additional roles to help out. On Saturday mornings I began refereeing the under-14s girls’ team. Having little knowledge of what I was doing I chose to register and complete the basic referee’s course with my County FA. I enjoyed the course and started refereeing regularly on both men’s and women’s grassroots game. I got the ‘bug’, stopped playing, applied for promotion and progressed through the Somerset FA system quickly, coming through the men’s pathway into the semi-professional game and onto the FA Women’s Super League. It was a great learning opportunity and gave the best possible grounding for the job I have now. I experienced first-hand the challenges that exist for female referees and how difficult it was to navigate the pathway. Refereeing became my profession when I became the Referee Development Officer at Somerset FA, where my role was to develop and implement a training strategy to support grassroots referees achieve their personal ambitions and fulfil the needs of our affiliated leagues.
Back in 2017, we needed to drive change. Change needed a strategy and a long-term vision. It was going to be complex. Refereeing had not quite managed to keep up with the rapid acceleration of growth of the women’s game. Cue a whirlwind four seasons but some clear progress. The headline figure is that the number of referees has increased by 72% to 2,146. But it’s the story behind these figures that makes me particularly proud.
Over the last four seasons we’ve focused our attentions at the elite and grassroots level of the game.
We needed to treat refereeing in the women’s game as different to the men’s. The game is played differently, the players behave differently, and the environment is different. The creation of the newly created women’s game referee pathway is a gamechanger for our long-term progress. Established at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, it provides referees with a clear structure uniquely through the girls’ and women’s game from grassroots through to a FIFA match official. We want this pathway to challenge them, to develop them as people and for the few who want to go all the way, give them the opportunity to be the best in the world.
Role modelling is key to the pathway’s success, championing those from all backgrounds who succeed as an inspiration for others to follow suit. We currently have four female referees (Rebecca Welch, Abi Byrne, Stacey Pearson, Kirsty Dowle) and five assistant referees (Sian Massey-Ellis, Helen Byrne, Natalie Aspinall, Lisa Rashid, Melissa Burgin) on the FIFA list of match officials. They are our representatives on the world stage. We want referees of all ages up and down the country to know who they are, understand their journey and have the ambition to follow in their footsteps. What is so pleasing is our group of elite referees understand the role they can play inspiring the next generation and as a result they are so generous with their time.
Our work over the last four seasons has built strong foundations and I believe there’s never been a better time to be a referee, especially a female referee. The opportunities and support available is the best it has ever been but as the game continues to grow, we are under no illusions that we need to keep pace and ensure we are giving our referees the best possible support. Are we where we want to be? No, this is an ever-evolving, long-term journey and the 2020-24 strategy will reveal how we intend to drive higher standards and grow our numbers, increasing opportunities for female referees from all backgrounds.
Our success over the last four years would not have been possible without the dedication of our volunteer referee developer workforce. Our County FA Referee Development Officers have adopted women’s refereeing as a priority and have been central to our journey - we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. And thank you to the 2,146 female referees who commit week in, week out to support football matches across the country, you are at the heart of every decision we have made and will continue make in the future.
Stacey Pearson – Barclays FA WSL and FIFA Referee
“As a PE teacher and a player at Yeovil Town Ladies, I thought it was useful to have another skillset and qualification, so in 2012 I completed my refereeing course. At the time, I didn’t think I would take it up as a career, however whilst juggling playing and refereeing, I realised my priorities had changed and I decided to give up my playing career.
At that point, the Referee Officer at Somerset FA, Keith Buller, was a huge influence on why I completed the referee course. He sadly passed away in 2015 and after that, I felt like I needed to give something back, so I decided to take refereeing more seriously and ended up working my way up the promotion ladder to a Level 3 referee in the men’s game. During this time, I was assigned a refereeing coach from the Somerset FA called Guy Beale. Without him, I don’t think I would be where I am today. His support and guidance allowed me to work my way up in the women’s game and referee in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League.
With the growth of the women’s game, the biggest change as a referee has been the increase in the pressure to make the right decision. As a result, The FA introduced the refereeing evaluation system for the Barclays FA WSL. It now means after each game we evaluate all our decisions with an official evaluator. At first, people were surprised at the brutality of it, however it’s been a huge reason why so many of us have developed. After evaluating why I have made certain decisions on the spot, I have been able to take those learnings into future games.
It’s important to give young girls the opportunity to solely focus on the women’s game and the introduction of the female only pathway has been a great addition for females who don’t want to progress through the male pyramid. Instead they can work their way up the female pyramid, which hopefully will open up more opportunities for referees who have a passion for the women’s game.
At the end of last season, The FA nominated me for the 2020 FIFA list of match officials. Last December I found out I was successful and had officially made the list. This was a huge moment for me and something I am so proud of; I know Keith Buller would be too. As a referee it’s an incredible feeling that The FA trusted my ability to put me forward for the biggest stage. I can’t wait to get started and represent The FA and my country once football is able to return.”
Tia Collard – Somerset FA Referee
“When I was a young girl, I didn’t have a passion for refereeing and instead focused my attention on playing football. Then when I was 14, I saw an advert for a refereeing course and thought ‘why not?’ My first thought was it would allow me to have a different perspective of the game, and I could possibly referee a couple of Sunday matches at my local park.
However, on the refereeing course, I realised there was a lot more to it than just making a quick decision. I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would and quickly concluded that it was something I wanted to explore more. I got in touch with the Somerset FA and my journey began from there.
Since then, The FA and the Somerset FA have supported me a huge amount. From working with Joanna Stimpson and The FA refereeing team, to Matt Eva [my County FA Refereeing Development Officer], they have been there to support, provide advice and introduce me to a network of other grassroots referees. This has been paramount to my development and without their support, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
One of my biggest learnings on my refereeing journey was attending the grassroots female refereeing development day at St George’s Park. As part of the day, I heard from other female referees who had just returned from a trip to Belgium and at that moment, I realised as a 17-year- old that’s what I wanted to aim and push forward for. Elite referees, Lisa Benn and Jane Simms, worked with us on various workshops such as decision making and the rules of the law. One of my favourite moments was the practical aspect of the day where we got to go out on the fantastic pitches at St George’s Park and work with the coaches on using flags and keeping up with the game. I’m so glad Matt put me forward for this event as it allowed me to meet other young like-minded females who are as determined as me to make it as a female referee.
My next step was to aim for promotion. Shortly after, I received an email with information about promotion within the women’s refereeing pathway. It sounded perfect for me as I knew I wanted to stay in the women’s game as it’s a setting I feel more comfortable in. Within a year, I had reached the promotion and this season I’ve now refereed my highest number of female games since I started on my journey; something I’m extremely proud of.
As a grassroots referee, seeing the growth of the women’s game and the acknowledgment that both players and match officials receive is amazing. I’ve heard so many times that female referees aren’t as good as male referees, however I think over the past few years that attitudes are changing. Female referees now have a proven place in football, and I can’t wait to hopefully play my part by refereeing in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League in the future.”