Welcome to Gamechangers, a series of articles highlighting those making waves in the world of football.
Today, at the centre of the pitch at the EnviroVent stadium, as Harrogate Town host Port Vale, Rebecca Welch will be the one to blow the whistle. Welch has made history last week, as she became the first female referee ever to be selected for a game in the Football League.
The announcement marks the highest standard yet for a female referee in the men’s domestic game here in England; but the 37-year-old, from County Durham, didn’t get there by chance.
Welch’s 10 year refereeing career has seen her become a regular in the National League for over 3 years now, and in 2017 she took charge of the Women’s FA Cup Final. However, she has described Today’s game as the “biggest achievement” of her career so far.
Perhaps most pertinent to the achievement is the fact that the role has come from 10 years of hard work; Welch is not there as a means of representation or tokenism, but because she has consistently performed at the top of any level she has officiated.
Amy Fearn was the first woman ever to take charge of an EFL game back in 2010, however she was an injury replacement for the final 15 minutes, whereas Rebecca Welch is the first to be selected for the role before kick-off. Female match officials in men’s football are rare; but their presence has become increasingly noticeable in recent years, and Welch’s appointment presents yet another step in the right direction for female representation in a male-dominated sport.
Only 3 women have ever officiated in the EFL before; Amy Fearn, Wendy Toms and Sian Masey-Ellis, with Massey-Ellis going on to become a Premier League regular and the first Englishwoman to officiate in a men’s European fixture – a Europa League tie between PSV Eindhoven and Linzer ASK in October 2019.
Welch herself cited Massey-Ellis as an inspiration, referencing the ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ adage to emphasise the importance of representation that makes Welch’s role in Today’s fixture so important.
Just last weekend, Stephanie Frappart of France and Ukranian Kateryna Monzul became the first women to referee a men’s World Cup Qualifier. Frappart had already made waves in the men’s game this season, becoming the first female to referee a Champions League game last December, whilst Monzul took charge of the first ever all-female refereeing team in a men’s senior international match between Gibraltar and San Marino.