I’ve never understood why anyone would want to be a referee. Now I do

<span>Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

‘I get it,” I say, maybe a little too enthusiastically as Bibi Steinhaus-Webb, the head of women’s refereeing in England, sits down in the chair opposite me. I’ve forgotten to press record for our interview and blurt out: “I now understand why someone would want to be a referee.”

Before spending a day at the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL)’s select group women’s professional game training camp I had struggled to comprehend why anyone would go into refereeing, where your every thought and decision will be picked apart, analysed, criticised and rarely praised.

“Why would somebody put themselves through that?” I would wonder when the latest story of a referee being abused, be it grassroots or elite, appeared. I know it is a difficult job and I know it requires a huge amount of hard work and a thick skin. But I didn’t know the job. I didn’t see the art in it. I didn’t understand the extent of the delicate balance of physical and mental dexterity required. All I can think is: it’s like chess boxing, where opponents play alternating rounds of chess and boxing, except you’re doing both at the same time.

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At one stage during the training camp, sat in the back of a session on the new International Football Association Board (IFAB) rules around whether a defending player’s touch was deliberate or a deflection, determining whether the attacking player in an offside position is played onside or not, my mind delivers a left-field proposal: ‘I’m unfit and would be terrible at this, but my God do I want to give it a go.’ I quickly shake myself away from that temporary thought and focus back on the session.

The IFAB rule does not seem to be hugely popular, but here they are discussing how best to implement it. We watch a number of clips one at a time and, after each one, as it plays on loop, tables break to discuss whether they think the contact with the ball was deliberate or not. Each time, there is no consensus among the tables because, well, how do you determine the intent of the player?

It does not take long to understand that these officials will have to respond to these incidents and make a judgment on the player’s intent – or not – a lot faster than the comfortable few minutes with replays that they’ve been given in this meeting room. Can I tell you whether there was intent or not? No.

“After 90 minutes, heartbeat of 180, exhausted potentially, the referee still needs to be in the mindset of making the right decisions,” says Steinhaus-Webb. “Have you ever run a marathon? Would you expect a marathon runner to do a complex maths exercise when they’re crossing the finish line? They normally don’t look in the right state to get the right outcome, this is why you need to train way harder, to make sure that you stay mentally sharp.”

It sounds as if match officials have to adopt a training regime akin to that used by Taylor Swift before the Eras Tour, where she would run on the treadmill for the length of the three-hour long set singing the songs as she ran and changing the speed based on the pace of the song. “That’s exactly it,” says Steinhaus-Webb. “That’s a massive part of what they are having to do: the physical preparation, mental preparation, but then also there’s the technical preparation.”

Throughout the year the PGMOL will host matches and tournaments to create as close to a match environment as possible, but “That’s not going to be an elite level game, Arsenal v Chelsea at the Emirates, that pressurised environment, with that level of players, you’re never going be able to fully recreate that,” says Steinhaus-Webb. “It’s process, process, process. It’s like when you have driving lessons, all you do is learn the processes over and over. Today, when you drive the car, you don’t even think about it. This is the state where you want to get to.”

I ask the referee Kirsty Dowle, who was applauded off the pitch by fans and praised for her performance in the men’s National League game between Southend United and Oxford City in October, how she practices rule changes.

“You don’t,” she says. Teams go and train and kick a ball and work on stuff every single day. We don’t get that opportunity. But then it’s weekends like this where we get to watch clips and discuss with each other. I can watch my games back and watch my clips. And yes, I’m not physically doing it, but I’m processing that all the time so that when I get out on to the pitch, I’ve almost done it a thousand times before.”

On the unexpected ovation at Southend, Dowle says: “First of all, I didn’t really realise it was for me, I thought the players must be somewhere. Second point, if I’m brutally honest, is that it was a good day for the club, they’d won 2-0, the sale of the club was happening. I didn’t do anything outrageously amazing; I think it just all kind of tied in nicely for the club.”

Dowle has been able to leave her job to focus on refereeing full-time but not everyone is so lucky. This season 20% (15 of 75) of the officials in the women’s game are on contracts and able to concentrate on refereeing full-time. In the Women’s Super League, it is almost half, Steinhaus-Webb says. “When we came in the numbers looked very different,” she says. “Now, we’re half and if we continue at this speed, we are on the way to being in a very good place.”

Those unable to be full-time are still working to extremely professional standards, aided by a staffing team that has doubled in size since Steinhaus-Webb came in three years ago. For Dowle, giving up work has been an “absolute gamechanger” and made her enjoy refereeing more. “I was worried that I would put more pressure on myself now that it was going to pay my mortgage, but just to be able to sleep as much as I need, to prepare my food, to watch my games back and have time to talk to coaches is great.”

Steinhaus-Webb and her team are also working to protect those who aren’t able to be full-time. For Lauren Whiteman, a PE teacher and assistant referee in the women’s Championship, who is newer to the women’s select group, the added help has been significant. “I can’t fault the support at all,” she says. “I’ve gone through my journey prior, I wouldn’t say without support, but not necessarily with a coach and somebody who I can bounce things off and discuss things with. Whereas this season it has been completely different.”

This season, Whiteman has used comms for the first time, run the lines on a televised game, and was appointed to the Manchester City v Liverpool game in the Continental Cup. “I’m not going to lie, I nearly dropped my phone,” says Whiteman of the call to tell her she would be on the match between the two WSL sides. “It was one of the biggest fixtures you potentially get there. It was a relief that it went well. If you’ve been given that opportunity, then you really want to make the most of it.”

Another assistant referee, Emily Carney, who has benefited from being part of the development group set up in 2022 to give officials the chance to step up a level and give it a go, describes the opportunity as “really rewarding”. Carney says she was not the biggest fan of referees when she was a young player and her mum told her she was “horrible to the referees”. It was also her mum who encouraged her to do the course so she could understand all the rules. Her rise has been rapid and she started travelling to games with Rebecca Welch and Sian Massey-Ellis as an international assistant early on and learned from them.

This season, she has been running the lines for some men’s EFL games. “When you make the jump, you feel like you’re carrying a lot of female match officials hope, that you’ve got to represent them,” she says.

When Welch took charge of the Premier League game between Fulham and Burnley in December, it was a reward for the introduction of the development group. “Goosebumps,” says Steinhaus-Webb of watching Welch in that match. “I’m sitting there watching the game and all I want is for it to go well for her. That’s all I want. No drama, that’s all I want.”

Another point of pride for Steinhaus-Webb is the addition of five new match officials from England to the Fifa International List for 2024. Four of those officials are from the women’s select group: Georgia Ball, Nicoleta Bria, Sophie Dennington and Emily Heaslip, and there are now 13 women from England on the list.

In a closing session on non-verbal communication, Steinhaus-Webb puts her hands on her hips in a power pose. Moments later, she has everyone in the room on their feet moving their hands into different positions and poses and discussing the non-verbal implications of each. She is playful with it, self-aware, and it makes for a relaxed, open and fun environment – far nicer than the matchday environment can often be for them.

“I just love refereeing. It was been the best decision in my life to pick up this course,” says Steinhaus-Webb. “I do appreciate that it might be difficult for other people to understand but this is exactly why I want you to come to see it through my eyes. To see my passion for it, why I fell in love with it, this is what I want to share.”