Discipline the hardest part for women in uniform

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The Independent Online
The goalkeeper was cursing in language more befitting a man who had dropped his prize-winning lottery ticket off the Severn Bridge. The game was only a Sunday league match, but the situation just needed a spark to ignite it (especially as one of the teams was Brighton Electricity).

The official needed to take a tough line, step in and calm the over-excited keeper. It was not easy. "I don't need a lecture from the referee, either," the player retaliated, but eventually he cooled off. Spectators thought he must have been threatened with a yellow card or worse. But the referee had a much tougher punishment to keep him in line. If Phil Home had not done as he was told, he would have had to cook his own supper that night.

His wife, Sonya, one of three female referees in the Sussex League, recalls the incident with relish. "I know all his little tricks," she says. "Referees have to be in control and he knows that whatever I say goes, either on the field or at home. After all, isn't every marriage the same in that respect?"

Sonya, from Hove, Sussex, is now in her second season of officiating in Saturday and Sunday leagues, week after week of Crown & Anchor second XI v Horsham Methodist Church Choir. Aficionados reckon the heartland of amateur football offers spectators the worst football, the worst facilities and the worst language. It is a thankless task for referees, their rewards a scant £6.50 plus travel expenses. But Sonya, a clerical worker for Seeboard, loves it.

Recruiting referees is not easy. It makes a traffic warden's job look glamorous. OK, the silk outfit can look very fetching and you get get the chance to blow your whistle like a Italian policeman. But you can earn more in a supermarket, and you're unlikely to get abused, spat at and even beaten up stacking shelves at Sainsbury's.

Still, there's a steady stream of masochists willing to take on a job that every spectator believes he can do better. An increasing number of these recruits are women, who are infiltrating into the highest levels. New Zealander Linda Black is on the Fifa list of international referees and linespersons. Gertrud Regus has been running the line in the Bundesliga for two years. And Wendy Toms from Poole, Dorset, could soon become the first female Premier League referee. Aged 32, she is in her 10th season.

As every true fan knows, women know nothing about football except that they think Ryan Giggs is a bit dishy, so the men on Sonya Horne's seven- week training course must have had a nasty shock when she came top of the class with 97 per cent. "I got a mixed reaction when I joined. I was the only woman there and though the older men were all right, the younger lads looked at me as if to say: `What's she doing here'? "

Her passion for the game stems back to childhood in Northern Ireland, where she played football happily until she was 10. "Then it was the old story of girls not being allowed to play with the boys," she recalls. "My dad used to take me to watch all the Northern Ireland games. Bryan Hamilton used to live round the corner and get us tickets."

She played a few women-only games but didn't like it. "There is not the same passion in it. They don't get into it as much." When she moved to England and got married, she became secretary of a pub team in Sussex. She saw an advertisement for referees in the FA Handbook, and it went on from there.

"My first game was awful", she admits. "You learn how to do it from a book and a teacher, but going out and actually doing it is a very different thing. I was totally lost, running around like a headless chicken. We were told where to be and where to stand, but I forgot it all in the heat of the match. Thank goodness it was a one-sided game."

But like a vampire finding the key to a blood bank, she found refereeing addictive. "I had to cut back a bit because I was doing two games every weekend, sometimes three. It was taking over my life." She's been through the bad moments (sorting out a fight, ticking off her husband, the first red card). "I don't think I get any more stick than a normal ref. At this level, it is mostly pub teams and they eff and blind a lot. Those who don't know me often apologise for swearing."

Women refs can be a steadying influence in other ways. "When I first sent someone off, I am convinced that he would have hit me if I hadn't been a woman. I've only sent two people off anyway. The other one made a brilliant save on the line with his hands, and he had to go. Later that evening, I saw someone eyeing me in the pub and I asked him: `Do I know you?' He replied: `You should: you sent me off today'."

Her main problems are not with players or even spectators, but the primitive changing facilities. Only a few local grounds have a changing-room for officials anyway and, emancipated as Sonya is, she draws the line at taking a shower when all the other officials are male. "I usually have to wait until I get home to clean up."

Working as a ref has another small disadvantage: it makes it harder to enjoy a game of football. "When I watch it on television, I've always got my eye on what the ref is doing. Still, in our household, there's never any argument when my husband changes the channel to football. I'm as keen to watch as he is."