Woman in black delivers goods

Nick Harris watches a female referee make history at Woking on Saturday
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Wendy Toms, the first woman to referee a football match at national league level in Britain, made a resilient debut when Woking played Telford United in the GM Vauxhall Conference on Saturday. She declined bribes, ignored the hecklers and refused to be drawn on her decisions. And that was just how she dealt with the press. The lady was not for talking.

Woking's Andy Ellis, on the other hand, the first man ever to be booked by a woman at this level (for dissent in the 14th minute), was more vocal about his part in history. "It's an honour," he laughed. "It's a novelty, anyway, turning round and seeing a woman next to you."

Toms, 33, from Poole in Dorset, is one of 20,000 qualified referees in Britain, and, like her mostly male counterparts, has come up through the ranks of park football and regional leagues, being assessed by FA officials at each stage. She was promoted to the Conference at the end of last season.

"Blokes are more accepted," one supporter said, "but ultimately it doesn't matter if she's a man, a woman or a transsexual, as long as she does a good job."

"This progression can only be good for the game," Barry Heath, another Woking regular, said. "She'll need to be a strong character to put up with the chants, but then I'm sure she is one." The only time Saturday's head official received much barracking was after booking the home crowd's Ellis. "First and last time I hope we get a bleedin' female," said one traditionalist behind the press box.

Historically, women in football have been treated with some flippancy. An 1895 Manchester Guardian report of a women's fixture dedicated much of its space to the players' attire. "The ladies wore red blouses with white yokes, full black knickerbockers fastened below the knee, black stockings, red beretta caps, brown leather boots and leg pads." The distance which the women's game still has to go in Britain 101 years later can be measured by the coverage it receives in football's bible, the Rothmans Year Book - three and a half pages from 1,012 in 1995.

Solace can be taken, however, from the fact that even the sport's old guard are open to change. One senior member of the Referees Association said: "Everything, as you know, has become politically correct. It's a bit strange to me, having women referees, but then I'm from a different era. But if she comes up with the goods she'll keep on getting promoted. And good luck to her."

On Saturday, the referee (unusually) received warm applause when her name was announced before the start. She gave a total of four yellow cards, none of which were undeserved, kept the game flowing, and was, most importantly, quite anonymous. To be so inconspicuous in a soporific 0-0 encounter where all 22 players were also largely inconspicuous is quite a feat.

When asked afterwards for her views about the game, the referee declined to talk, saying only, rather cryptically: "It's all been sorted." Which was rather ironic on a weekend of postal strikes. Toms is a duty shift manager for ParcelForce.