What a great summer of football on television with the Confederation Cup in Brazil and then the European Women’s Cup. What! You didn’t watch it. If like my neighbour, you ‘can’t get into watching women’s football’; the Sweden v Germany semi-final would have changed your mind. A full bloodied game, without the nastiness, a lot of good football and expertly refereed by Esther Staublin of Switzerland. The referees were all women and what a great job they did. I was particularly impressed with Bibrania Steinhaus of Germany, superbly fit, always close to the action and with a smile on her face. She couldn’t referee the final of course because the Germany women were in it once again, this time beating Norway one-nil. That game was refereed with skill by thirty nine year old Cristina Durcioman of Romania who has been an international referee since 2002 handling over sixty UEFA fixtures. One of her assistant referees incidentally was Sian Massey, of England, whose promotion to the Premier League brought about the sacking of Andy Gray and Richard Keys from Sky Sports.
The England’s women team despite high hopes failed badly but the FA’s involvement in women’s football in this country has been changeable to say the least. They often boast about their achievement in popularising the sport for women but it was the FA who tried to stop women playing football. Women’s football goes back to 1895 and was very popular before, during and just after the First World War. I remember George Rumsey, an old Reading referee, telling me years ago, how he had run the line to a women’ match at ElmPark in 1920. That was the year of an extraordinary attendance at a women’s football game. They had to close the gates at Everton’s ground at GoodisonPark on Boxing Day with 53,000 crammed on the terraces and 14,000 locked outside. In 1921 however the FA banned women’s football being played at grounds of any affiliated club; they considered it was an unsuitable sport for women.
It wasn’t until 1970 that the FA lifted its ban on women playing matches on registered clubs’ grounds but there was no reprieve for women wanting to become referees. The first woman to take the referee’s course in Reading was Janice Stanley, a Physical Education Teacher from Tilehurst, whose father, George Fenn, was a local referee. Although Janice achieved the top marks in the exam she was not allowed to become a referee but received a certificate instead. This was in 1975, which ironically was the year the Sex Discrimination Act was passed. The FA bowed to this and the following year, Wendy Prior who played football for Reading and Bracknell Ladies passed the exam and went on to referee men’s football. I’m sure there are still some ex-players of local Reading teams who will remember Wendy as a good referee.
Women’s football was still outside the FA however and when I invited Pat Gregory, Chairman of the Women’s Football Association, to speak at a meeting of the Reading Referees’ Association in 1982, I ashamedly had to apologise to her when half the members left before she began to speak. In 1993, the FA took over women’s football and all has been forgotten. Although over the age of thirteen the sexes cannot play football together, there are no restrictions for women referees. Locally, our highest achiever has been Alison Chapman who refereed senior men’s football and became a FIFA Woman’s assistant referee. Some local women footballers when I have refereed their matches have told me they read this column, so I would say if playing is getting hard, why not think about refereeing. Alison locally and Sian Massey nationally, have shown what can be achieved. There are no longer any barriers to overcome.