I thought I knew the offside rule, but I’m starting to doubt my judgement. Actually, let me correct that statement. I do know the offside rule, I’m just not confident enough to boldly bellow ‘offside’ during a match. Let alone blow a whistle. Even if it is a friendly between the local under 12 girls.
Which is why I’m questioning my decision to volunteer as an assistant referee (AR) for my daughter’s football team. The truth is I didn’t even know what an AR was. They used to be called a linesman – or lineswoman in my case. So before putting my name on the list and my neck on the line, I Googled: ‘what does a lineswoman do’. Even that task came with its own set of challenges as spellcheck repeatedly tried to change my search to ‘linesman’. At least assistant referee is gender neutral.
Sian Massey-Ellis is currently the only AR in the Premier League. She first came to fame in 2011 when she was the brunt of the outrageous comments made by Richard Keys and Andy Gray, who claimed female officials “don’t know the offside rule”. It doesn’t bode well for my recent appointment.
My reasons for stepping up and stepping onto the side-line are simple. I want to inspire my daughter, and I also want to disprove the myth that only dads understand the beautiful game. It’s all well and good wanting our girls to be more involved in sport and treated as equals on (and off) the pitch, but if mums are making the sandwiches, while the dads get stuck in with the action, what messages are we sending out? If they can’t see it, they can’t be it.
Following the popularity of the recent World Cup, attendance at female football matches is at an all-time high. The opening weekend of Women’s Super League saw a record number of fans watch the Chelsea vs Tottenham game – even though there were still 15,000 empty seats, and the tickets were free. At least it’s progress, but we need to maintain the momentum and excitement created by the likes of Lucy Bronze, Ellen White and Nikita Parris, who led the Lionesses to the semi-finals in the World Cup.
Getting involved at grass-roots level is one way to encourage a new generation of female footie fans. By making mums on the side-line the norm instead of the exception we can lead by our example, and show our daughters that while men continue to dominate the back pages of a newspaper, sport isn’t just for boys.
I admit that when our WhatsApp group called out for parents prepared to a referee the occasional game I didn’t respond. It didn’t really register. I have never played football, and while I like the game and have been to a few premier league matches, and watched England lose numerous World and Europeans Cups, I’m hardly a passionate supporter. Like I said, I know the offside rule, but that’s as far as it goes.
Then I noticed it was only dads stepping up to volunteer. And many of them know even less about football than me. They want to get involved, they want to support their daughter, and they don’t mind learning on the job. They are also quite happy to fake it until they make it.
I don’t know if it’s arrogance, ignorance, or the fact that they literally have bigger balls than me, but why is it men fear failure less than women? According to Clare Josa, author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome, men are capable of suffering from this syndrome but they are more likely to push through it, while women give in to self-doubt. This is backed up by research from NatWest, which revealed 60 per cent of women considering starting a business, baled out due to imposter syndrome. It also found that 28 per cent of working women feel it stopped them speaking in a meeting, while 26 per cent failed to make a career change.
Refereeing at my daughter’s game isn’t just about football – it’s so much more than that. It’s about young girls seeing their mums running the line in all walks of life. It’s about learning to step outside their comfort zone, to feel the fear and do it anyway. And, in doing so, gain confidence and life skills that will set them up for life.
Which is why I find myself googling the FA rules. And coming out in a cold sweat at the prospect of making a bad call and incurring the wrath of pushy parents, shouting from the side-line.
But I’ll be the one wearing the whistle.
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