On the 16th and 17th November, fans across the United Kingdom were treated to the first-ever Women’s Football Weekend. It was seen as a step in the right direction with a number of WSL matches played at the Premier League grounds and numerous attendance records shattered in different parts of the country
There were some thrilling games on display too with rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal squaring off at the newly-built 62,000-seater stadium and Liverpool and Everton facing each other at Anfield. Chelsea vs Manchester United, despite not being played at a Premier League ground, made the headlines, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
It was nothing to do with the quality of football or the number of fans at Kingsmeadow. In fact, the 4790 attendance was the highest ever for a women’s game played at a non-Premier League ground – a remarkable stat in itself. However, the sub-standard officiating in that game marred what should’ve been a special occasion for the teams and both sets of fans.
The Blues won the game through a second-half penalty converted Maren Mjelde. However, referee Jack Packman arguably should not have pointed to the spot as United’s Millie Turner won the ball fairly off the feet of Fran Kirby. Minutes before the incident, he booked Abbie McManus for a foul committed by Amy Turney who was already suspended and should have been sent off.
There was an evident look of disbelief and frustration on United head coach Casey Stoney’s face before she addressed the press in the aftermath of the game. Toeing the line of probably another fine, she did not mince her words while describing the performance of the referee.
“I don’t want to get fined. If I say what I want to say then consistently every week I would be getting fined. We are a professional game. We have to address the level of refereeing. He booked a wrong player and gave a free kick that wasn’t. It was a 90-minute poor performance and he’s apologised but that’s too late,” she said.
“I train my players week in week out, they train hard week in week out. They are honest, hard-working and driven players. They deserve better than that. We should be talking about crowds and the attendance, the quality, and speed of the game, but we’re talking about poor officiating. The standard of referees should be better and I haven’t been the only head coach saying that.”
Former head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOL) Keith Hackett was having none of Stoney’s criticism about the referees and what they do beyond the field of play. According to him, the WSL and the FA is in no position to pay its officials adequate fees so they are complied to work part-time.
“For many years, I also worked part-time along with being a Football League referee. I don’t think the organisation can afford to pay them such hefty wages. Casey Stoney has been overly critical of the officials and I don’t think she makes a valid point. I think the referee got the decision right. What surprises me is why have the FA not come out and said that they back the referee’s call and hand Stoney a fine for her words?,” remarked Hackett,
Despite ending up on the winning side in that game at Kingsmeadow, Chelsea forward Bethany England shared Stoney’s opinion about the officiating not only about one particular game, but a trend that has been carried throughout the season.
She said: “I thought they were appalling. I’ll be the first to say that the association needs to look at that because some of the decisions were shocking. I think the referees need to analyse that game and see how poor they really did. We want to make good performances but referees are making bad decisions that are killing the game.”
She also spoke about the lack of safety that goes hand in hand with the referees making bad decisions. Blatant red card challenges go unpunished and such negligence could lead to long-term injuries for players and could destroy their careers as professional footballers.
“A player should have been sent off in the first half for two dangerous high foot tackles, studs up. It’s not okay. Where’s the protection for the players?”
The view in the terraces is that people have now come to accept referees making bad decisions as they are nowhere near the standard of Premier League officials – who equally divide opinions.
To ensure this does not continue, in August, the FA introduced a system of axing referees for their performances. However, it does not seem to have made any difference.
Chelsea boss Emma Hayes has called for the protection of the referees rather than criticising them, but she might have a different take when certain decisions go against her side. At the moment, they’re sitting at the top of the league and the side’s buoyed by the impending arrival of star player Sam Kerr.
However, even Hayes stated that the system is not without its flaws but the FA is headed in the right direction to make the WSL a long-term success.
“I cannot be too harsh but what I think the FA are doing right is that they have a pool of officials that are being scrutinised much like the Premier League and the rigour involved with that means we might suffer in the short term,” she explained.
The referees in the WSL are at the Conference level and a number of them have day jobs going hand in hand with their matchday duties. It may be time for the FA to improve the quality of referees and take the standard of the league to unforeseen heights in the future.