Kelly Simmons, The FA’s Director of the Women’s Professional Game, says the association is “working really hard” to improve refereeing standards throughout the women’s football pyramid.
The standard of refereeing all the way up to the FA Women’s Super League has regularly been criticized, from substandard officiating performances to a perceived lack of stamping down on rough fouls.
There were just three red cards in the top division last season and four the season before that, a lot lower than the equivalent in the men’s Premier League.
Some referees have been criticized for allowing too many incidents to pass by without punishment but Simmons says a number of initiatives are being put in place to improve the standard.
“When I went out to the clubs with what my priorities were they all said to me, ‘Yes, they’re fine Kelly… and referees!’ We are working really hard behind the scenes to develop referees, female referees and referees in the female game.
“Jo [Stimpson, Women’s Refereeing Manager at The FA] will be focusing full-time on elite referees and there is an advert out at the moment for grassroots. The big change for this season is we have worked with PGMOL [Professional Game Match Officials Limited] and they have been fantastic. We are working with them on the Referee360 which is only in the Premier League at the moment.”
The Referee360 scheme will use match footage to allow for video analysis of every decision (or nondecision) made by referees and assistant referees in Barclays FA WSL matches and will replace the current observation and evaluation scheme.
PGMOL operates the evaluation scheme but it’s funded by The FA and evaluators will have specialist training in the women’s game.
It will allow forensic analysis of refereeing in elite women’s football for the first time, the ability to identify common trends to enable The FA to tailor referee development within the women’s game, and allow greater resources for FA Women’s Championship fixtures to be physically observed by evaluators who previously covered FA WSL matches.
“Everyone who referees an FA WSL game will get the game back with every decision that they made or didn’t make and coaching of it rather than an assessor sitting in the stand and guessing whether they got it right or not,” said Simmons.
“With the group we have got now it will help them with their development and help us look at detailed feedback on referee performance and the issues in women’s football refereeing generally because it will all be centrally focused.”
While standards in the men’s game, even at the top level, are also regularly questioned despite the recent introduction of VAR to the Premier League, Simmons says her priorities are to improve the standard of both male and female referees in the women’s game.
England didn’t have a refereeing representative at the recent Women’s World Cup in France, with Sian Massey-Ellis and Lisa Rashid the only English officials on the list as assistant referees.
But Simmons wants that to change ahead of the 2023 Women’s World Cup and particularly Euro 2021, which England will be hosting.
“I’ve been talking about referees in the women’s game to them [PGMOL], rather than what they do with the men’s game, my focus has been around how they can help us support and develop referees in the women’s game because I am aware there are male and female referees in the women’s game.
“How do we support and develop those who referee in the WSL and the Championship and also accelerate the development of officials for UEFA and FIFA, which we need to do more. We have gone through successive tournaments where we haven’t had a referee and that should change; we are really committed to that so we have got a development program for referees and then a specific program at the PGMOL for the elite female referees who could come on and potentially referee Euro 2021 and the Women’s World Cup [in 2023].”
Other countries have taken the lead when it comes to top female officials, particularly Women’s World Cup hosts France with Stéphanie Frappart.
The 35-year-old has cemented herself as one of the top female referees and recently became the first woman to referee the UEFA Super Cup, played between Chelsea and Liverpool in Istanbul.
While English officials are well behind their French counterpart for now, Simmons admits discussions have taken place about one day having professional female officials in the country.
“We’ve talked about it internally,” said Simmons. “It is one for us to look at with the new strategy and talk to the board about for the new football strategy the board will develop.
“Obviously, there is a big expense to that and as with all things it comes back to where we want to place our investment, so we’ve talked about it. Phase one is to reduce the pool, understand who is good, who is the best and focus on their development and get to grips with that and an evolution of that would naturally be professional referees at some point in the WSL.”