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A few days after International Women’s Day, I discuss the comments of a Non-League chairman and whether women should be allowed to referee in the men’s game.

Last week saw International Women’s Day celebrated across the world. Quite rightly a number of topics were discussed across a range of media outlets aimed at promoting gender equality. This emotive subject is one which demands both attention and action in the modern society that we live in. There was one story which was discussed on BBC 5 Live and the Victoria Derbyshire show, which as football fans we will all have an opinion on. It is a story which requires an introspective look into our game and assess whether collectively we are doing enough to break down archaic barriers in football.

Nearly a year ago in a United Counties League match, the chairman of Wellingborough Town, Martin Potton, was alleged to have commented that referee Mary Harmer “wasn’t fit enough to referee a woman’s match, let alone a men’s game”. That day his side lost 7-0 to AFC Rushden & Diamonds. Potton was found guilty by the FA in his absence last November, were he was given a 5 match ban and a fine. He maintains his innocence, stating to the Non-League paper “I didn’t say what the lady referee claims”. Potton continues to state that what Harmer alleges was said but just not by him. I’m not going to discuss whether or not Potton made the statement, he’s been found guilty and although he believes in his innocence someone made the comment. It’s a remark which I believe has no place in football.

Within Potton’s interview to the Non-League Paper he was clearly asked whether he agreed with women officiating in the men’s game. His opinion, which he is obviously entitled to, is that they shouldn’t. The next comment is a concerning one, he said “It’s not because I am sexist, it is because of other factors. They get intimidated very easily.” What a comment to make. I will move on from Potton but mentalities like this do not help the promotion of gender equality. Such a sweeping stereotypical remark sets back all the work that has been done, all the achievements by women in a range of professional spheres, by some distance. It also goes to show how much work the FA has to do to promote women in the game. Add this to his comment above of ‘lady referee’, it doesn’t show the non-league world in a good light. The term ‘lady’, is a respectful one and specifically refers to addressing someone of high social class or status. Personally, in this context I don’t think it’s respectful at all, instead I feel it’s used in a derogatory manner. By using it, there is the suggestion that football isn’t the environment for women to exist within, that they would be better suited to situations more becoming of a ‘lady’. I know Potton does admit that this his opinion, but I found the usage of that term even more telling of his true beliefs.

Since the 1990’s a number of women officials have been working hard to progress within the men’s game. Wendy Toms acted as the assistant ref during the 2000 League Cup final, whilst Amy Fearn was the first female to take charge of a league and FA Cup fixture. Both have made great strides in levelling out the gender gap within the sport. But their hard work has often been overshadowed by sexism incidents. Famously, Sian Massey was at the centre of a scandal at Sky Sports, whilst working as an assistant ref during the Liverpool-Wolves Premier League game in 2011. Presenter Andy Gray was recorded saying, “they probably don’t know the offside rule”, when referring to Massey. He subsequently lost his job along with Richard Keys due to the remarks that were made.

Although, the perception of female officials is changing in the men’s professional game, the one place where there should be no hostility is within non-league. Within the lower pyramid of football, the message is always about community. Today I saw a picture of a family of different generations with both genders attending a match in the National League. It made me smile. This picture captured everything that non-league is about; families getting together, people uniting and the community embracing its club.

Many teams at the grassroots level rely heavily on those who live around it. Without the volunteers the grass wouldn’t be cut, the burgers wouldn’t get flipped and the programmes wouldn’t get sold. Both men and women give up their time to be part of the bigger community which the club serves. This is where we should be celebrating any female involvement within football. It is here that women officials should be applauded and welcomed. I don’t know of any woman who would be intimated by officiating in an environment that supports them.

Martin Potton is entitled to his opinion, we all are, but my opinion is that he is wrong. Women should be allowed to referee in the game. Moreover, at the grassroots level there should be unequivocal support of female officials, anything less isn’t representative of the community spirit that non-league embodies.

Thanks for taking the time to read – feel free to add to the discussion. Take a moment to follow me on Twitter for news and views on all things football @twodads81

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