Harrogate is the home of cream teas, sulphur springs and now, a spot of Football League trailblazing. After more than 200,000 league matches in England, a woman has finally officiated an EFL game – and the handful of assessors who witnessed 37-year-old Rebecca Welch make history on a sunny Easter Monday in North Yorkshire will have been impressed.
It may be asked how it has taken football so long to get to this point, and rightly so. But what really matters is that this moment has finally arrived, and history will remember Welch as the woman who potentially encourages a further stream of female officials to follow in her footsteps and continue to drive football forward in an area in which it has, arguably, lagged behind other sports.
Welch would have hoped for a debut as straightforward as this, with goals from David Worrall and Kurtis Guthrie helping Port Vale to a fifth successive League Two victory. In the end, there were few flashpoints for Welch to navigate, but the decisions that had to be made were made without any controversy.
The success of a referee’s performance can often be measured by the reactions of the players to their key decisions. Harrogate’s uncompromising centre-back Connor Hall was Welch’s biggest nuisance, but despite his loud protestations after a half-hearted penalty appeal in the first half, there was nothing he could question about Welch’s display.
“Very good,” was the verdict of the Harrogate manager, Simon Weaver. “Important calls were made throughout and they were the right calls. It was a thoroughly professional performance.” It is hard to disagree. Even the two yellow cards issued – to Harrogate’s George Thomson and Port Vale’s Tom Conlon – provoked little in the way of protestation.
The big question now though is: what next? On the strength of Welch’s debut, she will surely not have to wait too long to get her second appearance as an EFL referee. But perhaps more important than that is what a moment like this could do for young girls who aspire to be referees one day. This felt like a day where some long overdue barriers were broken down.
Welch has cited Sian Massey-Ellis, the first female to become a professional match official, as her own inspiration. In years to come, it could well be Welch’s name on the lips of young girls who dream of making it to the professional game.