Today is International Referees’ Day – and 18-year-old Emily Sidgwick reveals the shocking reality of life as a female referee in charge of junior football matches in the North-East. PETER BARRON reports

IT’S a bright autumn Sunday morning, the chatter is all about the latest VAR controversy on last night’s Match of the Day, and 18-year-old Emily Sidgwick is giving up her time to referee another junior footy match.

The under-nine boys’ game between Skelton and Billingham turns out to be one of her easier fixtures. The players are respectful, the managers encouraging, and the parents are behaving themselves.

But it’s not always like this. In the three years she’s been reffing, Emily’s seen it all. There have been times when abuse from managers and parents has reduced her to tears. She’s got used to little boys sniggering about the fact that the ref’s a girl. And she’s walked off in protest at the foul language used by children still at primary school.

Even at junior level, cursing and swearing – reffing and blinding – is a problem encountered by match officials all too often.

And yet, every Sunday, Emily’s back out on a pitch in all weathers, and doing her best to make the right decisions – without the benefit of technology.

“The majority of people are lovely – it’s the minority who lose control,” she says. “You get parents who think their kid’s Ronaldo, and go crazy if a decision goes against them. I’ve been called all sorts, and there are times when you wonder why you bother.”

So why does she? “I just love the game and want to be involved,” she replies.

Football’s been part of her life as long as she can remember. Her dad, Damian, a part-time PE teacher, co-founded Skelton United Football Club. Mum, Lisa, an area manager for Darlington Building Society, serves as the club’s secretary.

The couple, who met amid the discipline of the Royal Navy, are passionate about the benefits of grass roots sport, and Emily and brother, Oliver, were regulars at Skelton FC’s “Soccer Tots” as soon as they were old enough to run around.

“Dad also took us to Boro games, so football was just part of family life,” says Emily.

She briefly dabbled with gymnastics but “wasn’t flexible enough”, so she quickly returned to football, playing centre-half for Skelton’s junior teams until a chronic knee injury brought her playing days to a premature halt.

“When the doctors said I should stop playing, I cried in my room for ages, but my Mum and Dad made me think about what else I could do,” she says.

She found the answer in enabling others to play the game. She coached Skelton’s Wildcats junior team, but her main ambition was to become a referee. She embarked on a four-day course at Acklam – the only girl in a group of 50 – and qualified at 15.

“I’ll never forget the first match I refereed,” she recalls. “North Ormesby versus Seaton Carew under-10s – it was absolutely horrible.”

Despite Emily wearing a yellow armband to show she was under-18, and gathering the players before kick-off to tell them it was her first game, the abuse still flew. For their first few games, new referees have a mentor from the Teesside Junior Football Alliance, and Emily told him afterwards: “I can’t do this.”

“I’d got hounded from start to finish and, for someone feeling nervous, that can be really damaging. I could easily have given up there and then.”

Another pep talk from her parents persuaded her not to give up. The opportunity came to referee junior matches on her home patch, in Skelton, and she’s gone on to officiate at hundreds of junior games, where the smaller pitches are easier on her knees.

Her confidence has grown, and she has a considerably thicker skin, though dealing with abuse and harassment remains part of the refereeing experience. One of her most recent matches, an under-sevens fixture, was a particularly bad example…

“I was trying to concentrate, and I had one of the managers giving me a load of grief. Then a boy called an opposition player “fatty” and used the C-word. It was awful,” she explains.

Emily warned the offender he’d be sent off if she heard such language again. Meanwhile, the other boy was crying, so his manager went over to console him, telling him: “He’s only doing it because he knows you’re better than him – hit him next time!”

It was hardly the advice you'd expect to hear from a grown-up.

The game continued, and so did the abuse, mainly from the same foul-mouthed boy, so Emily told his manager to have a word at the final whistle. The man took the boy to one side and, to Emily’s disbelief, shouted: “You don’t use f****** language like that in my team!”

It transpired he was the boy’s dad.

That’s when Emily made it clear she wouldn’t be refereeing a development game between the two clubs that was due to follow, and walked off, telling the manager not to come back because his team wasn’t welcome.

Given her experience in laying down the law, it’s perhaps not surprising that Emily would have liked to join the police, but her knee injury – a fifth operation is due – means she wouldn’t pass the medical. Instead, she’s working Saturdays at the Guisborough branch of Darlington Building Society while studying criminology at Teesside University, in the hope of becoming a scene of crime investigator.

But whatever career path she takes, she’ll always find time for her refereeing.

“I remember how distressed I was when I was told I shouldn’t play anymore, and refereeing filled the gap. The pleasure I get now is in seeing the joy others get from playing,” she explains.

She's an eloquent, assured young woman, and her plea – on International Referees’ Day – is for a more respect for officials at all levels, and a better understanding of the difficulties they face.

“You see all those men in the crowd at big matches, screaming at the referees. I’d love to see them ref a game, so they can see how hard it is, and what it’s like to be abused.

“Of course, people will always have opinions – that’s part of football – but it’s the ref’s decision that counts.

“When I started, I wasn’t strong enough, but I quickly realised that if I kept cowering to people who thought they were better than me, I’d never progress, so I’ve learned to stand up to the bullies.”

Emily Sidgwick doesn’t find a quiet corner to cry anymore. “I’m more likely to laugh at them these days,” she smiles.