LEADING female referee Lucy Oliver feels the number of women involved in refereeing will continue to grow if they are educated about the opportunities available to them.
The 26-year-old also believes that raising awareness of the roles within football as a whole and giving people a chance to take part is the best way forward.
Although women still represent only five per cent of 27,000 referees, female officials are on the rise.
Lucy, who has been refereeing for 12 years, helped run the FA fan zones at girls’ football festivals last year and their success led to more youngsters declaring an interest in taking up the whistle.
“I’ve seen people put their children on courses and say ‘you should do this’ and that referee stays as a referee for one season and then drops out,” she said.
“In the fan zones, girls come to us, get given red and yellow cards and pink whistles, run around and then parents approach the county FAs saying ‘my daughter really enjoyed that’ or ‘my son really enjoyed that, is there an opportunity for a course’.
“They have been unreal, the numbers that took up refereeing after that were really positive with courses put on as a direct result of those fan zones. They are being run again this year.
“It’s things like that for me – it’s about educating there are opportunities out there. You can’t force people to take the opportunities, they have to want to, but it’s going really well.”
Lucy is currently a Level 3 referee – one away from becoming a Football League assistant referee – but when she’s not in the middle herself, she is mentoring other aspiring officials as an FA Tutor since 2007.
And the Newcastle-based whistler relishes seeing other referees progress who she has offered advice and guidance to.
“It’s actually created competition for me,” she admitted. “Some people that I have done referees courses for seven or eight years ago are now the same level as me.
“Some might see that as negative competition but I think it’s brilliant. There’s a guy down in Surrey whose course I delivered and I love following him, I love seeing that he’s now a level 3 too and he’s working on the Conference South and Ryman Premier.
“There’s nothing greater than watching people succeed in something you are passionate about as well because you want them to do well.
“People do drop out but refereeing is a bit like Marmite – it’s for you or it’s not for you, there’s no in between. I love seeing people do really well and it’s great to see referees coming through.”
Retaining referees at grassroots level has often proved difficult in years gone by, with officials dropping out amid abuse and harassment.
Lucy works as an ambassador to run a support network called Pink Whistle, which has created magazines to celebrate the successes of women as a minority group within the game.
She is a firm believer that having such a support structure in place to boost the morale of officials can never be understated.
“If you think of a player, you’ve got your teammates. If you think of a coach, you’ve got your players but in refereeing, sometimes you’re at a game on your own,” she said.
“Most county FAs have mentor and coaching schemes and the FA have recently released a new scheme called the Centre of Refereeing Excellences within county FAs and nationally.
“The three coaches I’ve had along the way have been instrumental in keeping me in refereeing. Sometimes you just want to ask a question or I’ll lean on my friends and colleagues after a game.
“It’s really important but it’s a social element – you are part of one refereeing team, but you’re just no all at the same place at the same time on the same day.”
Lucy, who is married to Premier League referee Michael Oliver, comes from a football family and first took up the whistle in 2004 just after her 14th birthday.
“I got involved through my dad who used to run a football team for my brother called Solent United down in Portsmouth,” she explained.
“I went down every Sunday with him and one day they were short of an assistant referee, he asked me if I would run the line and I just so happened that the person refereeing, his dad was one of the FA Tutors, saw me and asked if I wanted to take part in the course.
“I started the course the following Thursday, there wasn’t really any thinking time and there’s been a slope into it ever since. I’ve never looked back.”
Since then, Lucy has enjoyed some memorable experiences, not least representing the FA in Japan and Botswana – something which makes her appreciate the state of the game in England.
She said: “I was really fortunate to have Ian Thompson as my mentor, then Football League referee Andy Davies and most recently at Level 3 with Russell Tiffin who is a Football League assessor.
“I see what they give me and I want to make sure I can give back too because they inspire and motivated me to go up the levels.
“When I refereed in Japan it was amazing. Delivering refereeing education in Botswana, it was a real eye opener.
“We take for granted and sometimes moan about the state of local grassroots facilities but delivering a session on refereeing when you’ve got goats walking across the pitch because there is a shared use of the pitch, it’s madness.”
Like in 2011, Lucy will be the fourth official for this year’s Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley and, although she could not pick one career highlight, being awarded her Three Lions badge at the showpiece five years ago was one moment that stands out.
She added: “I get paid to do something I love and it enables me to see some amazing stadiums, visit some countries I never would have, gives me a motivation to keep fit and healthy and I don’t think I can pinpoint one thing.
“My proudest moment was being awarded my Three Lions badge at the Women’s FA Cup Final in 2011 because, apart from a Fifa badge, it’s the biggest national accolade.
“Knowing I’ve got the Three Lions on my chest is probably the same feeling some people get when they represent their country. For me that was a very special moment.”
Lucy has ambitions to one day reach the Football League and Women’s Fifa list but at the moment she is looking to end the campaign strongly and recharge her batteries ahead of next season.
“Everyone’s got dreams and I’ll always work hard and if those dreams become a reality then, you know, you’ll find me somewhere on cloud nine but I can only do my best,” she added.
“It’s one step at a time for me at the moment and I want to focus on finishing this season on a high and take a few weeks out to rest and get over the backlog of games that are ruining my calves at the moment.
“Then it’s fitness testing time again come June so, you know, take a few weeks out, recover, fitness tests and then it’s ready to go again.
“It’s just about making sure that when that first game happens in the first weekend in August this year I’m ready and raring to go.”
Although she doesn’t see herself as a role model, Lucy continues to work tirelessly to set a shining example for young officials and hopes that more women can follow in her footsteps.