It’s a bright autumnal Sunday morning, all the talk is about the latest VAR controversy in last night’s Match of the Day and 18-year-old Emily Sidgwick is giving up her time to officiate another junior football game.
The U9 boys game between Skelton and Billingham is proving to be one of their easier games. The players are respectful, the managers are encouraging and the parents are well behaved.
But that’s not always the case. In the three years she’s been involved with Friends, Emily has seen it all. There were times when mistreatment from bosses and parents brought her to tears. She’s gotten used to little boys giggling because the referee is a girl. And she walked away in protest against the swear words that children still use in elementary school.
Even at the junior level, curses and insults – reflection and glare – are a problem that match officials face all too often.
And yet every Sunday, whatever the weather, Emily is back on the field doing her best to make the right decisions – without the benefit of technology.
“The majority of people are nice – the minority lose control,” she says. “There are parents who believe their child is Ronaldo and go crazy when a decision goes against them. I’ve been asked all sorts of things and sometimes you wonder why you bother.”
So why? “I just love the game and want to be part of it,” she replies.
Football has been part of her life for as long as she can remember. Her father Damian, a part-time PE teacher, was a co-founder of Skelton United Football Club. Mother Lisa, area manager of Darlington Building Society, acts as the club’s secretary.
The couple, who met amidst the discipline of the Royal Navy, are passionate about the benefits of grassroots sport and Emily and her brother Oliver were regulars at Skelton FC’s Soccer Tots from the moment they were old enough to walk around.
“Dad also took us to Boro games, so football was just part of family life,” says Emily.
She briefly tried gymnastics but “wasn’t flexible enough”, so she quickly returned to football and played midfielder for Skelton’s junior teams until a chronic knee injury ended her playing career prematurely.
“When the doctors said I should stop playing, I cried in my room for a long time, but my mother and father made me think about what else I could do,” she says.
She found the answer in allowing others to play the game. She coached Skelton’s Wildcats junior team, but her main goal was to become a referee. She attended a four-day course in Acklam – the only girl in a group of 50 – and qualified at 15.
“I will never forget the first game I refereed,” she remembers. “North Ormesby v Seaton Carew under 10s – it was absolutely terrible.”
Despite Emily wearing a yellow armband to show she was under 18 and gathering the players before kick-off to let them know it was her first game, abuse still ensued. For their first games, new referees have a mentor from the Teesside Junior Football Alliance and Emily told him afterwards: “I can’t do that.”
“I was followed from start to finish and for someone who is nervous that can be really damaging. I could have easily given up right then and there.”
Another pep talk from her parents convinced her not to give up. An opportunity arose to referee junior games at her home pitch in Skelton and she has since officiated hundreds of junior games where the smaller pitches are easier on her knees.
Her confidence has grown and she has a much thicker skin, although dealing with abuse and harassment remains part of the refereeing experience. One of their last games, a U7 game, was a particularly bad example…
“I was trying to concentrate and one of the managers gave me a lot of grief. Then a boy called an opposing player “fat” and used the C-word. “It was terrible,” she explains.
Emily warned the perpetrator that if she heard such language again he would be sent off. Meanwhile, the other boy was crying, so his manager went to comfort him and told him, “He’s only doing it because he knows you’re better than him – hit him next time!”
It was hardly the advice one would expect from an adult.
The game continued and the abuse continued, mostly from the same foul-mouthed boy, so Emily urged his manager to say one more word at the final whistle. The man took the boy aside and shouted, to Emily’s disbelief, “You don’t use that kind of damn language on my team!”
It turned out that he was the boy’s father.
That’s when Emily made it clear she wouldn’t be in charge of the following development game between the two clubs, walked away and told the manager not to come back because his team wasn’t welcome.
Given her experience in enforcing the law, it is perhaps unsurprising that Emily would have liked to go to the police, but her knee injury – a fifth operation pending – means she would not pass the medical exam. Instead, she works Saturdays at the Darlington Building Society’s Guisborough branch while studying criminology at Teesside University in the hope of becoming a crime scene investigator.
But whatever career path she takes, she will always find time for her refereeing.
“I remember how desperate I was when I was told not to play anymore and the referee filled the void. The joy I get now is seeing the joy others have while playing,” she explains.
She is an eloquent, confident young woman and on International Referee Day she is calling for greater respect for officials at all levels and a better understanding of the difficulties they face.
“At big games you see all these men in the crowd shouting at the referees. I would like to see them referee a game so they can see how hard it is and what it’s like to be mistreated.
“Of course people will always have an opinion – that’s part of football – but it’s the referee’s decision that counts.”
“When I started, I wasn’t strong enough, but I quickly realized that if I continued to duck people who thought they were better than me, I would never get anywhere. That’s why I learned to stand up to the bullies.”
Emily Sidgwick can no longer find a quiet corner to cry in. “I tend to laugh at them these days,” she smiles.