The Daily Telegraph
Aug 20, 1994 First woman ‘assistant referee’ in a men’s match
Wendy Toms’s childhood football ambitions were much like yours and mine.
Playing was the thing; no dreams of black attire, cards, whistles and flags. And, as a girl in Dorset in the 1960s and 1970s, she was good enough as a goalkeeper to represent England in a youth five-a-side tournament before progressing via Bournemouth Ladies, while working as a grill chef at the Golden Egg and Spoon in Boscombe, to Southampton Ladies.
Once her RAF husband was posted to Cyprus in the early Eighties, however, there were no opportunities to play and, missing football, she enrolled on a referees’ course. It engrossed her immediately. “I loved the challenge and the need to be fast-thinking on my feet,” she told The Times in 1991, the year she made history. “When you have had to get a wall of Scots Guards back 10 yards, it prepares you for anything.”
Rather than returning to her goalie gloves when she came home, Toms persevered with officiating, advancing through Sunday pub leagues to the Dorset League, on to the Wessex League and then the Western League, combining weekends refereeing in the junior league fixtures while running the line in the senior league matches as she climbed the ladder.
It was Cliff Ashton of the Western League who put Toms’s name forward to the Football League in 1991 as an official with the potential to prosper. Back then, appointments as a fourth official were used to provide capable prospects with matchday experience. “She works hard, understands the game, mixes well and is respected by everyone,” said Ashton. On Tuesday, March 12 1991, for Bournemouth v Reading at Dean Court, up the road from her Poole home, at the age of 28, she became the first woman to be an official participant in a Football League fixture, as the reserve official.
Although she had teased the press about engineering an enhanced role in the game – “the reserve official has to make the half-time tea, so the referee and linesmen might collapse in the second half ” – the night ran smoothly and her duties were strictly limited. Her development continued with further steps up the pyramid over the next three years, fitting matches around shifts for Parcelforce. In the summer of 1994, after graduating through the Conference, Toms was appointed to the Football League list, sparking a sniggering and tedious preoccupation with classification. Was she a “lineswoman” or a “linesperson”? When the Football Association changed its designation to “assistant referee” it was to many, inevitably, a case of Toms’s fault and “political correctness” rather than simple accuracy and good manners.
On Aug 20, 1994, she ran the line at Plainmoor for the Third Division match between Torquay and Carlisle, the first woman to do so in 106 years of professional men’s league football. A few members of the crowd greeted her with what were rather indulgently described as “saucy” and “Rabelaisian” comments but she took no notice. The News of the World sent a reporter to catalogue her errors but he left with nothing to titillate the readers’ chauvinism and not even a quote when Toms gave him the post-match swerve.
The sexism did not stop, not when she moved up to the Premier
League in 1997 or even when she retired. Before she had even made her top-flight debut, one red top, feeding an enduring obsession with where she changed, wrote: “The FA wrote to every Premiership club telling them to provide a separate dressing room just for her!”
For some it was not enough to question her judgment and calls. Certain managers responded like hack stand-ups ranting about a world where political correctness had gone mad.
In 1999, Coventry’s Gordon Strachan, irked by her performance during a 4-3 defeat by Leeds, said: “We are getting PC decisions about promoting ladies. It doesn’t matter if it is women, men or Alsatian dogs running the line, that was a terrible display. My message is don’t be politically correct and promote people just for the sake of it.”
Six months later, when she was given the honour of the League Cup final at Wembley between Leicester and Tranmere, Manchester City’s Joe Royle weighed in with the usual disclaimer: “I’m not sexist but I don’t approve,” he said. “How can they make accurate decisions if they’ve never been tackled from behind by a 14-stone centre-half or elbowed in the ribs.”
Not much had changed among the old school by 2011 when Toms’s distinguished career as a Premier League assistant, Conference and Fifa women’s referee was over. Richard Keys and Andy Gray, in one of their diatribes that forced them into lucrative exile, dragged her name up with sneering condescension, calling her “f------ hopeless” to expound on their disdain for Sian Massey, Karren Brady and other women in the men’s game.
But let’s not leave the last word to them. Back in 1991 before her Football League debut, Toms spoke of her ambition in words that could double as an inspiration for all: “Breaking through this barrier has been the greatest achievement of my life. I’ve dreamed about it and couldn’t ask for anything better. I think I can go a long way. Try and stop me – the sky’s the limit.”