Referee Spotlight: Michelle Watkins
In this month’s Referee Spotlight, in association with REFSIX, we spoke to Level 5 match official, Michelle Watkins.
It has been an all-encompassing journey for Michelle in football having taken on just about every role you can at grassroots level.
Before first qualifying as a referee in 2013, we have to go back even further for Michelle’s first real taste of grassroots football, and it began in a similar way to most volunteers getting into the game.
“Like many referees it began as a football parent, my son was part of a team that needed help, so I became a coach and did my FA Level 1.
“My son, Ciaran, actually became a referee first at the age of 14. I followed him around and watched him and was very impressed.
“When I was growing up I never gave football a second thought to be honest with you. When I used to see my Dad watching football my thoughts would be ‘oh my god how boring!’
“But, when Ciaran’s team Highdown Saints (now Littlehampton Town Youth), needed help I stepped in and everything changed. It was youth football, going into 11-a-side and I just hit the books.
“The club I was with put me through my FA Level 1 which was fantastic. You get to meet all these people with all these experiences.”
For Michelle, it wasn’t long before the football bug has taken a hold of her, and it’s fair to say she hasn’t look back since.
“I’d give structured training to these kids and they wanted to come back and that’s what kept me doing it. I know what it can be like coaching and managing, it can be a thankless job!
“But it’s the look on those kids faces which brings you as a coach back every week. In the end I was not only managing but also became secretary of the club.
“Because of the admin side of things and interacting with leagues and Sussex County FA, I was learning a lot more about football and all the politics of it all!”
Whilst coaching was an early passion for Michelle within football, she was about to discover her niche was going to be in a slightly different role on the football field.
“After managing under-18s I decided I didn’t want to go into adult football. I started lining because in youth football it’s hard to get someone to run the line!
“The best bit about helping out, doing the line, when you’re manager, is that it stopped me from shouting!
“When I got into the laws of it more, it was really interesting to see the referee encouraging the laws of the game, especially in youth football.
“I liked feeling as part of a team, and I started to like the idea of watching the football rather than shouting and being on that side of things, so I decided I wouldn’t go into managing adult football and I thought I’d become a referee instead.
“You always see the referee get the blunt end of everything. I’m no angel! I’ve said things to referees that I didn’t agree with, so I knew what it was going to be like.”
It can be a daunting prospect when starting as a referee, for anyone. Michelle, though, never let this get in her way.
“I refereed for a couple of years at youth level but then decided to go into men’s football. I haven’t gone back to youth because I find adult football more entertaining.
“Going into adult football it’s hard because you know adults are going to be more aggressive than what you might get in youth football, but you just have to have strong shoulders!
“I’m not saying you have to take abuse because of course you shouldn’t, and I certainly don’t. As a referee you have power to discipline and sort these problems out.
“My main worry when I first started was how I was going to deal with abuse. My mentor was Paul Barratt who is a no-nonsense guy, so I learnt from him!
“That’s what a referee has got to do really, be strong. At the end of the day, the referee controls the game and the players, it’s all about management.”
As well as the male game, Michelle has experienced officiating on women’s football, finding it an equally enjoyable experience, and the women’s referee pathway is something she wants to continue.
“Since I first qualified in 2013, I have gone for a promotion twice. I went up to Level 6 and did my women’s pathway at the same time going to Level 4.
“Two years ago, I went for Level 5 in men’s football which I passed so I’m currently a Level 5 in men’s and now Level 3 in women’s football.
“I now want to go for Level 2 in women’s football, but I may have a set back with that if the seasons are voided. But hopefully I can be back on track with that next season!”
It’s always inspiring to speak with people like Michelle who want to better themselves, and ultimately see how far you can take a dream. For her, that dream starts and ends in one place.
“I always want to push myself and the goal for me would be to officiate in The FA Women’s Championship or even The FA Women’s Super League, that would be my ultimate ambition.
“I watch these officials on The FA Player, and I want to be them; I want to be that person holding a flag, I want to be that person holding a whistle. That’s what keeps me going, hoping that I can reach that goal.
“I would also really love to do a Sussex County FA Women’s Cup Final, with other female officials, that is something that I think would be a great goal for the County FA too!
“I’d love to become an ambassador for women & girls’ referees. I’ve been contacted recently by The FA regarding women observers so I’m hoping to get onto that.
Those dreams came a small step closer when Michelle was asked to officiate on The FA Women’s National League which she describes as a “very proud moment”. Her development as a referee, she puts down to a strong support network she has had access to.
“I’ve had so much help; especially from the Sussex County FA. Paul Jeffery is a lovely bloke and he’s always got my back and I really consider him a friend.
“I’ve had many people from Sussex County FA help me along the way, even back when I was doing my coaching, and I was over the moon to be asked to be part of the development group for referees during my promotion season.
“I had the likes of Phil Wilks as my coach, and Steve Hughes as a personal coach, who are two terrific guys and very encouraging.
“I owe a lot to Sussex County FA and my coaches, because they’re the ones that encourage me to want to do more. Of course, things are tough right now with the COVID situation, but it still doesn’t stop me from wanting to move forward.”
It is fascinating to listen to Michelle, as she describes how football, something she didn’t even think would be one of her hobbies when she was younger, has now become her dream to pursue.
“When I started refereeing, I thought I’d just stay at Level 7 and do youth football, but, when I first got asked to do men’s football, I relished the challenge of it.
“I love going to different places, different games, different standards, and I just want to see how far I can take this. I really enjoy it and I know a lot of people don’t. I also know a lot do it for the money and I certainly don’t do it for the money, I do it for my fitness and because I really enjoy doing it!
“I love being challenged on the football field and doing the high-profile games because that for me is where it’s at. It’s a good feeling being tested in that environment.
“I know some people shy away from being challenged and I don’t think you get it as much in youth football. You can only get it from going higher and higher.”
Michelle says she’s been “lucky” not to receive any notable abuse in her time as an official and fortunately for her, the most criticism she receives comes from a little closer to home.
“My son has always been my biggest critic, I’ve had to do some of his adult games and he lets me know what he thinks about my performance afterwards. But I like Ciaran watching me ref, even though it’s quite stressful, especially when he knows the laws of the game as well!
It’s a thought-provoking discussion to have with Michelle about being a referee and whether female officials are more subject to prejudice. Michelle does fall into two minorities within football, but quite rightly, she believes this hasn’t and shouldn’t ever make a difference.
“I thought at first I might get a few comments about me being female, but I haven’t had any at all. I’ve actually found with men’s football that they seem to be more relaxed and behaved around me.
“I actually overheard a lad say, ‘oh we’ve got a female ref today, better be on our best behaviour!’ I’m stood there like ‘why? What difference does it make!?’”
“Me personally, as a female and gay referee, I’ve had no issues about being in that minority but maybe that’s just my game management and the rapport I have with the players.”
February is Football.v.Homophobia (FvH) month and Michelle is keen to support the campaign however she can, having officiated in the past on our annual friendlies with Brighton Lesbian and Gay Sports Society (BLAGSS).
“It’s a really great campaign, I love refereeing the Sussex County FA games against BLAGSS and it is a great way to help promote such an important campaign. I’m really pleased with the support that it gets and being a gay person myself I want to be a part of anything like that.”
The proud and positive moments for Michelle are luckily what she can reel off. Between the multiple promotions she’s achieved and officiating The FA Women’s National League, there are several other accolades she’s very proud of.
“I’ve had some very proud moments. When I was a Level 7 I was asked to do a South East County Women’s Cup Final at Maidstone United. I was very chuffed with that! It was a great final and I got some really good feedback from some senior referees.
“In the 2016/17 season I received Referee of the Year from South East Counties women’s football which of course I was so happy about. I was presented the award by Angela Bennett who was the referee secretary for that league. So, to get a cup final and receive referee of the year, it was a fantastic period of my life.
Michelle is also a user of our official partners, REFSIX, and believes the new technology makes her job a lot easier.
“REFSIX is absolutely fantastic it is so helpful because people can send their team sheets to you and you download it straight to your watch and off you go.
“It’s a brilliant app to have for any referee. It logs everything and keeps names there if you do that team again and it’s just so helpful.
“It’s such a weight off your shoulders. I thought at first, being part of the older generation, that I couldn’t go from a book to a watch but the first time I did it was great, and I’ve never looked back.”
So, what next for Michelle Watkins? Her story can certainly inspire anyone, and to see the drive and ambition in how she speaks suggests there are no limits to what she can achieve, and she has her sights firmly set on the next promotion.
“I have applied for promotion to Women’s Level 2. It’s been going really well; I’ve done about a third of my games and had an observation. But I have a feeling I might not get any more games this season if its scrubbed off due to COVID.
“It’s always nerve-wracking being observed and being watched for a purpose. But as I’ve said before, any comments are good for me and I can learn from them.
“My last observation could’ve been better, but I’ve taken that on the chin, and I aim to improve for the next one whenever that may be...”
Rounding off what has been a great story to tell, Michelle added words of advice for aspiring match officials: “It’s a great experience. It’s very liberating to do and it gives you a lot of confidence. Even if you don’t think you have the confidence you always have people backing you from Sussex County FA onwards, so I say go and do it.”
For more information about refereeing in Sussex please contact:
T: 01903 768573