Yellow cards, VAR and no controversy: Rebecca Welch makes history as first female Premier League referee

Rebecca Welch talks to Fulham’s Bobby De Cordova-Reid during her historic debut at Craven Cottage. Photograph: George Beck/PPAUK/Shutterstock
There were some boos and half-hearted chants, but she maintained quiet and calm authority when she took charge in Fulham v Burnley

It’s said that the mark of a good performance for a football referee is not being noticed. That was always going to be a tall order for Rebecca Welch, who on Saturday became the first woman to referee a Premier League match in Fulham’s 2-0 home defeat by Burnley.

Amid the glare of history and the adrenaline fug of 22 rule-bending millionaires, it was like asking a white hen to maintain a low profile in a fox’s den. As gender milestones go, it wasn’t quite up there with, say, Valentina Tereshkova being the first woman in space, but it was certainly a maiden voyage into a potentially hostile environment.

Perhaps some pressure was eased by Mary Earps, the England women’s football team’s goalkeeper winning the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award last week. That moment suggested that, in the nation’s eyes, football is no longer just a “man’s game”.

Rebecca Welch was in no mood for nonsense from grown men falling over. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Action Images/Reuters

Then again, given the reaction in some quarters to Earps’s victory, the weight on Welch’s shoulders may have increased. Representing the Tyrannosaurus school of punditry, the former player, manager and England international for a mere 17 minutes, Joey Barton, dismissed Earps’s award as “more fucking nonsense”.

But Welch was in no mood for any nonsense herself. Inside the first 10 minutes she turned down two major appeals for fouls, giving the strong impression that she wasn’t going to stand for grown men falling over. Maybe she was looking for more of a woman’s game.

After 25 minutes she received her first boos and some half-hearted chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” when she booked Fulham’s Calvin Bassey for a foul on Josh Brownhill. It felt like she had arrived, the initiation rite of her first Premier League yellow card.

Harsh? Fair? Whichever, it proved early on that she wasn’t a “homer”, one of those referees whose decisions lean towards the local support. And nor was she that other unloved type in black, an attention-seeking whistleblower.

The most disputed moment of the first half came in injury time when Welch turned down a Fulham penalty appeal for handball. VAR supported her decision, but, as they say, I’ve seen them given.