Grassroots football is the heart and soul of the game. For the hundreds of thousands of participants, it is their opportunity to be involved in a sport they are truly passionate about.

In a new feature series, Kick It Out will speak to figureheads and representatives of the grassroots game as they offer their unique thoughts from the amateur and community level.

This month we speak to Paula Wyatt, Women’s and Girls’ Referee Coordinator at Hampshire FA, on the need to encourage more women’s referees into the game and the work she is doing at the grassroots level.

Born and raised in Hampshire, Paula Wyatt has been part of the county’s football scene for over 15 years becoming a leading figure in the refereeing field.

Her path into officiating came through the passion for the sport she shared with her family.

“I grew up with my dad and brothers who loved football, but there were never any opportunities for me when I was young to play football – so I got involved in supporting my brother's team.

“There were never any referees at the games so me, my dad and my brother went on a course together – which was quite nice but a bit competitive between us! We qualified together when I was 16.

“I never refereed much in my first few years but once the football team we had been a part of folded, I thought what could I do? So I started refereeing and I really enjoyed it. The opportunities it has given me and the progression I have made has been amazing; some of the things that I have been able to do I wouldn’t have done without football.”

Paula has been refereeing adult football for eight years, with her remarkable journey starting at grassroots football that eventually lead to becoming an official in the Women’s Champions League.

“Initially it was just about being involved but as I grew my experience in the game it became more about the enjoyment of refereeing. The opportunities that were provided just made me want more and more.

“There weren’t many women around when I started, but we’re doing well to recruit more women officials now.”

Paula’s role with her home county FA sees her looking to extend the opportunities she has had to more women within the county.

“I sit on the referee’s development team at Hampshire FA as the women’s and girls’ coordinator. That role means I look after the women referees coming through as well as help recruit officials. It’s a massive challenge.

“We don’t have many women officials at the moment and the ones we do have are quite young and generally interested in playing football, so it’s about trying to convert that interest into refereeing.

“We ran a referees’ development day in February and that’s normally open to young referees between the ages of 14-25, but this time we opened it up to all women across the county and we had a decent turn out.

“We’ve actually had a few apply to go on a referee’s course. Hopefully by giving women a taster of refereeing they actually commit to becoming an official.”

Paula is hoping to offer less experienced referees with guidance and support through her work with Hampshire FA, and she is aware of some of the difficulties that women officials may face along the way.

“It was definitely harder (as a woman) because I was not the norm. You would turn up and they would say ‘oh, are you the physio?’ or the team secretary and I would have to say ‘no, actually I am the referee’.

“As we’re getting more women involved in the game, there are less assumptions being made but you still get the occasional one. Sometimes you get comments with people thinking they are being clever around their mates; I think it comes down to people not being used to a woman officiating and thereby not thinking women are referees.

“Some people, where they have been around in the game for so long, are stuck with those assumptions and thinking that it is not the norm. I believe it’s more important to educate the people coming into the game rather than the people that have been there for years because sometimes it’s hard to change those views.

“From a personal perspective, I have come through the game and I have always wanted to be treated as a referee first, rather than a woman referee.”

In part two, Paula discusses her role in promoting women referees within Hampshire.