Female Devon football referee reveals her fight to get to the top

PUBLISHED: 12:15 26 June 2020 | UPDATED: 09:52 07 July 2020

Julie Knight is the only female football referee in the Devon and Exeter Men’s League. Photo: Steve Haywood

Julie Knight is the only female football referee in the Devon and Exeter Men’s League. Photo: Steve Haywood

Steve Haywood

Julie Knight is the only female football referee in the Devon and Exeter Men’s League

Julie Knight shows a gritty determinaiton in all aspects of her life, on and off the football field. Picture: Steve HaywoodJulie Knight shows a gritty determinaiton in all aspects of her life, on and off the football field. Picture: Steve Haywood

Julie Knight is one of the most competitive and determined people I know. She’s always been sporty, which she puts down to having a father who was a PTI in the Army. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until she was 29 that she decided to start playing squash…seriously.

She explains: “The kids were six and eight and I wanted to do something for me. So I did and I liked it so much I thought I’d like to teach it.”

In 1989 she became a squash coach and six years later was Cornwall County Champion followed by Devon County Champion, a success she repeated some 15 years later at the age of 51. She was the Triple Counties Ladies Doubles Squash Champion with her daughter Laura, the first mother and daughter to win the title, which they held for three years running.

Having achieved so much with squash I wondered why on earth she wanted to become a football referee?

“After watching my son play for years,” she explains, “I said ‘I could do that’, and he said, ‘So why don’t you then?’ Me being me always up for a challenge I did and in 2012 I qualified.”

Julie has a great attitude and sense of humour, which she’s certainly needed in the past. Apparently when she started it was nothing unusual to arrive at a football pitch, get out of the car, see the men’s faces drop and hear mutterings of “Oh my God it’s a woman referee.”

“Before I’d even blown a whistle,” she laughs. “I remember arriving at Clyst Rovers, which no longer exists, and the secretary said loud enough for me to hear, ‘What does she know about football?’

“When Clyst lost 7-0 to Falmouth I left the pitch and politely said to the flat-capped gentleman, ‘Good job I didn’t know much about football isn’t it, because your team certainly didn’t play any today!’’

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She’s at pains to point out that attitudes have changed, as many of the younger managers are the ones she used to ref ten to 15 years ago when she started, so they know her ability.

Sadly, she’s also experienced this chauvinistic attitude on the squash court, particularly when she was the only female player in a men’s squash team.

“I can remember playing a marine who was enormous and he said in my earshot, ‘There’s two places a woman should be and one of them’s in the kitchen’.

“I turned round to him and said I’m number one for this men’s team because I’m the best player in the team so give me the respect I’m going to give you when we walk on the court. The first game I beat him 9-0. It was a good match. I won 3-1, 3-2.”

Nothing stops Julie when she puts her mind to it. Not even ovarian cancer. When she was diagnosed in 2005 she was back running and circuit training three weeks after two major surgeries and six months of chemotherapy.

Over the years she has helped to raise thousands of pounds for cancer charities and I’ve only had to mention that I have been asked to take part in a fundraiser of any kind and she’s been there ‘warming up’ the assembled crowds for pink ribbon walks around Powderham, West Point and Exmouth.

I have also trained with her and know only too well that the velvet glove covers an iron fist. Boy does she know how to ‘beast’ a body…but to be fair only when she knows you can take it. Many of us have felt the benefit of her classes, like Mike Quinn who became extremely weak after a liver transplant three years ago. With Julie’s help he now trains twice a week and leads an extremely active life.

I daren’t mention slowing down to Julie, as before I know it she’ll have me doing ten press-ups, a dozen sit-ups and half a dozen of the dreaded burpies!

And she celebrated her 60th birthday this July. No need to wonder if she could blow those candles out with one breath!

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