Patsy Andrews wants to make one thing clear: she qualified as a referee before her football-loving son did. Sixteen years ago she was picking up her child from a football training session when she received her calling to take up the whistle.
“The manager asked if any parents wanted to take up refereeing,” says Andrews, “so I put my hand up and said, ‘I’ll do it!’ He turned around and said, ‘I wasn’t speaking to you. I was talking to the dads.’ I smiled and laughed along with everyone else because that was the norm at the time. Women didn’t go into refereeing.”
The next morning, Andrews rang up the Football Association and booked herself on to a refereeing course. She was a single mother of two at the time, but didn’t think twice about paying the £60 it cost. “I didn’t want freebies,” she smiles at the memory over video call, “I taught my kids to believe that they can achieve anything they want to do.”
Within weeks, Andrews qualified and began officiating grass-roots matches in her home city of Leicester, around the same time Uriah Rennie, the Premier League’s last black referee, was approaching the end of his career in 2008.
The sight of a black woman running up and down a football pitch on a frosty morning was accompanied by a wave of whispers and glances from parents on the sidelines. “There were no mega footballers or referees that I can say I aspired to,” admits Andrews, whose career highlights have included taking charge at the Special Olympics and the USA Cup in Minnesota, the largest youth football tournament in the world. In doing so, she paved the way for her son.
Akil Howson dreamed of becoming a professional footballer, but a knee injury in his teenage years hampered his chances. Distraught at how his lifelong ambition was ebbing away, he would have left the game had it not been for his mother, who pushed him down a different path. “There was one Thursday when my mum picked me up from football training, and she just said, ‘I’ve booked you on a refereeing course, you’re going to do it.” the 29-year-old says.
“My reaction was, ‘No I’m not.’ It was the best thing ever really because I was never going to make it as a professional footballer.”
Following in his mother’s footsteps, Howson was just 14 when he qualified, but found taking charge of grass-roots matches “soul-destroying” compared to the experiences of his peers, many of whom went on to break into professional sides. He distinctly remembers the time he refereed a community game, aged 17.
“I turned up with dirty boots,” he recalls. “I wasn’t really interested, I still wanted to go out and live the life of a 17 or 18-year-old. I remember there was this one guy who, instead of telling me off, went straight to the car and found my mum, and told her everything he needed her to know, knowing it would get through to me, because my mum is my everything. It was a massive wake-up call.”
Howson has now risen through the ranks to become an assistant referee in the Championship, a feat made all the more remarkable given how he was once the only black official in the men’s second tier. The journey towards the top can be a lengthy process – the average pay at semi-professional level can be as little as £30 a game – but for Howson, officiating is now a full-time profession. Andrews, meanwhile, has carved out her own niche in the community game, where she has fond memories of officiating in a local cup final alongside Howson and her nephew. “I remember it so well,” she says. “They said to us, ‘We’ve never had a black female referee, let alone three referees from the same family.’ It was as if the organisers really valued us as a black family and wanted to acknowledge the fact they’d never seen this in all their years in the game.”
As a rare black figurehead in local football circles, Andrews is unapologetically confronting a male-centric system, aged 52. Having been told repeatedly to change in disabled lavatories, she now refuses to officiate at tournaments or fixtures which do not provide female changing. “Women referees are out there now, but the black aspect is still not quite there yet,” she says. “I don’t look like the typical referee. When you do see the younger black females – and this is just my observation – they’re all in tracksuits, but I’ll walk into referee sessions with my work dress on. People still expect female refs to act like the male refs.”
In a testament to the respect she commands, Andrews cuts a maternal figure on the pitch where she often goes by the name “mummy” or “aunty” among younger players. There is a certain irony in how, on the rare occasions she officiates alongside her son, it is her own son who is forced to view her through a different lens.
“We did a friendly match together once, I was running the line,” recalls Andrews. “He was just about to introduce me to the captains and he stuttered, and he really didn’t know what to say.
“Afterwards I asked him why he couldn’t introduce me, and he said, ‘Mum, you’re my mum, how can I turn round to those players and say, this is my mum?’ That was when it hit me. When we’re in this world, I have to give him permission to call me Patsy, and I didn’t realise how much him calling me ‘mum’ could embarrass him.”
This symbiotic mother-son relationship has been the focal point of their refereeing journeys. There have been numerous times when she has been on the phone to Howson in tears, vowing to never officiate again, “because players can’t stand a woman telling you what to do”.
As someone who officiates in televised matches, Howson’s high-pressured role has helped his mother retain a sense of perspective. It is little wonder Andrews regards him as her “main mentor”.
“I’ll lay my flags down and tell him I’ll never go out there again because in their eyes I shouldn’t be there,” she says. “But Akil has always said, ‘Mum, is anyone perfect?’ No one is perfect. And I go back out there.”