It’s the dream of every player and referee to step out on to the hallowed turf of Wembley. AASMA DAY talks to Natalie Aspinall who will see her dreams become reality this Saturday when she is assistant referee at the Women’s FA Cup Final. She talks about life juggling being a football referee, mum and lecturer.
Like most teenage girls, Natalie Walker longed for a bit of extra pocket money to splurge on clothes or going out with friends.
Around the age of 14, Natalie’s friends began taking up paper rounds to earn some money, but Natalie was averse to the idea of getting up so early in the morning.
When she realised she could earn the same money as a paper round by refereeing for an hour on a Sunday morning, she jumped at the chance and admits she entered the profession purely for mercenary reasons.
Little did she know refereeing would have her hooked and become a natural part of her life.
Laughing, Natalie, 33, who lives in Blackpool and is now Natalie Aspinall and married to Richard, “About the age of 14, all my friends were doing paper rounds to earn a bit of extra money.
“They were getting up at silly times of the morning to earn a few quid.
“I’m not a morning person and didn’t fancy that at all, although I liked the idea of a bit of extra money.
“My dad William Walker was a referee in Blackpool and the North West. He did it for 25 years but has now retired.
“My dad told me I could referee for an hour on a Sunday morning and earn the same as a paper round.
“I remember I earned £12 for refereeing at that time.
“Being a 14-year-old girl, I spent the money I earned from refereeing on clothes, going out with my friends and little luxuries.”
Natalie, who has a younger brother and sister, grew up being heavily involved in sports from a young age and was always very sporty at school.
She explains: “We did dancing, swimming, athletics – everything. I did athletics, 100m, 200m, netball and badminton. Me and my brother and sister were out every night at different sports clubs and we loved it.
“However, when I was growing up, girls didn’t really play football. I remember playing a little bit of football at high school, but it was nothing like it is now.
“When I began refereeing, I knew nothing about football.”
Jokingly, Natalie adds: “Some people might say I still don’t!”
To get into refereeing, Natalie did a course at Blackpool Referee Society where she was taught the laws of the game.
She then started refereeing children’s football games in the local leagues and did under 12s and under 10s matches.
Natalie admits she did encounter some resistance within clubs and leagues from people who didn’t want her to be a referee simply because she was a woman.
She says: “There were no other female referees in Blackpool or maybe even in the county at that time.
“It was just so different 20 years ago to see a female referee.
“Some people found it hard to accept because it was something different to what they were used to.
“But having opposition just made me even more determined and gave me the drive to carry on.
“Nowadays, people are a lot more aware of female football referees.
“There are more of us and it is more acceptable.
“There are around 1,000 registered female football referees in England now. But it is still a tiny percentage compared to men.”
Even today, Natalie confesses she still gets the odd remark about her being a woman referee when the results don’t go the way people want them to.
However, she simply shrugs them off and has learned not to take it personally.
She explains: “When you’re a referee – male or female – you can’t please all the people all of the time. All I can do is go out and do the job to the best of my abilities.
“If the onlookers are not happy about a decision you have made, they will find whatever is different about you and fixate on that.
“This is when the comments are directed towards you being a woman.
“But you have to remember not to take it personally and have to develop a thick skin.
“You are there as a referee and what people say to you on the football pitch isn’t personal and is hopefully not what they would say to you on the street.
“Originally, I did refereeing for the money. But then I really enjoyed it and wanted to prove people wrong and show them there was a place for women in refereeing.”
Natalie began watching and reading about football to learn more for her refereeing and it resulted in her becoming a football fan.
She says: “As my career has progressed, my understanding and knowledge of football has increased.
“When you’re a referee, it is difficult to support a team.
“I just follow football. I’m not a diehard fan of any club.”
Around the age of 16, Natalie progressed to being an assistant referee on the local men’s league the West Lancashire League.
The former Highfield High School pupil naturally progressed in the refereeing world and found the referee society very supportive.
She then became a referee in the West Lancashire league.
Natalie recalls: “To be a referee in open age football was quite daunting at first.
“It was a big step up but my dad came to watch my games and supported me.
“It was a case of learning how to referee at that level.
“I did have difficult times when I experienced doubts.
“Like players, you don’t always have a good game. You have good and bad experiences and have to try and remember the better ones.
“You’re only human and make mistakes like anyone else.
“Every referee has doubts at some point.
“With encouragement and support from friends, I carried on refereeing.
“I am thankful I did because of how my refereeing career has gone.”
In 2007, Natalie was nominated by the FA as an assistant referee for FIFA.
To referee, Natalie has to be in physical peak and to be involved in men’s refereeing, she has the reach the men’s fitness requirements.
As well as doing fitness tests, sprint tests and high intensity interval tests, she gets training plans sent to her by FIFA and has to wear a heart rate monitor and send the data to FIFA.
Refereeing has led to Natalie visiting many different places around the world including Canada, Japan, Chile, Iceland, Portugal, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Doha.
Natalie has been involved in four under 20s World Cups, two women’s World Cups - the recent one in Canada and Germany four years ago - as well as Champions League games and the Euros in 2009.
Natalie is a Level 3 referee – which means she referees Evostik League matches as well as an assistant referee on the National League, the new name for the Conference.
Natalie, who works as a sports lecturer at Preston’s College, says: “Refereeing is a hobby, but it is like having two jobs!
“The college are really supportive of my refereeing and give me time off when I need it.”
Natalie did sports studies at Edge Hill University where she met husband Richard who was studying the same course, but was the year above her.
Natalie says: “Richard is sporty as well and has always supported my refereeing.
“He actually started refereeing himself about five years ago.”
The couple decided they wanted to start a family, but didn’t want to wait until Natalie’s refereeing career was over. Natalie explains: “You get taken off the FIFA list at the age of 45.
“We decided to have a baby in between the two World Cups so I would have the chance to train and get selected for Canada.
“We were very fortunate it worked out as planned.”
Natalie had her daughter Emilia, now 18-months-old, in January 2014 and instantly fell in love with her.
Natalie says: “Your life changes after having a baby as your priorities change.
“It is about finding ways to adapt and still do the things you want to do.
“I feel it is important to have your own thing as well as being a mum. For me, that ‘thing’ is refereeing.
“I have always been very driven and focused so knew I would make it work.”
During her pregnancy, Natalie trained to keep her fitness levels up and did a lot of swimming.
Natalie knew she wanted to get to the World Cup and one of the selection criteria was to go to an under 20s World Cup in 2014.
So her aim after having Emilia was to get chosen for the Under 20s in Canada.
Natalie says: “I followed a training plan to get back into running and gradually built up.
“I used to push the pram with Emilia in it along the promenade to do my running and build back my fitness.
“Three months after having Emilia, I was selected for the Under 20s World Cup in Canada.
“I did some games to get back into refereeing before the tournament last August and by the September, I was back to football refereeing.”
Natalie’s life is very full as she juggles refereeing with being a lecturer, training and being a mum.
She can be appointed to a game on a Tuesday evening, a Saturday and to a women’s football match on a Sunday.
But Natalie says she wouldn’t change it for the world and refereeing is now part of her life.
She explains: “I get to experience different countries and cultures and have made some great friends all around the world.
“When I’m refereeing, I am representing the country and that makes me proud.
“Refereeing is part of my life and just what I do. I have done it for so long, it is normal for me.
“If I didn’t referee, I would be lost and need something to replace it.”
This Saturday, on August 1, Natalie will be assistant referee at Wembley at the Women’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea Ladies and Notts County Ladies FC.
Natalie is extremely excited at the prospect of refereeing at Wembley and her family will be going to watch and support her.
Natalie, who was assistant referee at the Cup Final in 2004 and referee in 2012 says: “I can’t wait as it is every player and referee’s dream to step out at Wembley.
“To have the opportunity to be involved in our top women’s competition at Wembley is fantastic.
“I am very lucky to have had a great refereeing career.
“I’m proud of what I have achieved and hope I can inspire other girls and women to go into refereeing and sports and show them there is a place for women in football.”
Gazing adoringly at Emilia, Natalie adds: “Hopefully, my daughter will be proud of me.
“Emilia is brilliant. She is my little buddy and her personality is really developing.
“She is funny, cheeky and giggly.
“I go swimming with her regularly and she loves kicking a football about.
“Who knows, I may have a little footballer on my hands!”