Euros goal for FIFA ref Louise Thompson

Thompson and her team of assistants before  the 2019 Womens Cup final between Glentoran and Linfield at the National StadiumThompson and her team of assistants before  the 2019 Womens Cup final between Glentoran and Linfield at the National Stadium
Thompson and her team of assistants before the 2019 Womens Cup final between Glentoran and Linfield at the National Stadium
Louise Thompson’s rise through the ranks of refereeing in Northern Ireland has been rapid.

Less than three years ago, the Maguiresbridge woman was playing for Fermanagh Mallards, getting to third place in the Women’s Premiership before a serious knee injury ended her career.

Now 31-year-old Thompson is the IFA’s first-ever female FIFA referee having been selected for the 2020 FIFA list.

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The modest whistleblower is no stranger to creating history, at the start of the year she led an all female team to officiate at the Irish Cup fifth round tie between Newry City and Bangor - the first time in the blue riband competition’s 139-year history.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant Louise has already missed out on her first FIFA appointment, however, she remains focused on her fitness and remains hopeful that she will get further FIFA appointments once the sport returns to normal. A recruitment drive for female referees by the IFA caught Thompson’s eye, setting her on her current journey.

“I started refereeing about two and a half years ago,” explained Louise. “I had played football for 14 years playing at Premiership and Championship level, winning Cup and league titles when a knee ligament injury meant I had to give it up.

“I had done my coaching badges when I took the opportunity to do a free introductory female referee’s course in Fermanagh and I have been fully enjoying the experience ever since.

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“When it came to the fitness tests I already had a good level of fitness from playing and I had a knowledge of the laws of the game but yet there was still so much to learn.

“My first game was a youth game and there’s no doubt I found it nerve wracking. I had been so used to going out with the rest of my team and all of a sudden there I was in the dressing room and in the middle of the pitch on my own.

“I loved it though and I went on to have a lot of great opportunities with the Fermanagh and Western Referee Association, NIBFA league, IFA and NIWFA.”

Thompson, who competes in showjumping when she isn’t refereeing, was so determined to succeed she reduced her hours at work to enable her to dedicate more of her time.

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“Once I start something I am committed to it and give it 100%,” said Louise. “When I began refereeing I was determined to be the best I could be. I work in retail and because I couldn’t get Saturday’s off to referee, I reduced my hours and opted to go part time so I was always available for games.

Football remains very much a man’s world, yet Louise has no difficulty in taking charge whether it is in a men or women’s game.

“In day to day life I wouldn’t say I am a strong personality but during a game you have to be - especially in the men’s games,” she added. “If you are going out there to try and control 22 men on the pitch and maybe another 15 on the sidelines you will have a long day ahead of you if you aren’t strong and don’t have control.

“As a referee I think I have empathy for the players, because as a former player you know what they are going through. I also like to be fair and consistent.

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“The key is to stay calm and not get stressed by a situation - you need to stay mentally sharp at all times. The minute you start to rise to a game then that’s when you lose control.

“You also have to be able to deal with any criticism that is directed at you whether it’s on the pitch or off. Sometimes the level of abuse is something you can’t always control. You try not to take too much disrespect from the players but once the crowd starts there’s very little you can do about them. You always know yourself if you’ve had a good game or not.”

There’s no doubting the fact Louise Thompson has made massive strides as a referee and her talent and ability has seen her rewarded with high profile games such as the 2018 Under-16 Girls final at the Iber Cup in Portugal in June and the Women’s Under-19 World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Slovakia in September last year.

“It has all happened really fast,” she said.” The first year I started as a referee, the biggest thing I did was referee the Women’s Cup final at the National Stadium between Glentoran and Linfield.

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“That was nerve wracking because it was going on on BBC iPlayer. During that summer I was refereeing two leagues below that and to get the cup final was huge, I didn’t expect it.

“I have been very fortunate to have had other great appointments but to date my biggest game was getting the appointment for the Irish Cup fifth round game.

“It was a special occasion for me and my team. After Christmas when the appointments came through I couldn’t believe it. To get an Irish Cup game was special but to referee it was something else and to have Vicky (Victoria Finlay) and Rachel (Greer) with me was just class.

“The build up to the game was great and there was quite a bit of interest from the media. The game itself was great too. Not just because it was a good game of football but also because the level of respect both sets of fans gave us.

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“Generally after a game I tend to stay off social media but after this game someone said ‘have you read the comments’ so I was curious and read them and they were generally very positive.

“At the time I didn’t want to worry about whether we were creating history or not I just wanted to go out there and do a good job.

“My main focus was getting through the match and showing what we could do without being the centre of attention. The two girls with me are greatly experienced and I knew I could fully rely on them. I had great confidence in my team.

“It was after the game what we had achieved sank in and now that it’s been done there’s no reason it can’t continue.”

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The announcement of the FIFA 2020 list saw Louise mark her name in the record books as the IFA’s first female referee, however, the ongoing coronavirus situation has meant football has been at a standstill for months.

“I am very honoured to be on the FIFA list. Jamie Robinson, who is also a new FIFA referee and myself got our UEFA introductory course in Majorca completed before the pandemic led to the lockdown.

“It involved a detailed medical, fitness test, laws of the game exam and a detailed induction into what it takes to be an international referee.

“We were supposed to have our first FIFA tournament at the start of April but that was cancelled.

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“Obviouslt it’s very disappointing, I’m five months into my FIFA career and haven’t had a game yet but I am continuing with my training to ensure I’m ready when football resumes.

“Once things get back on track and hopefully that will be sooner rather than later, we will be appointed out. FIFA usually sends you to a tournament first so we will have to wait and see what happens.

“Everything steps up a level when you are on the list. When I first started refereeing you could have a basic level of fitness, now over the last 12 months it has become very intense.

“Even progressing to the men’s game, it is much faster and then during the summer the Women’s Premiership is at a much higher standard so you have to constantly stay fit. However, on the FIFA list you have to be ready and at your peak because you never know when you are going to get a call up. You are constantly training and focusing on the game.”

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With a passion for the beautiful game and an ability to take charge, Louise Thompson is setting her sights on the top flight of the game with an aim of emulating Stephanie Frappart.

“Next summer was to have been the Women’s Euros which was to be hosted in England but now it has been pushed back to 2022. Perhaps that might be too soon for me but that would be my goal but I have to get through a few FIFA tournaments first before that can happen.

“I would like the opportunity to officiate at a Champions League qualifier then maybe the Euros but the ultimate goal would be officiating at a World Cup.

“What Stephanie Frappart has done for women’s refereeing has been immense. She became the first female referee to officiate a major men’s European match when she took charge of the Uefa Super Cup when Liverpool beat Chelsea.

“To get a female in that role was brilliant and shows you can break through and if she can do it then it shows there is plenty of room for the rest of us to follow.”