THE MAN in black is about to come under serious threat as sporting authorities in South Cheshire look to give grassroots football something of the feminine touch.
Crewe and Nantwich Borough Council's Sports Development Team have teamed up with the Cheshire FA to launch a series of refereeing and coaching courses which will be governed by one fundamental rule - strictly no men allowed.
The girls-only sessions, which will take place at the newly-refurbished Cumberland Sports Ground in Crewe, are aimed at tackling one of the major inequalities still persisting in the game.
For while the numbers of female players and teams continue to grow nationwide, the majority of coaches and referees, even in the ladies' leagues, are still men, something which is seen as a barrier to the women's game growing further.
Niall McGregor, Crewe and Nantwich Sports Development officer, said: 'There are never enough referees to go round, and there are always a lot of courses, both refereeing and coaching, going on.
'But it has been identified that some women are put off attending mixed courses because they are attended by a lot of men who have played the game all their lives and have very strong opinions about it.
'What we want to do is encourage more women into the game in an environment they are comfortable with.
'The qualifications are exactly the same as those given to male referees and coaches and, certainly with refereeing, we have actually found that in a lot of circumstances, women can have a very positive impact.'
Steve Swallow, Cheshire FA's Referees Development Officer, agreed that women needed more role models in the game and, that in his experience, women found it easier to pick up qualifications in women-only environments.
He said: 'Women's football is the fastest growing sport in the country at the moment and the FA is really keen on initiatives like this.
'We have run one women-only refereeing course previously, at Cheshire FA headquarters back in March, and we got a very good response.
'It seemed to me that those who took part felt more secure in a less male-dominated environment, and therefore felt they could learn better and express their own views more.'
But Crewe referee Hayley Ray, 18, who has been qualified since she was 14 and also has coaching badges, said women who wanted to get into football had to be prepared to survive in a male-dominated world whatever course they took.
She said: 'Especially with the refereeing, you have got to have a lot of bottle to go into it as a woman because you do get a lot of stick. But if your mind-set is right, you get a lot out of it.
'It is a male-dominated game and you have to be prepared for that environment, but if courses like this can encourage more girls to get involved then they serve a purpose.'
Beginning on Saturday, November 19, the three-session refereeing course will cost £30 for adults and £10 for Under 16s. But as an incentive to encourage those taking part to stick at it, the Cheshire FA will fully refund all course fees on completion of ten full matches as a referee.
A Level One coaching course has been pencilled in for February half-term next year.
For more information, call 01270 537232.