Who would be a referee? It’s a question that has been posed innumerable times. Observers, admirers and even critics tend to acknowledge that match officials’ jobs seem, at best, unenviable and, at worst, near-impossible. Abuse, of course, is all but guaranteed from amateur level upwards, while elite referees cope with the added stresses of media scrutiny and partisan, unforgiving crowds. A thick skin is essential, and Kylie Cockburn’s – for one good reason – is thicker than most.
The 30-year-old, who officiated at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, spends her Saturdays refereeing in Scotland’s top flight. But as the rest of her week is spent serving as a police officer, pleading players and complaining coaches hold no fear whatsoever. “Abuse? As you probably can imagine, I get far worse at work!” she told FIFA.com. “The stuff you hear when you’re refereeing is nothing in comparison.” Besides enabling her to “build up a resilience” to remarks that would stop others in their tracks, Cockburn’s day job has equipped her with other transferable skills invaluable to refereeing.
“Being in the police, you learn how to speak to people and also how to de-escalate situations when things are getting tense or tempers are flaring,” she explained. “In my job, I’m dealing with problems and people who aren’t happy day in, day out. That helps a lot when you encounter issues around the football pitch.” Policing, though, wasn’t Cockburn’s first love. And nor was refereeing. In her teens, she had dreams of making it to a Women’s World Cup as a player, and pursued that objective with a passion. But competing work commitments, and a growing realisation that she lacked the ability needed to star for her country, prompted a change of course. “I was 21 when I started refereeing and at the time I had been playing in the women’s first division here in Scotland. But with the shifts I was working with the police, it was getting really difficult to make the games and three or four nights of training. I’d been in the Scotland elite squad at U-17 level but I dropped out after that and I could see at that point that I wasn’t going to make it at the highest level. But I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take these things lying down, and I just thought, ‘Right, in that case, what can I do to get to the top?’ That was when I tried to give refereeing a try and I’m glad I did.”
Trying her hand at officiating has since led to all manner of fantastic experiences, from running out at her country’s biggest stadiums to overseeing international matches in Jordan, Uruguay and across Europe. But the unrivalled highlight of Cockburn’s refereeing career came with an unexpected call-up to the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019. “France was always a target but it was still a surprise when the call came because, in the grand scheme of things, I’m still quite new to this level of refereeing,” said Cockburn, who arranged unpaid leave from the police in order to attend. “To then stay on to the knockout stages – and be there right until the end - was amazing. I fully expected just to get one match and be on my way, so to get the call for three games and two as a VAR was amazing and way beyond what I could have dreamed of. “I really enjoyed the VAR side of things too. It took some getting used to. But the training we’d done in Qatar had prepared us really well for that and got us in the right mindset for that. “There was scrutiny of course – that goes with the territory – but as a group we were proud of what we did over there. Women’s football has grown and improved a lot in recent years, and for me there’s no doubt that women’s refereeing has followed suit. It helped that the refs were very close – like a family really – off the field. I definitely feel I’ve come away from it with friends for life. I’m going on holiday to Australia in November, and the first thing I did after booking up was arrange to meet the two Australian referees who were there in France.” That break Down Under, given the draining nature of both Cockburn’s profession and her passion, will be well earned. But this determined Scot will return ready to refocus on her next targets: top-level men’s matches and, of course, the Women’s World Cup of 2023.