The thing Jawahir Jewels always enjoys is the moment it dawns on the players involved that she will be refereeing their game.
When she trots out on to some swamp of a municipal pitch to take charge of a Sunday morning hangover hackaround, she is unfailingly amused by the look of astonishment that descends over the faces of those about to kick off.
“I love it,” she smiles. “Sometimes I have to tell them about five times: ‘Yeah, man, I am your referee.’ And they usually go: ‘No way, when’s the proper ref coming?’ ”
It is not entirely surprising they need telling. Weekend amateurs rarely find their games presided over by a tiny, black, Muslim young woman in a head scarf. In fact she is the only such Football Association-qualified official they are likely to encounter.
“I say to them: ‘Excuse me, don’t judge me till you’ve seen me in action,’ ” she says. “I do know how to play football and yes I do know the offside rule. Which is more than most of them.”
If someone says something to me I don’t get emotional. I just think they’re ignorant
I first heard about JJ – as she likes to be known – after my son played in a London league game she refereed. He said she was excellent: totally in control, keeping up with play, brave and consistent in her decision making.
Even so, midway through the second half one of the opposition players had towered over her (everyone towers over her) poking his finger in her face as he noisily complained about a call she had just made. My son had intervened, telling the bloke to back off.
“Look at her,” he had said. “Show a bit of respect.”
“It’s you who’s not showing her respect,” the finger-jabber had retorted. “I’m showing her proper respect: I’m treating her like I’d treat any other referee.” To which there really was no answer.
When I remind JJ of that incident, she grins wide. “Yeah, you’d be shocked at what sometimes gets said. I say to them: ‘Talk to me normal, don’t chat rubbish.’ But they always do it. Sometimes I watch rugby on telly, see the way they talk to the ref and I think: wow that’s proper respect.”
The time I catch up with her in action she is taking charge of a fund-raising match at Dulwich Hamlet’s ground for the excellent educational charity Football Beyond Borders. She looks so vulnerable out in the middle, in her head scarf and black leggings, every player on the pitch apparently at least a foot taller than her.
But she shows no fear dealing with former Premier League players such as Jamie Lawrence and Leon Cort. And, in turn, they seem to regard her as competent, even if Lawrence at one stage rails against her decision to overrule her linesman on an offside call.
“First half I didn’t really notice her, which is kind of what you want of a ref,” says Cort. “Second half got a bit tougher, more competitive, harder for her. But she’s learning. She done well.”
If it seems astonishing that somebody who already faces sizeable openings to prejudice would wish to embrace a calling which is routinely subject to abuse and violence, JJ says she loves everything about being a referee.
“It’s brilliant,” she says. “It’s such fun, man. Can’t get enough of it, being involved in the game I love.”
If they want a fight, go to the boxing gym. They’re not doing that on my football pitch
Brought up in north west London by her Somali parents, JJ, now 23, has been mad about football for as long as she can remember. A promising schoolgirl player, she first took up a whistle when she was undertaking her coaching badges in her teens. Initially it was on an informal basis: taking charge of junior matches. And immediately she did so, she came to appreciate that this was not a pursuit for the faint-hearted.
“It wasn’t the kids, they were great,” she says. “It was the parents. I always had parents bad-mouthing: ‘What you doing ref? You’re useless.’ It’s what everyone who refs kids games gets. I just smiled.” But not every official in charge of junior football is a black, Muslim woman in a head scarf. From the start, some of the comments boiling up from the touchline were more than pointed.
“One game a guy was really racial,” she recalls. “I didn’t hear him. But other parents did.”
One spectator approached her after the match and asked if she wanted to make a formal complaint. With their support, she reported the abuse to the local FA, but did not hear any more. Not that it put her off. She decided to qualify properly as a referee. And she was soon moving up the ladder, able to take control of more significant matches, like women’s games at City University, where she is studying computer science.
Her ambition soon began to form: eventually to take charge of matches in the Women’s Premier League. But to get there, she first had to referee men’s 11-a-side games, to test not just her ability to read the game, but her resilience.
“My dad said to me from when I started: be careful, there’ll be haters out there,” she says. “But I see myself as a strong person. If someone says something to me I don’t get emotional. I just think they’re ignorant.”
Now studying for the FA’s Level Six referee qualification, she has a long way to go to reach her stated aim. But her attitude and enthusiasm has already been recognised on the amateur circuit. “I go all over the place, miles,” she says. “Refereeing doesn’t make me nervous. What makes me nervous is thinking I’m not going to get there in time for kick-off because I’m having to get there on public transport.”
When she does arrive, there is one thing of which she can be certain: park matches are the most exposed element of the game for referees. They turn up alone, without linesmen, finding themselves often at the wrong end of serious anger-management issues. And all for a £35 match fee.
“When you’re on your own, trust me you have to work twice as hard,” she says. “And you get no help. I always prepare for the worst, I’m always on YouTube looking at footage of how referees cope [Mark Clattenburg is her favourite].”
Despite assumptions, what she has found does usually happen is not abuse or violence. She has never been called anything untoward to her face, except “b—– ref” which she rather enjoys hearing, as it means she is being judged on what she does rather than who she is. Mostly what she encounters in park fixtures is not high-level prejudice but low-level gamesmanship.
“Sometimes you’d be shocked how blatant people are about cheating: ‘I never touched it ref,’ when they quite clearly just booted it out.” JJ, though, says she will not withstand any nonsense.
“Have I ever sent anyone off? Yeah, course, loads. Trust me, I never let anyone get away with it. If they want a fight, go to the boxing gym. They’re not doing that on my football pitch.”
And she says that refereeing three, four, sometimes five matches a week has taught her a lot about herself.
“It’s helped loads in my university life,” she says. “If you’re just chilling the whole time, man that’s boring. It’s good to stretch yourself, to test yourself. Decision-making, being strong: you learn so many values from being a ref. And what I love is, get it right, they trust you.”
Not that everyone is invariably convinced by the tiny woman in the head scarf. And for those who still treat her with scepticism, who still make it clear when she first turns up that she really does not belong in their game, she has a useful visual trick. “Sometimes I do kick-ups at half-time just to show them I’m not here by accident,” she says. “That usually opens their eyes. Mainly because I’m probably better than most of them at it.”