|Venue: Selhurst Park Date: Sunday, 5 March Time: 15:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Watch live on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
Working on the railway and refereeing as a “casual hobby”, Kirsty Dowle never imagined she would be officiating in a League Cup final when she started out nine years ago.
But that is what she will do on Sunday when she steps out at Selhurst Park to referee the Continental Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal.
“It’s crazy now to think I started nine years ago just because I love football and wanted to stay involved and now it’s my career and it takes me everywhere,” she told BBC Sport.
A football fanatic since the age of six, Dowle, who also refereed last year’s FA Cup final, played at county level until age 16.
“At six I peaked with making the best decision of my life and started playing football, fell in love with it from the moment I kicked a ball and that was it, that’s all it’s ever been, all I’ve known,” she said.
After opting to earn academic qualifications, she stepped away from the game and did not think about officiating until doing a master’s degree in sports psychology.
“I still don’t know why to this day but I chose to do my dissertation on referees,” Dowle added.
“I’d never paid them any interest before, but I interviewed about eight referees and they all seemed to have such a passion for it, and two of them said ‘why don’t you get involved?’.
“A few months later, I booked myself on the course and never looked back.”
So how does it feel to be refereeing a cup final?
“Amazing,” said Dowle. “After I found out, I was in the car on the way home and just turned the music right up and sang really badly and pictured what the day would be like.”
‘I’ll never forget my first game’
Like most officials, Dowle started out at grassroots level and worked her way up, but she will “never forget” her first game.
“A colleague I worked with on the railway was also a referee and he said ‘you can borrow my dad’s kit for your game,'” she explained.
“I’m not very tall and I was wearing this man’s kit that absolutely hung off me. But I thought ‘this is cool, I can get my teeth into this’.”
Dowle progressed quickly and was soon officiating Sunday League football.
“One of the teams in my first game was called Young Boys and I remember saying to my mum ‘great, they’re easing me in, they’ll be 16 year olds, it will be nice’,” she joked.
“They were not young boys, and they did want to fight!”
‘Something had to give’
Dowle only committed to refereeing full-time earlier this year after nine years of balancing it with her job on the railway.
“In the beginning it was just a really casual hobby,” she said. “But when you get to level four you’re much more tailored by the FA so there’s meetings, there’s support for you.
“I realised I was at the crux point of ‘I can only give so much now’. I was getting up at five o’clock and going to work and going to training and going to games.”
When a decision had to be made, Dowle knew refereeing would be the winner.
She said: “Something had to give and I didn’t want to not put the effort in and then regret it in a few years’ time – ‘if only I’d taken that gamble?’.
“Now that I’ve given up my job I can see the benefits of sleeping right, having the time to do little things like my food prep, training once or twice a day, doing the knowledge of the game, stuff like watching games and talking to coaches.
“Now I know I can sleep for eight hours a night, it’s quite a luxury.”
‘I try not to take it to heart’
Referees notoriously come under scrutiny and pressure, and Dowle said making mistakes is something that never gets easier to deal with.
“It’s really tough, when you make a mistake and you know you have changed a game and you can’t change that, it’s really hard to get over and that’s what players and managers and coaches don’t understand – that we’re humans too,” she said.
“I don’t go out there wanting to make a mistake, I want it to be perfect, but if I make a mistake I’m over-analysing it, I’m watching it back – sometimes I can’t sleep because I think ‘if only I did this differently’.
“We do take it to heart. I don’t think it gets easier with experience but you break it down and get that process of how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Coming through the ranks with the Kent FA, there were not many female referees and Dowle says it posed challenges when turning up at men’s matches.
“For me to turn up in a game and be like ‘right, I’m in charge of this’ was a bit like ‘OK this is different’ but I’d like to think that by the end of that 90 minutes I’ve just been the same as any other referee – earned their respect,” she added.
“Challenges have been faced and comments are still made but I know I’m going out there and people will have their opinions – I just try not to take it to heart.”
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