Whether it’s keeping 22 burly men in line, or raising awareness of gun crime through sport, there’s little that fazes Helen Byrne.
It is because Helen is such an enthusiastic and valuable role model, inspiring others and helping them to realise their potential, that she has become a recipient of a Sports Scholarship.
She began training to become a football referee at the age of just 14 – no mean feat in such a male dominated world. She has now qualified as a level three referee, becoming the youngest female in the country to reach this level. In addition, Helen has also played for Everton for 10 years, then Liverpool Football Club for two years, and gained her coaching badge at the age of 16.
“I had to make the decision to referee or carry on playing,” says the 20-year-old BA (Hons) Sports Development student from Edge Hill, “and, though it was a hard one to make, I decided to go with the refereeing.
“I live for the game and I know that I am good at it, so I just go out there to enjoy it. You have to make some tough decisions on the pitch but that’s what I’m there for and, with experience, you learn how to deal with it.
“Some people say I am mad and you do get abuse – sometimes the crowd can be the worst – but I love it.”
She now referees within semi professional leagues, often officiating for men’s adult teams. There are only five or six women in the country who have reached the level that Helen is at now, and only three women have reached level two. Long term, her aim is to progress through the men’s and women’s games, eventually refereeing at the very highest level – though age has now become a barrier as FIFA regulations say she needs to be at least 23 before she can do so.
But Helen has plenty to keep her busy over the next few years. She has a long association with volunteering in football, coaching in schools for children through her teens and promoting healthy lifestyle advice for children and in care homes for the elderly. She currently volunteers with Liverpool County Football Association, coaching the Liverpool Girls’ Squad, and also plans charity sporting events such as the Rhys Jones Memorial tournament, which raises awareness of gang and gun crime amongst young people.
Helen has also refereed overseas, in Denmark and at the Dallas Cup in America, an international youth football tournament.
“The game is a lot more technical overseas,” she says, “so you have to adapt. It was an amazing experience.”