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That most insistent of matchday questions, touching on mysteries of identity and masculinity – “who’s the wanker in the black?” – has rarely felt a more pointed psychological inquiry than when directed by 25,000 partisan voices toward Mike Dean.
Football referees have always been lightning rods for more general frustration with authority figures, but the Premier League era, with its overpaid pundits and its multiple camera angles, has amplified that discontent. Dean, the elite league’s most visible man in the middle for 22 years, has refereed 560 matches, dished out more than 2,000 yellow cards and a record 114 reds (at a significantly higher rate than any of his peers). He has also invited – and enjoyed – the attention that goes with that decision-making more than most.
Sunday’s final Premier League matches of a remarkable season, in which the champions and the final relegated side are yet to be decided, will also mark Dean’s farewell performance. He has been kept away from any potential controversy by refereeing the relatively inconsequential Chelsea v Watford game.
He had, inevitably, the very last word in the most thrilling final-day drama in Premier League history 10 years ago, when Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero scored a last-second goal to rip the league title away from rivals Manchester United. Dean’s memorably killjoy contribution was give Agüero a booking for removing his shirt during the euphoric celebrations. “I had no choice,” he later suggested. “Those are the rules.”
The old adage insists that the best kind of referee is the one you never notice. But anonymity has never seemed to be part of Dean’s ambition. There are multiple YouTube clips of his trademark moves – his habit of letting the ball run between his legs during play; the insouciant “no-look yellow card” in which he dishes out punishment without deigning to look at the offending player; the occasion on which he celebrated a goal enabled by his decision-making as if he had scored it himself; his dismissal of Brighton’s looming 6ft 4in centre-half, Lewis Dunk, with a self-satisfied “off you pop”. In all of these instances Dean has looked – annoyingly or amusingly – like the Hollywood extra who dreams of being the leading man. As another terrace chant has it, with an edge of both anger and affection: “Mike Dean, it’s all about you.”
Referees suffer from the Premier League’s need to be both “part of the entertainment industry” and “a multimillion pound business”. Decisions are both a subjective part of the drama, and too important to get wrong. Up until recently the question of what effect such weekly pressures had on Dean went unanswered. In the voluble world of 24-hour football analysis, referees’ voices are the only ones never heard.
As the end has approached for Dean, however, he has broken his silence a few times, for friendly reminiscences about his career with the former player Peter Crouch, and with the BBC’s Match of the Day presenter Mark Chapman.
The revelations in those chats have stopped well short of soul-searching, but they did give an insight into that other question asked by the more empathetic football fan: why on earth would anyone want to put themselves through that ordeal on a weekly basis?
Some academic research into that question suggested that referees put “a love of football” as the most important factor and “feelings of power and control” as the least. Most Dean-watchers would place those motivations a little more equally.
Dean grew up in the village of Heswall in the Wirral, where his mum was a lollipop lady at his primary school for 35 years. Like most referees – and fans – he played all the time as a kid; he was a goalkeeper, without ever threatening to make the grade. He left school without a job at 16 and first took up refereeing the following year in the Eastham and District Junior Sunday League as a way of keeping fit after his weight ballooned to 18st.
For the first 10 years, as he rose through the ranks of local and semi-professional leagues, he worked in a chicken processing plant. (“We killed 140,000 chickens a day,” he told Crouch. “You went from killing fowls to calling fouls,” the former centre forward observed.) Even when he worked in the lower divisions of the professional league, Dean kept up the day job. “I would start my shift at six o’clock, then drive to Carlisle or Scunthorpe or wherever late afternoon for a match, get back at three in the morning and then back on my shift at six.”
These days, Dean earns a reported £200,000 a year – a week’s salary for some of the players and managers he keeps in line – but a major step up from the £17,000 of his former day job, and a world away from the few quid a match earned by the thousands of referees who keep the game alive (numbers are currently in alarming decline). Still, although there is a strong professional incentive, the role retains something of the ideal of the late Sir Stanley Rous, a referee before he became head of the international football body, Fifa: “It’s a job for volunteers who are doing a service to the country.”
While in Rous’s era the primary confrontation might have been with an elbow-happy centre-forward, Dean’s principal adversaries are often club managers with their job on the line. His most stubborn antagonist, he says, was not Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, but always Arsène Wenger. Among Dean’s most memorable moments was to send the former Arsenal manager up into the stands for kicking a bottle of water in temper; Wenger was forced to stand, with arms outstretched like the statue of Christ the Redeemer, among ranks of jeering Manchester United fans. When asked whether he would be sending a retirement card to Dean, another managerial nemesis, Neil Warnock, suggested: “I wouldn’t pay the price of the stamp, he’s cost me so much over the years.”
Perhaps increasingly, the knockabout anger of that post-match recrimination incites something nastier. In February 2021, Dean sent off the West Ham midfielder Tomáš Souček, very harshly, in the closing seconds of a draw with Fulham. Afterwards his family received death threats. “They were saying they knew where we lived and they were going to petrol bomb the house.” He stepped away from refereeing for a few games. “I had West Ham four weeks later – I was surprised to get it so soon. I apologised to Souček, but he came over and was great.”
One of the ironies of that situation was that the decision to send off Souček had been based on the evidence of the video assistant referee (VAR). The system was designed to reduce human error but, predictably, it has mostly added another layer of controversy. “When VAR first came in, I hated it,” Dean told the BBC. “I had refereed by then for 19 years without someone in my ear telling me what to do.” His opinion has changed. “Now, I’d rather be sent to the screen and make the right decision than make the wrong decision and drive home and be battered in the press.” (He neglects to mention the third option: going over to the pitch-side monitor and still getting it wrong.)
You might imagine that such weekly stresses take a toll on a man. Dean is 53. Watching him last week officiate in Leeds United’s frenzied relegation scrap against Brighton, he effortlessly kept close to the play of supreme athletes in their early twenties. That’s not to say he is ageless. Even when he started, at 31, back in 2000, Dean already looked like a deputy headmaster who remembered rationing.
As with certain buttoned-up teachers, it is hard to imagine referees at leisure. In among the YouTube clips, the best is of Dean himself in the stands at his beloved Tranmere Rovers, leading the celebrations as his side won a play-off match. (As a fan, does he give the referees some stick? “Of course!”)
Contemplating retirement, Dean confesses that he can’t imagine what he will do with his afternoons, come August. In his interviews he has seemed keen to alert Strictly talent-spotters that he used to do a bit of ballroom dancing (crucial for that vital refereeing skill of running backwards without falling over). He is currently the bookies’ favourite to be invited into the celebrity jungle.
Another option has emerged, however – one guaranteed to place Dean back in the centre of controversy, perhaps in perpetuity. He is, apparently, discussing a new senior role overseeing VAR. Old referees don’t die; they ascend to that mythical land of unlikely jurisdiction known to Sky’s Super Sunday viewers as Stockley Park.