Do you think any kid has ever dreamed of being a referee? A boy whose imagination is ensnared by the ambiguity of the man in the middle, and is never let go? “But why’s he wearing a different kit, Dad? He looks really old. Why isn’t he kicking the ball?” A child who looks beyond the crunching tackles, the mazy runs, the long-range howitzers and the knee slides, instead focusing on the fella steering the ship, running the show.
How many Christmas stockings around the world are filled with a gleaming whistle, gristly black socks and The Official FA Guide to Basic Refereeing? Children can fall in love with football in their tender years and endure that beautiful, difficult relationship their entire life – everyone wanted to be a player, but why did nobody want to be a referee?
Judging by his antics whenever he oversees a big game, Mike Dean didn’t want to be a ref either; the boy from the Wirral dreamed of being a footballer. When Sergio Agüero scored the modern Premier League’s most famous goal, it is easy to miss Dean in the ensuing melee. But he’s there, alright. As Agüero charges off into the history books, Dean surges off after him like he’d nipped down the bookies to put a fiver on Sergio to score anytime, then played the through-ball, and knows he’s going to be lifting the trophy himself. Arm aloft, charging over to the corner flag, as if the boy from the Wirral is still in there, still dreaming of being Ian Rush.
Indeed, there are moments when Mike’s sheer love of football bursts out from under the pale, often seemingly confused surface. Referees are praised for allowing the game to flow, for not enforcing an excessive stringency on an otherwise entertaining spectacle. Dean has this down to a tee, and absolutely lives to give an advantage. Whether it be ‘The Anchor’ (rooting himself to the spot, knees bent and a theatric thrust of his arms), or ‘The Pulling Away’ (keeps running, while ensuring the top half of his body is locked still), Dean longs for the game to continue. If an advantage he gives is then wasted, there’s visible evidence of frustration across his face. Mike Dean just loves all of football.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to argue that all of football loves Mike Dean. A petition set up by Arsenal fans in September 2015 after a match against Chelsea called for Mike Dean to never referee one of their games again, citing his apparent incompetence. Even this season, sections of fans still accuse him of bias against their team. This abuse undoubtedly comes with being a referee, regardless of what level, but Dean attracts it more than most; Garth Crooks compared him to “a petulant schoolteacher” after that same Arsenal match, in a typically restrained rant.
But football should learn to love Mike Dean. If referees are seen as the sobering constraint on an otherwise chaotic ninety minutes, he is the antithesis. Whether tripping up players as a counter-attack unfolds, or letting the ball run through your legs with all the grace and decorum of your drunk Dad dancing at a wedding, Dean is just fun. In a time where football drifts further from its heartfelt roots, in the communities and in the stands, is it not nice to enjoy the odd antidote? Sure, a 25-yard wonder strike will do the rounds on social media, but a gif of Mike Dean thrusting his hips and pointing to the penalty spot like Mick Jagger does on stage? Glorious.
On Monday’s episode of The Football Ramble, the world’s biggest independent football show, a listener’s email about celebrating Mike Dean sparked a conversation that should not be ignored. The highest powers in the game should stop worrying about the big clubs leaving for some possible European Club Super Football League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Instead, they should focus all manpower and budgets on a far more noble cause: Mike Dean’s testimonial.
Yes, he needs all the bells and all the whistles; yes, he needs to finally take his deserved place as the headline act, this time on purpose rather than by some freak red card-related accident. And yes, he needs legends of the game, past and present, to play a beautiful footballing symphony while the big man conducts the proceedings, bowing out from a game that he has given so much.
The venue – The Emirates
It’s already been mentioned: Arsenal fans have always objected vociferously to Mike Dean’s existence. Two red cards for Gabriel and Santi Cazorla in that game against Chelsea won’t help his case, but this can be his chance of redemption. The joyous celebration at the official Mike Dean Testimonial fixture could be his redemptive olive branch. Charge the supporters what they normally do at the Emirates (i.e. extortionate amounts), and the FA can then subsidise travel from all corners of the country. Transport expenses shouldn’t discourage those loyal fans from sending off Big Mike in the manner he deserves.
The Teams – A select Referees’ XI vs Garth Crooks’ most recent Team of the Week
“Mark, it’s Mike. Get on the first flight back from Riyadh – I’m getting the band back together.” Dean gives Clattenburg, Webb et al. a call and puts together a referees’ all-time XI. As an emotional release from the restraints of wearing all black their whole professional lives, the referees slip into the most garish kit currently available on the market. Mark Clattenburg lines up in central midfield, his sleeves rolled up to reveal his ‘Final Milano 2016′ tattoo on his sun-kissed forearms. Howard Webb’s sitting in behind him, his bellowing South Yorkshire tones cutting through the eery Emirates silence.
And opposite them? The most recent edition of Garth Crooks’ infamous team of the week. Nobody knows who’s lining up, not even Garth. Whoever scored at the weekend, probably. Might we see Luke Shaw on the right side of a back three? Or Cenk Tosun and Andros Townsend leading the line as part of a front five? Who knows.
The format – Gladiatorial arena
Not with excessive violence or lions. More in the delivery of justice, something Dean has overseen on the field for nearly twenty years. Picture it: the whole of the Emirates crowd decked out in togas, and Roman decor draped everywhere. Jonathan Moss goes clattering into Declan Rice, and the game stops. The crowd turn expectantly to their deity, baying for blood. Moss looks on, a terrified glint in his eye. He knows he has to go. Mike Dean sits in his regal throne, contemplating the decision. He knows it’s a red, but drags it out anyway – he’s always been a showman.
“Red. Red. Red. Red” chant the onlookers, as Emperor Dean raises a big right thumb, and dramatically plunges it downwards. The crowd erupts; Moss is sent off, and the game continues.
Every decision is made like this, making the whole spectacle last around four hours.
It is clear to see what a resounding success this would be. Mike Dean taking centre stage, something he’s inadvertently done for most of his refereeing career, but this time it’s deliberate and we can all sit back and enjoy. We deserve to give a little bit back to Mike Dean, to appreciate everything he’s done for football. Because that’s just it – Mike Dean loves football.