Mike Dean: Referee on 22 years at the top before retirement


Think of a Premier League referee and for many the first thought will be of one man.

For the past 22 years Mike Dean has been one of the most recognised officials in the game – for good and bad reasons.

He has been at the centre of many controversial decisions over the years, but is also renowned for his amusing facial expressions and flamboyant behaviour on the pitch.

After more than two decades as a top-flight referee, Dean will hang up his whistle at the end of the season.

The 53-year-old spoke to Football Focus about starting out, his favourite games, players he was “in awe” of and the manager he found toughest to deal with.

Working at a chicken factory

Dean took his first steps towards becoming a professional referee in the 1980s, shortly after leaving school.

“I started in 1985 when I finished school and put on loads of weight and didn’t have a job for six months,” he told the BBC’s Mark Chapman.

“I thought about what I could do to keep fit. I like football. I was a goalkeeper, not the most mobile of people. I was 18 or 19 stone when I left school.

“I sorted myself out fitness-wise and did a bit of refereeing, went from there to the local leagues and was then lucky enough to get to the Football League in 1995.”

In those early years, refereeing was not a full-time job and Dean combined his passion with working at a chicken factory.

“I was up at half four and in work for 5am,” Dean said.

“I finished my shift at 2pm and then I’d get in the car, maybe drive to Carlisle to referee, then get home for 3am and then be back up at 5am for work.

“It was tough but I wouldn’t change it. I’ve just loved football from forever.”

Mike Dean shows a red card in a game between Charlton and Leicester in 2001
Dean has shown 114 red cards as a Premier League referee – more than any other official

Being ‘scared’ of big decisions

Dean progressed from refereeing in the Football League to becoming a Premier League official in 2000.

Known these days for his confidence, Dean admits he was “in awe” of some players during his early years.

“You had massive, big-personality players, the [Roy] Keanes, people like that, [Patrick] Vieira – they were all around then,” he said.

“For me to come from the Football League to the Premier League and referee those players… it was just a massive step.

“I was a bit nervous and a bit scared of making a decision.”

Who was the most intimidating manager?

Those nerves appear to have gone and Dean has rarely appeared afraid to make some of the big decisions, no matter whom they upset.

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was famed for his hairdryer treatment of players and would also not shy away from giving his thoughts on a referee’s performance.

Dean had plenty of run-ins with the Scot, but is adamant he was rarely as angry behind the scenes with officials.

“He used to get a lot of stick saying he’d come in and bang the door down,” Dean said.

“He would come in now and then to express his views if something had gone really badly, but he wasn’t as bad as people made him out to be.”

Instead it was a long-time rival of Ferguson on the touchline whom Dean found the most intimidating person to deal with.

“It has to be Arsene [Wenger] when he was at Arsenal,” said Dean.

“I always found it tough, not refereeing Arsenal in general but refereeing Arsenal when he was the manager. It was just his presence – he wanted the best for Arsenal all the time and if he could get any way of getting one over you he would do.

“Since he has finished football I have seen him and he has been great. Cross the white line and everyone is different, like referees. We are normal people.”

‘They said they would petrol bomb my house’

It is not just managers and players who are angered by refereeing decisions, but supporters too – and sometimes the abuse goes too far.

In February 2021 Dean sent off West Ham midfielder Tomas Soucek in the closing seconds of a draw with Fulham.

Dean had been asked by the video assistant referee to check on the pitchside monitor before sending off Soucek for elbowing Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic in the face.

Mike Dean sends off Tomas Soucek
Tomas Soucek’s red card was later rescinded

“My daughter got death threats,” said Dean.

“They were saying they knew where we lived and they were going to petrol bomb the house. It was pretty bad.

“I told the Premier League; they got the police involved. I reported it to the police and they came around.

“My family was affected pretty badly for a couple of weeks. I just took myself off games as I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

“I am a pretty strong person at times. I can be weak at other times. I had to be strong for the family that week. It was tough.

“I had West Ham four weeks later and I was surprised to get it so soon. I apologised to Soucek but he came over and was great.”

‘I’ll miss football terribly’

Dean looks back on his career with fondness and says he will “miss it terribly” next season.

Asked about his proudest achievement, he said: “To be at the top for 22 years. Players can be at the top for 22 years – not many but some. I have kept myself in pretty decent shape.

“To be in the position I have been in for that long and refereeing the best lot of football ever, having the best seat in the house every week and not having to pay for it… it is ideal.

“I don’t know what I’ll be like in August.”

Dean on…

VAR: “When it first came in I used to hate it. I had a run-in with the bosses about it. It wasn’t for me. I had refereed by then for 19 years without someone in my ear telling me what to do.

“I have found in the past two or three years it has helped me 100%. 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.”

Favourite game: “Manchester City versus QPR has to be [when City won the title in 2012]. Bearing in mind what was at stake, I don’t think it will ever happen again – team winning on goal difference with the last kick of the match.”

Booking Sergio Aguero for his celebration in that game: “Unfortunately it had to be done. [If he was already on a yellow card] I’d have totally not done it. I’d have told the bosses ‘think of the bigger picture’.”

Favourite player to referee: “The likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Vieira. That was a good time to be involved in football.”

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