On Tuesday night, two of the Premier League's Uniteds, Manchester and Newcastle, came together to gift the country something really quite special: A six-goal humdinger dotted with penalties, seasoned with snark, littered with defensive incoherence, and containing not one, but two blown leads by the red side of the argument, who really should know better. There were a couple of decent goals, too, and Wayne Rooney had his first not-bad game in quite some time. All in all, it was a great game for the neutral. Which is presumably why referee Mike Dean seemed to be enjoying himself so much.
Mr. Dean — it feels weirdly inappropriate to simply shorten a referee's name to "Dean," and there's not a chance in hell we're calling him "Mike," so forgive us as we go full New York Times — is perhaps the finest practitioner of the art of refereeing in the Premier League. By the art of refereeing we don't mean the mundane business of deciding what is or isn't a foul, is or isn't a yellow card, is or isn't an appropriate word for the captain of England to be spitting into the air. That's the business of being a referee. And Mr. Dean, like all the other referees, is sort of alright at it. He gets some things wrong, he gets most things right. It's a really difficult job, after all.
No, the art of being a referee is something altogether different. Consider his penalties. Some referees keep their eyes fixed on the incident but extend a lazy arm, such that for a second it seems they've awarded a goal kick. Others turn and point properly like respectable human beings. But when Chris Smalling wrestled Aleksandar Mitrovic to the floor, Mr. Dean swiveled and marched towards the penalty spot, then stabbed his finger down with all the violence of a schoolteacher investigating an exceptionally explicit graffito. Then he turned to the man responsible. "You! Smalling! What. Is. That?"
His yellow cards aren't just cautions; they are opportunities to shake the head slowly, to furrow the brow, to tell the watching world that he simply does not understand why these foolish fools act so foolishly. Red cards are dished out with palpable disgust; the contemptuous justice of a man so sickened he can't even look at those he's dismissed.
Then, of course, there's this wonderful sequence, in which he hits his fullest expression. A series of gestures that should amount to nothing more than a few arm movements — advantage, goal, back to the halfway line — becomes, as Jamie Carragher put it, an impromptu tribute to Johnny Metgod. No wonder some felt he was celebrating the goal.
All referees occasionally have this kind of moment — it's a ridiculous job, with ridiculous hand gestures — but Mr. Dean seems to indulge himself more than most. It has been cynically suggested that he responds to the presence of television cameras both by making bigger decisions and by embiggening his gestures, and following last September's hilarious dismissal of Gabriel-but-not-Diego Costa, some Arsenal fans even petitioned the FA to have him kept from their fixtures. Though that achieved nothing, beyond further demonstrating that most Arsenal fans should only be allowed on the internet under strict supervision.
An uncharitable reading of all this might revolve around accusations of ego, and might include the cruel juxtaposition of words like "preening" and "arsehole." But that would be unfair, and we'll have no part of it. Reading a man's personality from his work is always a chancy business, and while we were all right about Jeff Winter, there's every chance that Mr. Dean is an entirely different person if you're allowed to call him Mike. It's a ridiculous job, after all. And it has ridiculous hand gestures.
Instead, let's take this as a question of art, as a performance. The business of a referee requires that the official get as many decisions as right as possible while generally keeping temperatures as low as possible. It aspires to nothing more than two uncontroversial hours. By contrast, the art of the referee is to slip into the black and parade themselves in front of everybody else. Hate me, the role begs. Loathe me. And watch me go. By acting in the manner in which he acts, dressed in the manner in which he is dressed, Mr. Dean elevates even correct decisions into provocations, and in doing so acts as a lightning rod for all the unhappy seething and inchoate rage that might otherwise fester and calcify, or rain down on the players.
Refereeing decisions are, essentially, football's other weather; you can complain about them if you like, and they can certainly ruin your day if they go badly, but time spent shouting at a referee is time spent shouting at clouds. The rain comes regardless, and sometimes you just didn't wear the right coat. Dean's genius is to thunder and lightning about the place so damn loudly that even the most mundane game can be elevated into something special. In a strange way, it's almost a shame that events last night rather got away from him. Cheick Tioté and Marouane Fellaini had both picked up bookings, and tropical storm Michael was bubbling up nicely.
You wouldn't want him in charge of every game, of course; his stylings can just as easily ruin a game as enhance one. And you certainly wouldn't want him refereeing any game involving a team that you cared about; solidarity, Gooners. But football is for neutrals and amusement and spectacle, and the occasional referee being a complete and total referee is as much a part of football as own goals and lingering misery. Everybody needs, sometimes, the strange and enraging creature — part cane-wielding schoolteacher, part pantomime villain, part folk-devil — that is the bastard in the black. Or teal. Or yellow. Or whatever.