Referees are considered by many football fans to be fair game for having abuse hurled at them from a dizzy height. They are the Aunt Sallys of football – an easy target when things are going wrong for your team and you need to vent your frustration. A variety of chants cascade from the stands directed at the man in the middle, from not being fit to be in charge of the match to a strong suggestion that they do not know exactly what they are doing or something even more personal. It was a way of letting off steam and became part and parcel of the game.
For example, Palace fans have never forgotten or forgiven Mark Clattenburg for his handling of the 2016 FA Cup Final. When Clattenburg was pictured cosying up to Manchester United’s former manager Sir Alex Ferguson in the lead-up to the game, it was injudicious as it opened him up to accusations of potential bias. His subsequent failure to play advantage when Connor Wickham was bearing down on goal was one of a series of decisions that infuriated Palace fans. While it might still rankle five years later I cannot imagine anyone going as far as the extreme malevolence that Mike Dean has been subjected to in the last week.
Now that fans are not allowed to attend matches something far more sinister has emerged as they resort to social media to channel their anger. The death threats to Dean’s family beggar belief and, understandably shaken by this totally unacceptable and abhorrent behaviour, Dean is taking a break from officiating this weekend. It would be no surprise if he decided that enough was enough and retired. Why would anyone want to put themselves in a position where they might have to go through such an experience again?
Dean made a mistake in sending off West Ham’s Thomas Soucek in the final minutes of a match that was petering out into a goalless draw. The dismissal had absolutely no impact on the result of the match and the mistake was rectified by VAR on appeal so there were no further implications for the Czech or his club. Quite what provoked such anger is difficult to fathom, and as for actually threatening somebody’s life, that is beyond comprehension.
To his credit Soucek quickly denounced the idiocy of the reaction. “Whatever decisions are made on the pitch should stay on the pitch,” Soucek said. “I don’t like hearing about it interfering with personal life and I send Mike Dean and his family my support. There is no place for abuse of any kind.” Depressingly, this senseless attack is not an isolated incident, coming amidst a string of loathsome racist abuse, the latest of which was targeted at Swansea’s Yan Dhanda after their FA Cup defeat to Manchester City. After each incident there is condemnation from the players, the clubs and the football authorities but this hasn’t stemmed the tide of abuse.
There have been calls for social media to start self-regulating with some vigour, including a co-signed open letter to the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg from all the leading football authorities including the Premier League, the PFA, the LMA and PGMOL. The letter invited Dorsey and Zuckerberg to address the issues and engage in a discussion on what action can be taken. Instagram has already announced it will be removing abusive accounts.
Facebook’s Content Policy chief Fadzai Madzingara told the BBC’s Dan Roan how they are committed to trying to educate as well as toughening up the measures. “We want people to have an opportunity to change their behaviour and to learn from what they have done so if they do break the rules they receive a notification that you have violated our community standards and we send them a link to the community standards and give them an opportunity to redeem and change their behaviour.”
Above and beyond any action from social media platforms and the football authorities what is really needed is a long, hard look at the sort of society in which this indefensible behaviour has been allowed to fester. One cannot simply lay the blame at football’s door as the sport itself reflects our society both good and bad elements; it is not the cause of such vile hatred, it is symptomatic of a broader issue. The same holds true for social media, which is the conduit rather than the originator. While both bear a certain degree of responsibility for policing their own followers, there is only so much they can do.
So what happens next? There will be a tightening of social media rules and more perpetrators will be held to account but this is merely scratching the surface of a deep-set problem. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of all this is that when these abusers are tracked down and prosecuted many of them are young, such as Irish teenager Patrick O’Brien who pleaded guilty to sending a string of racist messages to Ian Wright.
Meanwhile Mike Dean did return to refereeing when he took charge of the Leicester Brighton FA Cup game in midweek and he will probably be on Premier League duty next weekend after his break. His ebullient and occasionally egocentric manner can sometimes grate but every fair-minded fan will welcome him back and it will serve as a reminder that the referee may well be a ****** but he is also a person.