Referees have always been a vital part of football and, in fact, the game couldn’t be played without them.
For many years, the ref was just a nameless *insert obscene word here* who always made the wrong decision at the wrong time and could rarely please anyone.
Most people wouldn’t have been able to tell you the name of the official who had just taken charge of their team’s most recent match. This was unless it was because there had been an extremely controversial decision made, the ref had a silly name, or had suffered a calamity such as falling over or getting hit by the ball.
That changed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as referees became more than just the man in the middle and the age of the celebrity referee began. The match official became more well-known, their performances were put under the spotlight by fans, pundits, and the media, and what the ref did was spoken about in the pub after a game as much as anything the players or manager had done.
The list of memorable referees in England who became as well-known as the players included David Elleray, Paul Durkin, Uriah Rennie, Graham Poll, Howard Webb, and Paul Alcock. Following on from these names, the referee is now sometimes a bigger part of a match than the players and their decisions can change the outcome of a game.
There isn’t a week goes by without the mention of a referee making the wrong decision, there are former refs who now work as television pundits, and there are ref spotlight columns on some media platforms scrutinising every big decision the official had to make in recent matches.
Here, we look at who we believe to be the first celebrity referee, the greatest ref of all-time, and the most controversial.
The First Celebrity Referee
During the 1980’s and the first half of the ‘90’s there was a referee who was spoken about, and hated, more than any other. That man was Roger Milford.
With his blonde perm and super short shorts, Milford epitomised everything a referee shouldn’t have been. Instead of going about his business in a professional and innocuous manner, he seemed to want to make himself centre-stage every time he stepped on the pitch.
His backwards-running and grin after making a controversial decision or brandishing a card became a regular occurrence. Fans detested him, as they felt he was bias towards bigger clubs and wanted to be mates with the top players, and they expelled a few expletives upon seeing his name on the back of their official match programme.
But, for all his negatives, he was a leading referee for many years and took charge of many a crucial match, including the 1991 FA Cup Final. He was valued by the Football Association so much that he was allowed to ref until in his fifties, despite the age of retirement for a ref being forty-eight at the time, and he became a referee’s assessor after retiring from officiating.
The Greatest Ref of All-Time
Pierluigi Collina, with his distinctive bald head and staring eyes, is widely regarded as the best football referee of all-time and he was certainly one of the most well-known.
The Italian started out as a domestic ref in the lower leagues of Italian football between 1988-91, before rising up to officiate in Serie A and then becoming a FIFA appointed referee in 1995.
Between 1997-2005, Collina was named Serie A referee of the year seven times and he was also named FIFA ref of the year six consecutive times between 1998-03.
His popularity and standing in the game was such that in 2003, Collina was chosen ahead of a host of world-class players and managers to be the cover star for football video game Pro Evolution Soccer 3.
The Italian Football Hall of Famer officiated the biggest domestic and international matches during his career, including the finals of the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup, before retiring in 2005.
He has remained involved in the game since retirement, as head of referees in Ukraine, as an advisor for the Italian FA, and as a member of the UEFA referees committee.
Most Controversial Referee
In English football, especially in the Premier League era, there are two names who appear at the top of the list when it comes to most controversial football referees. They are Mike Dean and Mark Clattenburg.
The latter was suspended due to an investigation into debts, was accused of using inappropriate language to a Chelsea player, was stood down due to a phone call with the manager of a club whose match he was due to officiate and was punished for breaking rules on travelling to and from a match.
He has also been accused of bias towards certain teams, as well as trying to make himself bigger and more important than the players playing a match. However, Clattenburg isn’t quite as controversial as Dean.
Dean started off officiating football matches in the Northern Football League in the mid-1980’s and then became an assistant referee before being promoted to the full referees list for the football league in 1997.
In 2001, he became one of twenty referees to be named in the select group who could officiate Premier League matches. Then, in 2003, he became a FIFA appointed referee and took charge of his first international match in 2004.
Still in the select group of referees today, Dean is an experienced official who has taken control of several big matches. However, controversy has followed him throughout his career.
He was removed as referee for the 2006 FA Cup Final, due to worries over his ability to be impartial as Liverpool were playing in it. Arsenal supporters set up an online petition to prevent him officiating any of their games again, he sent off a West Ham player against Manchester United despite the opposition player being to blame for a collision between the two, and he was demoted for a week in 2016 following a match where he gave two penalties that the referees’ ruling body disagreed with.
There are many more examples of controversial decisions made by Dean, including just recently when he was lambasted for ignoring a foul by a Chelsea player and instead booking a Southampton player for complaining about the earlier decision.
On top of that, Dean has also been accused of celebrating goals being scored on more than one occasion.
With his array of over-the-top facial expressions, dramatic hand gestures, and booking players without even looking in their direction, Dean has become somewhat of a pantomime villain on the football pitch.