Referee Lee Probert took centre stage between Norwich City and Wigan for all wrong reasons

Referee Lee Probert is about to book Bradley Johnson for his foul on James McCarthy. Picture: Paul Chesterton / Focus Images Referee Lee Probert is about to book Bradley Johnson for his foul on James McCarthy. Picture: Paul Chesterton / Focus Images

Monday, December 17, 2012
3:51 PM

When the marketing men dreamed up the concept of the Premier League as The World’s Greatest Football Competition they didn’t have fixtures like Saturday’s in mind.

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The pre-match atmosphere was flat and coupled with the size of the Wigan following the occasion had all the razzmatazz of a League One encounter.

With one exception.

Had this actually been a third-flight encounter there wouldn’t have been much media interest or opportunity to make a name for yourself.

In the top division, though, every move gets analysed – including that of the officials.

Call me a traditionalist, but I always thought referees set out not to be noticed and help the game get along with minimal intrusion.

The performance of Lee Probert was little short of a joke, which maybe explains why he could be seen on the pitch at times sporting a broad smile in the direction of spectators and players.

I don’t know what it was about Saturday – he’s reffed some previous City games without incident, although he was in charge of Derby’s 2-1 win here in 2007, after which a somewhat diplomatic Darren Huckerby did admit: “You can’t really have a go at the ref, but I thought he had a strange game today.”

Now, you can put up with some fairly clueless decisions if they’re consistently bad. When you have episodes such as Anthony Pilkington being yellow-carded but then Franco Di Santo escaping any sanction for throwing himself to the ground it was little wonder that even the patience of mild-mannered Chris Hughton was being tested.

Two days on and I’m not so fussed about Mr Probert now; at least we didn’t pick up any red cards – as was the case at Tranmere three seasons ago, say.

I’d rather reflect on how, with the increasing hard-to-beat approach we display, we didn’t allow ourselves to be sidetracked from another solidly ground-out home win.

This is exactly the sort of quietly-efficient form that established Stoke in the Premier League with the minimum of fuss and attention.

Apart from certain clueless BBC pundits we’ve fallen off the radar a bit as we’ve quietly got on with amassing points.

With everything else that was going on against Wigan we still took the points. In other seasons – such as 2004/05 and 2011/12 – this is a game we probably wouldn’t have won. We’d have become so focused upon the injustices handed out by the referee that any game plan would have gone to pot.

We’re a side set up to be solid rather than full of goals, but even so we looked infinitely superior to Wigan. You do wonder whether they’ll be back again here next year.

But for Ali Al Habsi’s save to deny Robert Snodgrass, the game would have been all over by half-time.

There was a great deal of predictability about Wigan then drawing level, but we dug in again despite the efforts of the man in red and ground out a crucial win.

It’s just a shame we now have to play three sides in a row currently above us in the table.

If we could have January’s fixtures now you could see us getting perhaps the two wins needed to clinch a manager-of-the-month award for Hughton. But as it is, it’s not hard to imagine that Wigan won’t be our last home win of 2012, although our next two Carrow Road fixtures are going to have a far, far bigger spotlight turned on them.

• A DISAPPOINTING END TO A CUP RUN FULL OF HOPE

So arguably our biggest cup occasion since 1992 has come and gone, and it ended up as disappointing as losing 20 years ago to Sunderland at Hillsborough was.

We simply weren’t good enough and didn’t deserve to secure only the ninth major semi-final place in our history.

Despite my desire every year for us to have a cup run, I’m now becoming almost immune to our continual failings. Decent cup stabs are what happens at other clubs, not ours.

Quite how the likes of David Fox didn’t get a run-out, I don’t know. If he doesn’t figure against Peterborough he’s going to be thinking that he’s come to the end of his time at Carrow Road.

The only slight consolation about last week is that it doesn’t make an already packed January schedule even more demanding. But it was hugely galling that after paying hard-earned money to see the defeats to Leyton Orient, MK Dons and Leicester – games which weren’t exactly played at full tilt – that the architect of those losses comes back here and actually takes a cup game very, very seriously with a well-thought-out game plan.

It was also ironic that Chris Hughton played Grant Holt and for a moment you feared for his immediate availability when he took that early knock against Villa.

Of course, some managers we can think of wouldn’t have even had him on the bench on Tuesday night. So much for fortune favouring the brave.

But now it all begins again on January 5 and providing Peterborough aren‘t roused into action by having their fans outnumbered inside their own ground, we should surely not repeat the previously-mentioned failings and reach the last 32.

We don’t have scheduled fixtures on the weekends of the fourth and fifth rounds and the quarter and semi-finals coincide with a home match against Southampton and a trip to Arsenal. FA Cup progress wouldn’t exactly overload our season, particularly if we’ve taken major steps towards reaching the 40-point mark by then.

If we get past Peterborough, then draw Manchester City away and lose I won’t go into mourning. But if we have a succession of more winnable ties, such as those in this season’s Capital One Cup, we have to go for it.

Despite our current lofty position we’re never going to achieve any tangible major success in the league other than to merely survive, so battling through the early rounds only to be then brushed aside by the likes of Aston Villa is a major opportunity wasted.

• UNBEATEN RUN IS BEST POSSIBLE INSURANCE

Five wins from 21 games needed, then.

While the experience of 1995 reminds you to always be extremely over-cautious, even if we are currently missing our first-choice keeper, you have to say that as things stand with the squad it’s a target that’s eminently do-able.

You can almost go through the fixture list and make a case for us reaching it by the end of March.

It probably won’t happen; this run won’t go on forever, and the result against Aston Villa shows what can happen the moment a few key players become unavailable.

But 22 points from 10 games gives Chris Hughton an awful lot of insurance for the next couple of months. If, say, struggling Newcastle come here in January and win, it’s not as much of a setback as it might have seemed a couple of months ago.

Despite our current lofty position, this season remains all about survival – anything else is a bonus. When all’s said and done, I’d still take going into the final-day game at Manchester City safe in 17th place.

And that run will also make his January transfer window dealings a lot easier. If we were really in the thick of things – like Reading – would you be tempted to join a club who could just as easily be playing Brentford instead of Chelsea next season?

Back in 2005 no bigger clubs looked like they wanted to take a chance on Dean Ashton. If they had, would he really have wanted to come here and, as things turned out, have a return trip to Crewe just 11 months later?

If the money is there to strengthen in January, particularly up front, we ought surely be in a position to be looking beyond more loan deals for young, ‘might-never-be’ prospects.

• WEST BROM STATS ARE IN OUR FAVOUR

The law of averages suggests that after two 2-1 wins at West Bromwich already in 2012 surely we can’t make it three victories at The Hawthorns in a single calendar year.

Perhaps we won’t. Unbeaten runs like this one always tend to end against unfashionable opposition.

But then each time we’ve played Barnsley in recent years the thought has always been that sooner or later they would really hammer us to make up for our great run of results against them.

So, given that our results against the Tykes since their promotion to the Championship in 2006 has been 5-1, 3-1, 3-1, 1-0, 0-0, 4-0, 2-1 and 2-0, maybe the stats might yet be on our side at The Hawthorns this weekend.

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