‘It’s my one chance – all I want is for it to go well’
Hilperton's Lee Probert will referee tomorrow's FA Cup final at Wembley between Arsenal and Hull City
HOW would you react to being told you were going to referee the FA Cup Final?
Maybe leap around the living room punching the air in delight? Excitedly get on the phone to family and friends to share the good news? Perhaps plan a night out to celebrate?
For Lee Probert, digesting the news that he would be officiating the showpiece occasion in the most famous domestic cup competition in the world manifested itself in a more immediate – and not altogether welcome – fashion.
“My golf went right out the window,’’ confessed the 41-year-old, from Hilperton, who will be the man in the middle when Arsenal take on Hull City at Wembley on Saturday evening.
“I had nothing else to focus on. I was trying to hit a little white ball in the middle of the fairway and it wasn’t going anywhere. I must have had too many things on my mind.’’
That April 15 phone call confirmed avid golfer Probert, a member at Cumberwell Park Golf Club near Bradford on Avon, as Wiltshire’s first official of the FA Cup final since one Billy Russell 90 years ago.
With the honour of carrying the whistle for the Wembley occasion only granted to an official once in his career, it was a hugely proud moment.
“I had the phone call at precisely 10.53am on Tuesday morning when I was leaving St George’s Park (English football’s training base in Staffordshire) from our fortnightly get-together,’’ he remembered.
“I was coming down the A38 when the phone rang with a gentleman saying ‘good morning Mr Probert... but really I should be saying is that the FA Cup final 2014 referee?’
“It was a dream come true. When you look back at years gone by and think how iconic the FA Cup really is and now to be walking out and taking charge in the 2014 final is really a boyhood dream.’’
Probert may be no stranger to Wembley – he was fourth official at the 2011 final between Manchester City and Stoke and also refereed the 2010 FA Trophy final there – but Saturday’s occasion will be a career highpoint.
“It’s the highest accolade in English football isn’t it? To be part of the FA Cup final, the history and everything that goes with it, it would be the biggest game of my career so far.
“I referee abroad and represent my country but to get the one chance to referee the FA Cup Final at Wembley is about as big as it gets.
“It’s a tribute to my dad (Tom) - he was the first person I thought of. We lost him six years ago, but I’m sure he’ll be there like he is every game. When I walk out, I look up to the sky to make sure he’s looking over us to make sure the game goes well.
“It’s the iconic trophy and the one opportunity. I know I’ll never get it again so it’s the one chance and all I want is for it to go really well. As long as I keep the focus and the mindset and continue in the same way as I’ve been refereeing this year, there is no reason why it shouldn’t.
“All I want is for it to be a special day and for no one to remember me, really.’’ While much has been made this week of what the occasion means for the teams of Arsene Wenger and Steve Bruce, for the ‘third team’ at Wembley it is no less significant.
Probert works regularly with an officiating team of Ron Ganfield, from Weston, and Mark Scholes (Aylesbury), but on Saturday will be backed up by assistant referees Jake Collin and Mick McDonough, with Kevin Friend as fourth official and Simon Bennett as reserve assistant referee.
“It really is a team thing. With their (Ganfield and Scholes’) help, I’ve received this accolade of the final. It’s not just about me,’’ he said.
Probert’s wife Mel and mum Cheran, as well as up to a 10-strong party of friends and family will be there to see his big day, with even match officials not exempt from that special cup final build-up.
A Friday pre-final event, which former FA Cup final officials and referees’ association members attend, will see him saying a few words alongside former Chelsea and England defender Graeme Le Saux before a trip to check out the stadium itself and go over the last-minute details.
“We will drive past Wembley and knowing I’ll be there the following day will be special. Our team is really looking forward to going (all five of us),’’ he added.
“There will be three teams out there, Arsenal, Hull and us. We’ll savour some of the atmosphere but our focus is that the game will go well.
“I’ll try and get some sleep Friday night because it’s really important that my preparation is the same as it would be week in week out.
“Saturday morning we’ll be up and I’m sure the nerves will be going and the butterflies will be in the stomach.’’
Arsenal and Hull came through five rounds to reach Saturday’s showpiece, but for Probert the journey to this career highlight has encompassed years of cutting his teeth at local league level, moves across the south of England and personal sacrifice in what is now a full-time profession.
“I’m an Isle of Wight boy originally and did all my initial refereeing there and then in the Hampshire League and then in the old Southern Division,’’ he said.
“I refereed at the old Trowbridge Town – one of the secretaries of the old club brought me in a programme of a match I’d done between Trowbridge and Bashley many years ago recently – then it was on to the Conference, then the Football League.
“You don’t just arrive at the top level. We’ve gone from running around the streets and sprinting around lamp posts to heartrate monitors and data being checked for how far we run. Technology has played a massive part in pushing refereeing forwards.
“Somebody asked me recently ‘what do you do all week?’ and I thought, ‘if only you knew how much training you put in and how much work you put in the gym’.
“At the end of the day, it is my full-time job. We had a cleaning business in Bristol, but we ended up having to sell the business because of the demands of football.’’
All those years will pay off when he emerges from the tunnel just before 5pm on Saturday for what is a landmark moment for refereeing in Wiltshire, as he emulates Russell, who oversaw Newcastle United’s 2-0 triumph over Aston Villa in 1924, only the second final to be staged at the original Wembley Stadium.
“It’s great for Wiltshire to have a cup final referee,’’ he added.
“At the end of the day I’m a Wiltshire FA referee and to be the first from here to do it for 90 years, I’m proud of that as well.
“If you enjoy your sport and enjoy what you do, to work in the environment you love, is a dream come true. It comes with demands of course but I’m fortunate to have the best view in the house, in the middle each week.
“I will get chance to see my family and friends after the game. The game will go, probably as quick as normal, and then I will look back and say ‘I was part of that.”
Copyright: Wiltshire Times