Robert Madley will not forget his first Premier League match in a hurry. One moment the 27-year-old referee from West Yorkshire was strolling through an end-of-season game notable mainly for West Bromwich Albion's convincing arrest of their slide down the table. The next the elbows and studs were flying, the early baths were being run, and the red card came out three times in 12 minutes.
West Bromwich were cruising to a well-earned victory when Southampton's substitute and record signing, Gaston Ramirez, elbowed Shane Long and was sent off, along with Albion's Marc-Antoine Fortuné, who added a red card to an earlier goal and an assist. Then Saints left-back Danny Fox launched a flying two-footed challenge on Steven Reid that left Madley no option but to reach for his back pocket again. "All three red cards were correct," said Steve Clarke, the West Bromwich manager. "But the game won't be remembered for the cards unless you write about that. Write about the fantastic football West Bromwich Albion played. How many teams have won here like that?"
Indeed, his team succeeded impressively on a ground where Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea have failed since Mauricio Pochettino became Southampton manager in January. Albion's form in 2013 had been worthy of the bottom three of the Premier League rather than the top half, but yesterday their front three of Fortune, Long and Romelu Lukaku, all of whom scored, were unplayable, certainly by Southampton's defence. The high line that Pochettino favours was exposed time and again, especially by Lukaku, who scored one, made two and could have had several more.
Southampton had no answer to the pace and power of the £18 million, 19-year-old Belgium forward, whose return to Chelsea at the end of his loan spell in summer will pose a number of questions for his parent club. "He's not bad," Clarke said. "All my front three were excellent, not just offensively where they caused Southampton all kinds of problems, but also defensively. People have been knocking us since January, but we didn't want to drift. There was a determination that today was a day we were going to win. We've got our record number of points in the Premier League and we've still got four games left."
Southampton, 18 points behind the visitors in November, had hoped to close the gap to three, but that looked a forlorn task as early as the sixth minute when Lukaku's header allowed Fortuné to escape a poor excuse for marking and force the ball in. West Bromwich keeper, Ben Foster, was only tested in the first half by a Nathaniel Clyne piledriver. West Bromwich always looked the more likely to score, Artur Boruc saving twice from Lukaku as Southampton simply stood back and admired.
Clyne hit the bar after 55 minutes, but Albion settled it 12 minutes later. Fortuné bamboozled Jos Hooiveld then produced a clever pass to send Lukaku racing between Maya Yoshida and Clyne before rounding Boruc to score his 14th goal of the season.
Seconds later Southampton's frustration boiled over when Ramirez reacted to a challenge from Long with a carelessly flung elbow. Even before the red card was out, Fortuné had needlessly raised his hands to Ramirez and joined him on an early exit. Albion embarrassed Southampton again, Long shooting low past Boruc from Lukaku's pass, before Fox deservedly walked for his reckless lunge at Reid.
Pochettino said it was the worst display since he joined. "Lukaku demands a lot from defensive players," he said. "We were in trouble from the start against him. We were predictable going forward, lacking fluency – a really bad day at the office."
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Boruc; Clyne, Yoshida, Hooiveld, Fox; Cork (Ramirez, h-t), Schneiderlin; Lallana (Mayuka, 69), S Davis, Rodriguez; Lambert (Fonte, 85).
West Bromwich (4-1-2-3): Foster; Reid, Olsson, McAuley, Ridgewell; Yacob; Morrison (Jones, 78), Dorrans; Lukaku (Thomas, 85), Fortuné, Long (Rosenberg, 88).
Referee: Robert Madley.
Man of the match: Lukaku (West Bromwich)
Match rating: 7/10