Harte broken as justice is done For Norwich City

NORWICH CITY 2, READING 1: It is often said that fact is stranger than fiction – and Norwich City’s season is beginning to follow the kind of storyline that most scriptwriters would consign to the bin as too implausible for words.

There was something too neat, too satisfying and altogether too just about the way the Canaries snatched a vital victory over Reading by scoring in the dying seconds of stoppage time for the second home game in a row.

The fact that it was skipper Grant Holt – sent off in error when the two sides met in November – sliding in to net the winner and spark scenes of delirium was fitting enough.

But it was even more appropriate that the defender trailing in his wake was Ian Harte, whose over-reaction to a fairly innocuous tackle had contributed to Holt’s red card at the Madejski Stadium three months earlier.

And if poetic justice was the theme of the day, Jem Karacan’s red card for a reckless challenge on David Fox 20 minutes into the second half at Carrow Road was, in a sense, also belated punishment for a crunching foul in the previous fixture on City’s Korey Smith that did not, in the referee’s eyes, even merit a free-kick.

Sometimes, though, justice can be a little one-sided and the Royals will feel they might have gone home with some reward had they been given a penalty one minute into the second half, with the score at 1-1, when Fox appeared to pull back Jay Tabb.

On the overall balance of play, however, there is no question the Canaries deserved their victory, and apart from possibly Tabb, the only man entitled to a certain amount of sympathy was Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici, who was quite magnificent.

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Federici, who scored an injury-time equaliser for Reading against Cardiff two seasons ago after going up for a corner, knows all about late goals, but as his manager acknowledged, he did not deserve to be on the losing side.

It was his agility and sound judgment, together with some wayward finishing from Paul Lambert’s men, which combined to keep a packed house on the edge of their seats all the way to another amazing finish.

The importance of Holt’s goal was underlined as the weekend’s other Championship results filtered through. A draw would have left City sixth in the table rather than third this morning, and the gap over seventh-placed Leicester would have been just four points, with a trip to the Walkers Stadium still to come.

After a nervous opening against Reading, the Canaries quickly clicked into gear. Chris Martin, recalled to the starting line-up, brought Federici into action three times before they moved ahead in the 16th minute with loan midfielder Henri Lansbury’s second goal in successive home games.

Adam Drury’s free-kick from the left was nodded on by Holt and Wes Hoolahan did brilliantly to keep the ball in play and skip past Tabb before presenting Lansbury with the simple chance to sidefoot home.

An error by Elliott Ward almost handed Reading the equaliser when his backpass fell short and goalkeeper John Ruddy had to dash out to foil Shane Long, but it should have been 2-0 to City in the 20th minute. Chris Martin’s perfect flick left Holt with a clear run on goal but, as Federici came out, he blazed his shot over the top.

Reading began to warm to their task and in the 26th minute they levelled when Long scored his fifth goal in four games against the Canaries.

A City attack broke down with a stray pass from Fox and Reading broke through Jimmy Kebe on the right. Kebe got the better of Ward on the halfway line, with the help of a ricochet, and raced on to deliver a cross that was neatly tucked away by Long.

Either side could have led at the interval. First Federici denied City in the 36th minute when Holt met Lansbury’s cross with a neat volley but the ’keeper dived to his right to keep it out. Then Ruddy came to the rescue as Kebe beat the offside trap and clipped in a shot from a tight angle that the ’keeper diverted over the bar.

Thereafter, apart from Tabb’s vain penalty appeal, which set the ball rolling in the second half, City generally held the upper hand.

Hoolahan, Chris Martin and Lansbury all went close before the Arsenal youngster made way for Andrew Surman, making his first senior appearance for 11 weeks.

With 65 minutes gone, Reading were reduced to 10 men when Karacan’s red card challenge on Fox 10 yards into the Norwich half provoked the kind of mass confrontation that seems to have become a regular and unnecessary feature of the season.

When order was restored by referee Mathieson, Surman almost made it 2-1, clipping the top of the crossbar from Chris Martin’s pass.

Federici then saved Reading twice in a matter of seconds, denying Andrew Crofts in a one-on-one when Holt put him through, before diving to keep out Hoolahan’s volley.

Reading had the chance to snatch the lead when Long got the better of a sprint with Barnett – who pulled his hamstring in the process – and crossed to Michail Antonio, but the substitute’s effort was diverted over the bar by Drury.

Time and again City might have gone ahead. Hoolahan blazed over from a great opening, and Holt robbed the dithering Andy Griffin only to be thwarted again by Federici. And the Canaries’ last chance appeared to have gone in the first of four added minutes when Federici denied Holt again with a brilliant one-handed save as the City skipper went clean through.

But the footballing equivalent of the 7th Cavalry arrived in the nick of time. Fox’s pass was flicked on neatly by Surman into the path of Crofts on the left, and his low cross bypassed Wilbraham and ran across the six-yard box to Holt, beyond the far post, who got ahead of the broken Harte to knock in a dramatic winner.