Referee gives Norwich City hard evening
READING 3, NORWICH CITY 3: Amid the inevitable hue and cry over referee Michael Oliver’s peculiar contribution at the Madejski Stadium, it is easy to overlook the fact that Norwich City have now won just once in the last seven Championship matches.
It is a statistic that does not fairly reflect the quality of most of their performances – and indeed, they have lost only twice in the same period and are still a very healthy eighth in the table – but when the day of reckoning comes in May, one hopes there will not be too much cause to reflect on the points that went astray in October and November.
A missed penalty at Queens Park Rangers, a lead thrown away at home to Crystal Palace and an equaliser conceded in the dying seconds at Millwall have cost the Canaries a potential seven points, balanced only slightly by the one they rescued with a storming fightback and a stoppage-time goal against Burnley.
But, with the exception of the second half against Palace, there has been much to admire in City’s performances, and Saturday’s display against Reading was their most impressive since the trip to Bristol City at the start of October – until the Northumberland official took a hand and effected a dramatic shift in the balance of play.
The youthful Mr Oliver was helped in no small part by the histrionics of defender Ian Harte, eight years his senior, with the full-back’s reaction to a clumsy but hardly life-threatening challenge by Grant Holt arguably contributing to a swift red card for the City skipper in the final minute of the first half.
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When Harte reached Wembley with Carlisle in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy last season, it was reported that he was still bidding for the first major medal of his career. He didn’t get it that day, but with the game televised by Sky at least he should now be on the short list for a Bafta.
The Canaries were cruising fairly comfortably at 3-1 up at that stage but from the restart there was the sense that getting on the bus home with a point would be no mean achievement, and so it proved.
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Reading laid siege to the City goalmouth for much of the second half and when they levelled the scores with nearly half an hour to go, one wondered if Paul Lambert’s men could hold on. That they did so says a great deal about the character of this side and owed much to three crucial saves by goalkeeper John Ruddy.
With Andrew Crofts recalled after suspension and Wes Hoolahan left on the bench, City switched to a 4-4-2 formation and the opening quarter of an hour was low on incident, apart from a backpass by Reading skipper Matt Mills that almost left goalkeeper Adam Federici in trouble and a Shane Long volley that was straight at Ruddy.
But the Canaries moved ahead in the 16th minute when full-back Russell Martin scored his second goal of the season, playing a delightful one-two with Korey Smith and rasping a right-foot drive into the roof of the net.
Ten minutes later it was 2-0 when Holt scored his sixth of the season after a disastrous error by Mills. Under pressure from Chris Martin, Mills repeated his earlier blunder and tried to turn the ball back to Federici, but Holt nipped in, sidestepped the ’keeper and tucked the ball home from the narrowest of angles.
Reading were back in contention inside two minutes, however, thanks to the aforementioned Harte. David Fox conceded a corner on the Reading right, and Howard’s kick was met by a glancing header by Simon Church that Fox kept out on the goalline, only for Harte to knock in the rebound – yet another goal conceded from a flag-kick.
City restored their two-goal advantage on 32 minutes, though, when Chris Martin struck from a direct free-kick from some 25 yards out that Federici, diving to his right, could only help on its way with his fingertips.
The Canaries could have been out of sight had Federici not then denied Holt goal number four after Chris Martin’s flick had put the skipper through.
Ruddy made timely saves from Howard and Long to preserve his side’s two-goal cushion, but Reading were given an unexpected boost by Holt’s dismissal and, with Harte seemingly unaffected by his first-half trauma, they set about making the extra man count.
The Royals almost pulled a goal back five minutes after the break when Ruddy dived to his right to push a powerful shot by Church on to the post. And with just under an hour played, Reading did reduce the arrears when Jem Karacan found Noel Hunt on the left side of the penalty area and he clipped a shot over Ruddy.
Within three minutes, the scores were level as Simon Lappin felled Long at the expense of a yellow card and a penalty, Long getting to his feet to tuck his spot-kick to Ruddy’s right.
Hunt headed over from Harte’s cross midway through the half when he might have made it 4-3 and, after Lambert introduced a second striker in Simeon Jackson to try to relieve the pressure and keep the ball upfield, Chris Martin was only just off target with a header from Lappin’s cross. But thereafter it was largely a case of whether City could hold out.
Ruddy dived to his left to keep out McAnuff’s powerful effort, then slipped up when he failed to reach Jobi McAnuff’s corner but escaped when Mills knocked the loose ball over.
Ruddy made a point-blank save from Long after a rare error by Elliott Ward and McAnuff’s follow-up attempt was blocked. Ward then returned the favour by making a vital clearance after the ’keeper spilled a shot by McAnuff.
Two further changes by Lambert gave City fresh legs but the manager vacated his technical area when Karacan’s crunching tackle on Smith left the City man needing treatment and he was punished by being sent to the stands.
There was almost one final calamity when substitute Matthew Gill came perilously close to an own goal when he dived to head clear. But after six goals, a red card, a penalty, and a manager sent to the stands, it was quite enough drama for one evening.