Reading: Federici, Gunter, Hector, Cooper, Kelly, Norwood, McCleary (Taylor), Obita, Williams (Blackman), Robson-Kanu, Murray (Ferdinand)
Carrow Road, historically a reasonable place for Reading to gain a points return, was a fruitful venue once more as Reading ran out 2-1 winners in this fixture between two out of division's most out of form teams. Norwich went into the game with just one win in nine, while Reading's own fortunes had seen just two wins in ten. Recent history would point towards a home win, Norwich having ran out deserved 2-1 winners in the two previous fixtures at the venue, memorably a Grant Holt winner in 2011 secured three very valuable points towards promotion for Norwich in a bad-tempered, highly charged affair. My own overriding personal memory of the game being that of the Barclay End giving the most intense crowd bounces I have ever seen.
Reading lined up in a familiar looking 4-2-3-1, the main talking points being the dropping of top scorer Simon Cox to the bench again to cater for the more solid midfield three, with Garath McCleary making his first start of the season on the left. Norwich lined up in a standard 4-4-2 with former Adkins stalwart Gary Hooper lining up front for his own first start of the season alongside Cameron Jerome. Norwich's team oozes Championship quality with the likes of John Ruddy, Steven Whittaker, Michael Turner, Nathan Redmond all in addition to the forward pairing, they'll be a match for every team in this division. Having said that, Reading's own quality is there for all to see and we are a match for most teams as well, as Norwich found out.
The match was a consistent affair in terms of ebb and flow, with the majority of possession and territory belonging to Norwich, Reading content to sit deep, dig in and soak up the pressure. Typical of Reading though, it wasn't long before the defence was opened up. On ten minutes the ball was worked tidily out right to Nathan Redmond (who impressed throughout as he has done every time I've seen him). Redmond swung in a near post cross at head height, it took a clear touch to Hooper who was completely unmarked six yards out, and the ball was touched home. Confusion then reigned as the linesman raised his flag for offside, presumably as he felt Hooper was offside as the ball was touched on in the vicinity of Jerome, however the referee overruled him. Whether this was the correct decision is open to debate as TV replays prove inconclusive, and subsequent reports shed no light on the reasoning behind the overrule.
Regardless, Reading responded well and were quickly on level terms just four minutes later. A Hal Robson-Kanu fizzer was palmed wide by John Ruddy, the resulting far post corner being turned wide by a home defender. Ollie Norwood's resultant corner kick found Jake Cooper who found himself with a run on Michael Turner at the far post, and he made no mistake, finding the smallest of gaps between defender and post that the City defender had just stepped away from.
More of the same pattern of play ensued, Norwich did create a couple of chances. Firstly, Kyle Lafferty found time and space on the 18 yard line after a swift counter and thundered an effort that Federici tipped against the bar. Then just a few minutes later Cameron Jerome found himself with a clear sight of goal courtesy of a lovely little sliderule pass from Hooper, Federici smothering well.
Then the sucker punch, right on half-time. A right wing corner to the far post found Ruddy blocked by a combination of defender and attacker, and the ball fell to Cooper once more who made no mistake from inside the six yard box. 2-1 at half-time then, Reading putting in the classic away performance.
Second-half, and it was clear from the off that Reading were content to settle for what they had. Very little in the way of purposeful attacking intent, a deep back line, time wasting a-plenty. Norwich dominated possession once more but rarely managed to open the impressive Cooper/Hector partnership. When they did, they mustered a solitary shot on target, indeed the only real saves Federici was forced to make was from his own defender and a Hooper effort in the six yard box.
At the other end Oliver Norwood's rip-snorter slipped through Ruddy's fingers, Ruddy managing to just keep the ball out of goal at the second attempt, while at the other end a big shout for a penalty was waved away by a frustrating referee, Hector alleged to have handled. My own view was completely unsighted soI am unable to offer an opinion on it. Lastly, Josh Murphy fired over from 12 yards after more good work from Redmond on the right, a chance that he really should have tucked away to salvage a point.
Ultimately though, Reading prevailed. A decent rearguard action saw out a lacklustre Norwich side clearly lacking in direction and confidence but there was always a sense of vulnerability. Whether that is fair, or whether it is a feeling that stems from our tendency to concede hopelessly soft goals, I can't really say, but it was pleasing that our young central defensive pairing saw the game out quite comfortably.
Stephen Kelly at right back was generally excellent as ever, the best right back we have at the club, however it was unsurprising that the left was the side that we were caused most problems. I am not a fan of picking on individual players but I have spoken of this before - Chris Gunter for me is a major problem for Reading's defensive make-up. A full back is a defender first, but rarely will you ever see Gunter block a cross, win the ball up against a man who fronts him up, he loses aerial battles against similar sized players, his all-round defensive quality is not good enough. Instead at left back we have a player in Jordan Obita who was player of the season last season playing in that very position, a player who for me was turning into one of the best full backs in the division, a Premier League player in the making. He rarely puts a foot wrong there, consistently blocks crosses, wins his one-on-one match up. He should be playing there, simple as that.
In terms of result, this was an excellent three points to pick up, the win was just the third time that Nigel Adkins' Reading had won having trailed (Ipswich and Doncaster last season the others), a welcome confidence boost prior to Neil Lennon's Bolton turning up next weekend. They will be looking for revenge after their 7-goal mauling last year.
I must also mention Norwich fans who, post match in the pub, were seemingly in the majority for wanting Norwich manager Neil Adams sacked. However the Barclay End were certainly vocal in positively backing their team for the 90 minutes before venting their anger and frustration on the final whistle. Some Reading fans may want to take note - that, in my opinion, is how you support a team. 90 minutes, get behind the team, then vent your spleen at the end should the result be undesirable.
Finally, a word for Neil Adams and his post-match comments, quoted in the Eastern Daily Press as saying:- "They [Canaries fans] should not be watching their team losing at home to a team like Reading."
Why not? Norwich are a team that are Championship quality. There is probably one player who you could maybe argue would fit nicely into a mid-table Premier League starting 11 in Nathan Redmond, but otherwise it is Championship quality, just like us. We are competing on an equal footing with Norwich, have done for the best part of 20 years, and since 02/03 when we stepped up a level in club stature have been competing at the top end of the Championship every season, apart from our three seasons in the Premier League. Mr Adams would do well to remember that when speaking about our club. Thoroughly disrespectful despite his caveat, and hopefully that'll be Nigel Adkins' team talk for 28 December. Parting shot - one wonders if Adams would have had the balls to say something similar on 4 March 1997...