A true team effort helps Norwich City prevail
NORWICH CITY 2, READING !: 'McNally rises, he knocks it down to Lambert, who sends it into the middle ... Fox, Surman, Crofts – and Holt scores at the back post to give City another dramatic victory.'
The stuff of dreams, even for the chief executive of Norwich City you assume, but sometimes you have to pinch yourself and wonder how this team keeps managing to pop up with goals when everyone else is thinking about the trip home.
With the stop watches deep into the fourth and final minute of time added on and City desperately chasing the goal that would be worth a valuable three points, they went and did it again. For the seventh time this season they scored in time added on.
The fact of the matter was that the eagerness of David McNally was indeed evident in the build-up as he threw the ball from the front row of the directors' box to his manager as the seconds slipped away. But it would be disingenuous to suggest the chief executive will go down under the 'assists' column. This, as Lambert made clear afterwards, was all about the players. As he went on to the pitch to join them in celebration he looked at the fans and pointed to the players in a signal that said 'aim your cheers and applause towards them'.
They didn't of course – they shared the love around, because in the aftermath of such a stunning finale it was delirium at Carrow Road.
Perhaps we ought to be getting used to it by now: these time-added-on goals are the icing on a cake that has seen numerous other strikes go in during the final 10 minutes of games. If it carries on like this we'll be disappointed when it doesn't happen.
Why it keeps happening is a bit of a mystery. Sure, fitness has a part to play, but there aren't many unfit football teams out there. The players have to have a minimum skill requirement as well, to earn themselves a place in a Norwich City team. So presumably there's an element of psychology about it too. Get that winning feeling and you don't want to give it up.
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What doesn't play a part is luck, which recalls the Gary Player (and others no doubt) quote: 'The harder I work the luckier I get.'
There was nothing fortunate about this victory, but there was hard work, and that skill factor that, combined, is proving an irrepressible force at times. There have been times of late when it's been more reliant on elbow grease than artistry, but the second half at Burnley a week earlier suggested all the flair was still there, and at times on Saturday City were in a similar mood.
If the loss of centre-half Leon Barnett with a hamstring injury soured the victory, there was some compensation in the appearance of Andrew Surman who, as Lambert says, is the sort of player for whom a football at his feet is a perfectly natural part of his body. He walks, jogs, runs around with it at complete ease and when it leaves his foot, it does so with unerring accuracy.
His cameo reappearance after 12 weeks out was full of hope – and the role he played in Holt's winner was sublime.
The fact that proceedings got that squeaky so late on was down to Adam Federici, who denied Holt, Chris Martin, Wes Hoolahan, Henri Lansbury and Andrew Crofts.
Lansbury did beat him, on 16 minutes, to open the scoring after a somewhat shaky opening few minutes by the hosts. When they settled, Hoolahan and David Fox began to run the show, to such an extent that Reading pulled Jay Tabb back from his advanced position behind Shane Long to keep an eye on the City man. Unfortunate, then, that it was Tabb who was left looking for the invisible man when Hoolahan, in the bottom right-hand corner of the Royals area, nutmegged him, looked up and saw Lansbury's perfectly-timed run. The pass was spot on, the finish an assured sidefoot from seven yards.
Holt should have made it 2-0 when Chris Martin set him up for a one-on-one with Federici, but he blasted over.
If there was some doubt about City it was the nervous start to the game by Elliott Ward, who had already left Ruddy struggling with a back pass that Long almost took advantage of, before Jimmy Kebe put him on the back foot. Kebe was marauding down the right and there was little Ward or left-back Adam Drury could do about it. But when he skipped past Ward's challenge on 26 minutes, the danger became reality as he squared it across for Long to clip home from six yards. It was Long's fifth goal in the last four meetings between the teams.
Kebe and Long combined well as the match began to even itself out a little, although Holt almost came up with a cracking goal when he twisted to get his right boot to a cross from Lansbury that forced Federici down low to his right.
Ruddy saved from Kebe, Barnett did well to block a Brian Howard effort and Ian Harte wasn't far away with a free-kick.
Tabb claimed a penalty when he got in front of Fox early in the second half and went down – replays suggest there was a tug, but the fact that referee Scott Mathieson gave neither the spot kick nor a yellow card for diving, suggests he wasn't sure what had gone on.
If it was even by now, the tide started to turn. First came Surman, for Lansbury, then, two minutes later Jem Karacan departed, having gone in high and with studs showing on Fox. It was a horrible 'tackle', So was the one he committed on Korey Smith at Reading back in November. He had to go – Mr Mathieson didn't really need to be convinced by the angry reaction of City players, who have already fallen foul of the FA's mass confrontation laws once this season and can ill afford to keep financing the footballing hierarchy.
Surman clipped a short pass from Chris Martin on to the top of the bar, Crofts shot straight at Federici and then found his legs in a one-on-one before the Aussie denied Hoolahan and Holt again.
It was all City, although when Barnett pulled up on the Reading left, Long slipped the ball inside to sub Michail Antonio, whose shot was brilliantly blocked by Drury.
But City refused to be sidetracked in their quest for a winner.
Fox set the ball rolling, passing to Surman. One deft touch with his left foot put it in the path of Crofts, who powered into the area and crossed low from the left to find Holt getting in front of Harte and sliding it in at the back post.
It was justice for Holt, who had seen red at Reading in November after Harte's theatrics.
Harte was booed throughout – although he provided fans with a laugh when he ballooned an early free-kick over – but the animosity shouldn't descend into the throwing an object at him.
That it hit the referee's assistant instead doesn't make it any less serious. It seems City may have identified the offender who, you would assume, will now miss the rest of the season, and perhaps beyond.
The way Norwich are performing, no one in their right mind will want to miss a minute, first or last.