Norwich City remained on course for a return to the Premiership for the first time since 1995 last night after extending their First Division lead through a spectacular goal four minutes from time by the substitute Phil Mulryne.
The Northern Ireland international had only arrived on the pitch in the 82nd minute, but after a clearing header from Reading's Dean Gordon had looped into the air off the turned back of the referee, Neal Barry, he produced a right-footed volley which looped into the far corner of the net to send the Norwich fans behind Reading's goal into pandemonium. It was a piece of good fortune, a moment of opportunism. It was the kind of moment upon which season's finally turn.
With just five games remaining, Norwich are now two points clear of West Bromwich Albion, who could only draw yesterday, and 11 points clear of the only team still with a mathematical chance of overhauling the two teams in the automatic promotion places, Sunderland.
Reading's manager Steve Coppell reflected before the match upon the bewildering flux at the top end of the table, concluding: "You can read 100 things into results in the division at this stage of the season."
But one thing had already emerged from the flurry of fixtures earlier in the day - Ipswich Town had helped their local rivals by beating Sunderland. Norwich's intention to maximise their chance of pulling further away was evident in their urgent start. Their attitude might have reaped reward after just six minutes, when Darren Huckerby produced a cross-shot which Jamie Ashdown did well to touch away.
But Reading had their own motivation, knowing that a win would see them move up into the play-off zone, and they appeared to have made a breakthrough after 17 minutes in a move that centred upon Nicky Forster, making his first full appearance in three months after a stomach strain. The forward accepted a pass from James Harper and flicked it through the centre to offer Steve Sidwell a clear shooting opportunity. His shot was well struck, but Robert Green dove to his right to divert the ball around the post.
Norwich produced the first clear opportunity of the second half when Kevin Cooper's flick beat Reading's offside trap and Ashdown had to make a smothering save to deny Damien Francis from six yards out. That appeared to be the visitors best chance of earning three points - but fate in the form of the referee's back and Mulryne's boot proved otherwise.
Goal: Mulryne (86) 0-1.
Reading (4-4-2): Ashdown; Murty, Williams, Ingimarsson, Hughes (Gordon, 77); Brooker (Goater, h-t), Sidwell, Harper, Salako; Kitson, Forster. Substitutes not used: Morgan, Young, Owusu.
Norwich City (4-4-2): Green; Edworthy, Fleming, Mackay, Drury; Cooper (Brennan, 90), Francis, Holt, McVeigh (Mulryne, 82); Svensson (Roberts, 85), Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Crichton (gk), McKenzie.
Referee: N Barry (N Lincolnshire).
Bookings: Reading: Ingimarsson. Norwich: Francis.
Man of the match: Fleming.
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