The season of goodwill to all men ended down the M4 this afternoon as referee James Linington helped set Reading on their way to a narrow 2-1 home win.
City had travelled west to the Madejski in high spirit after the Boxing Day demolition of Millwall. Seventh in the table with belief and confidence flowing through players and supporters alike, all appeared to be set fair for another decent result.
But the best-laid plans of Neil Adams and Co began to unravel in the 24th minute as two-goal Lions hero Bradley Johnson was harshly adjudged to have fouled Michael Hector.
The City midfielder received a yellow card to add his troubles as Hal Robson-Kanu sent John Ruddy the wrong way from the spot-kick and once Simon Cox had added a second nine minutes later, so the Canaries were left with the proverbial mountain to climb.
They would climb a foothill or two before the end, but nothing to deny Reading the victory. The result left City stuck fast in seventh with Bournemouth now some 11 points distant at the top following their latest success.
Given both the stage of the season and the nature of the league in the sense of anyone being able to beat anyone else on their day, everything remains to play for. And City are back amongst the goals. Which helps.
Though the sound of sharpening knives could be heard once more in the background.
“We came up short today,” the City chief admitted afterwards.
“I did think it was a soft penalty – whether Bradley had caught him or turned him, but the lad did appear to be facing his own goal when the penalty was given. But then we’ve gone and conceded a second and given ourselves a mountain to climb.”
In Adams’ eyes City never really looked enough of a threat going forward.
That’s where the problems lay this afternoon.
“We weren’t good enough today – its as simple as that,” he told BBC Radio Norfolk.
“We huffed and puffed in the second-half but to be two-nil down in the manner that we were is not good enough for us,” said Adams, as City’s recent four-game revival spluttered to a halt.
The conundrum remained the same as it has all season; trying to mix attacking ambition and flair with defensive resilience. The fact that N Redmond was back on the bench again summed up the manager’s on-going dilemmas.
To stick or twist? And the Wesley fan club will also point to the fact that their boy remains surplus to the manager’s initial attacking requirements.
“For me, we came up short in the middle and final thirds. Normally you can sense that maybe a goal is coming – I didn’t genuinely feel that today. That was the most disappointing thing. We have to be better than that.”
It was a tough return to front-line duty for Ryan Bennett as Carlos Cuellar missed out thanks to a pre-match calf strain.
Adams also restored Alexander Tettey to that previously stubborn midfield – only to have to revise his plans again at the interval as Wes Hoolahan and Nathan Redmond were thrown hastily into the fray as the visitors sought to find a way back into the contest.
City always needed to be at their clinical best on a pig of a surface, but with Cameron Jerome in particular drilling wide of the mark when first-half opportunity beckoned so the Canaries struggled to gain a decent foothold and lift themselves back into the game.
Just after the hour mark Adams made his final change of the afternoon as Lewis Grabban replaced Jerome.
City were in need of inspiration from somewhere if their recent upward momentum was to be maintained. But huff and puff as they might, the Royals continued to maintain their first-half advantage.
Right up until the moment that Johnson picked his spot from outside the box in the 77th minute and grabbed his seventh goal of the season. The 27-year-old has had his critics this season, but if there was one man built for the Championship’s trench warfare it is the combative North Londoner.
And when he finds his range shooting-wise, he can turn games like today on their head.
Alas there wasn’t a second to follow as Reading, inevitably, shut up shop and saw out the win – Hoolahan almost stealing a point in the fifth minute of added-on time with a low, corner-bound effort that was touched away to safety.
On this occasion, there was to be no last-gasp hero riding to Norfolk’s rescue.