Substitute Adam Le Fondre’s late double sent Reading top of the npower Championship following a gritty win over 10-man Leeds United.
The former Rotherham striker came off the bench to net twice in the final six minutes of a pulsating and at times ill-tempered clash at the Madejski Stadium as the visitors paid the price for the early sending-off of defender Zac Thompson.
Playing his first match since January 31, the youngster was sent off by referee Darren Drysdale after just 12 minutes, leaving Leeds to absorb wave after wave of Reading attacks.
Ian Harte’s teasing cross evaded everyone before striking a post after 20 minutes while, after the break, Alex Pearce saw his header cleared en route to goal.
Leeds had their chances to win it late on, with Ross McCormack and Robert Snodgrass going close without success.
Le Fondre thought he had put his side ahead with eight minutes remaining, only to be denied by an offside flag, but he made the most of his next two sights of goal to fire the Royals to the division’s summit.
An already feisty atmosphere in front of a near full house intensified early on with the dismissal of Thompson for a wild lunge on Jobi McAnuff.
Immediately Reading seized the initiative and the visitors were fortunate to survive a scare in the 20th minute when Harte’s vicious cross thumped against goalkeeper Andy Lonergan’s left-hand post as he looked on.
Leeds could easily have been reduced to nine men two minutes later when Danny Pugh’s terrible challenge on Jem Karacan went unpunished.
Despite their one-man advantage, the hosts failed to create a chance of any major significance for the remainder of the opening period.
Leeds accelerated out of the traps in the second, with Robert Snodgrass drawing a good save from Adam Federici. But Reading responded well and Pearce nodded Harte’s set-piece onto the roof of the net after 60 minutes.
Leeds were more than happy to soak up the pressure, and their sponge-like approach to defending almost paid dividends but McCormack’s 20-yard effort rebounded to safety off an upright.
McCormack then teed up Snodgrass 12 yards out but Federici produced a good save, before the former Cardiff man’s thunderous free-kick brought a fumble out of the Australian.
At the other end, Pearce’s goalbound header was cleared off the line and Le Fondre followed up McAnuff’s deflected effort to slide home – only for his celebrations to be cut short by an offside flag.
But with seven minutes remaining, Reading finally found a way through.
Jimmy Kebe’s deep cross to the back post was met by Hal Robson-Kanu who sent a delicate header back across goal for Le Fondre to chest home.
Two minutes later Le Fondre completed the job. Again the required finish came from less than two yards but the former Rotherham man was on hand to knock in Jason Roberts’s cross-shot and spark mass delirium among the home supporters.
Leeds boss Neil Warnock could not fault his players for their efforts, but he rued the red card shown to Thompson – insisting the crime did not merit its punishment.
“We had the best chances,” he said. “I can’t ask any more. I thought they were fantastic under the circumstances. We had a makeshift team and to have a man sent off so early on made it even harder.
“I thought he (Thompson) was unlucky. The trouble is he set off with two feet but he’s landed two or three feet before.
“What the assessor’s saying is if two feet are off the floor it’s a red card but he’s not hurt the kid.
“I thought Pugh’s tackle was far worse. I thought Pugh should have got sent off.”
Reading manager Brian McDermott paid tribute to the impact made by Le Fondre, but insisted he has not pigeon-holed the 25-year-old as a super-sub just yet.
“If you want someone to score a goal for you to win a game, we’ve got the perfect man and he’s done it again,” he said.
“I just thought he could nick us a goal and that’s what he’s done. He’s come off the bench before and scored goals and won us games. He had another one that was disallowed as well, so he could have had a hat-trick in 20-odd minutes.
“I don’t think about impact subs. Noel (Hunt) has done well with Robbo (Jason Roberts) up front, we’ve got Simon Church as well, we’ve got Benik Afobe.”
McDermott admitted it had been a tough match.
“We just had to keep going,” he said. “Leeds knew what they were doing, and their manager knew what he was doing, so it was very difficult for us.
“There were a lot of tackles and one or two that were questionable to say the least.
“The first one he (the referee) made the decision to send the young guy off and the second one Pugh made a tackle on Jem which was a certain red card and he should have been sent off.”
Reading: Federici, Cummings, Pearce, Gorkss, Harte, Kebe, Karacan (Robson-Kanu 40), Leigertwood, McAnuff, Roberts, Hunt (Le Fondre 69), Robson-Kanu (Mullins 90). Unused substitutes: McCarthy, Church. Leeds: Lonergan, Bromby, Bruce, Lees, Robinson, Snodgrass (Webber 85), Brown, Thompson, Pugh, McCormack (Rogers 85), Becchio (Forssell 87). Unused substitutes: Paynter, Taylor.
Referee: Darren Drysdale (Lincolnshire).
Man of the match: Ian Harte.