Sunderland 3 Reading 0
James McClean turned the clock back a year as Sunderland handed manager Martin O’Neill a long overdue Barclays Premier League victory.
Twelve months to the day since making his senior debut for the Black Cats as a substitute in O’Neill’s first game in charge, a 2-1 win over Blackburn, the Republic of Ireland international fired them into a third-minute lead which they were never in danger of relinquishing.
Striker Steven Fletcher, whose return from an ankle injury gave his team an all together more threatening appearance, increased the advantage with an audacious 28th-minute backheel, before Stephane Sessegnon rounded keeper Adam Federici at the death to secure just a third league win in 24 attempts and the first against 11 men since March.
O’Neill was adamant in the run up to the rearranged fixture that it was not a must-win affair, and with owner and chairman Ellis Short a supportive presence at the stadium before kick-off, the club was presenting a united front.
However, a comfortable victory which lifted Sunderland out of the relegation zone was welcome nonetheless as some of the darker clouds hanging over the Stadium of Light dispersed.
The same cannot be said of promoted Reading, who remain locked in a battle for survival having won only one top-flight game to date, and who showed few signs of improving upon that record on Wearside in front of a crowd of 37,723.
Short was a prominent presence in the press room before kick-off and ready to take issue with anyone who had the temerity to suggest his manager’s reign could be drawing to a close.
Sources on Wearside had insisted earlier in the day that O’Neill’s job was safe regardless of what happened this evening, but as the first half unfolded, any fears the Ulsterman might have had evaporated.
It took his side less than three minutes to get their noses in front when Royals keeper Adam Federici could only punch Adam Johnson’s inswinging corner to McClean on the edge of the box, and he returned the ball with interest and saw it skid into the back of the net to get the Black Cats off to the perfect start.
Skipper John O’Shea had admitted after Saturday’s 3-1 home defeat by Chelsea that his side needed to be more proactive rather than responding to setbacks, something which has been a feature of recent performances, and his call to arms appeared to have struck the right note.
Sebastian Larsson might have doubled Sunderland’s lead within two minutes, who saw his right-foot shot beaten away by Federici.
However, the Black Cats were almost caught by a sucker punch when central defender Alex Pearce was allowed to side-foot Nicky Shorey’s ninth- minute free-kick just wide of Simon Mignolet’s far post.
Reading started to work their way into the game with Jobi McAnuff seeing plenty of the ball down the left, but all too often, they could not find the final ball to trouble the home defence.
At the same time, they looked vulnerable to the break with Pearce and Adrian Mariappa finding Fletcher a real handful, and Sessegnon almost took advantage of the space afforded him just behind the lone frontman with 22 minutes gone when he saw one shot blocked and another fly across the face of goal after executing a delicious turn.
But Reading’s cause became all the more forlorn within six minutes when full-back Danny Rose surged forward and delivered a low cross to the near post, where Fletcher flicked it outrageously past the helpless Federici.
The Scotland international could have extended his side’s lead further two minutes before the break when he met another Johnson corner unopposed, but he could only lift his header over the bar.
Johnson, who had earlier been felled by McAnuff with a crude challenge, failed to reappear after the break and was replaced by Phil Bardsley, who dropped in at right-back with Craig Gardner moving into midfield.
Fletcher could not climb high enough to make meaningful contact with an early McClean cross as Sunderland attempted to pick up where they left off, but it was Reading who began to threaten as the half wore on.
Mignolet had to be at his best to keep out Nicky Shorey’s curling 54th-minute free-kick after Danny Rose had been booked for a foul on McAnuff, and Mariappa headed wastefully wide after meeting the resulting corner at the near post.
Federici had to make late saves from Sessegnon, McClean and Gardner, but after Mignolet palmed away Noel Hunt’s late header, Sessegnon applied the required finish to Carlos Cuellar’s long ball deep into injury time to secure a precious and deserved victory.