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, McClean 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 altogether 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.
The comfortable victory lifted Sunderland out of the relegation zone but Reading 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 last night, but as the first half unfolded, any fears the Ulsterman might have had evaporated.
It took the home 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 net to get the Black Cats off to the perfect start.
It got even better for the Black Cats 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.
Sunderland wrapped up a much-needed victory when Sessegnon applied the required finish to Carlos Cuellar’s long ball deep into injury-time to secure a precious and deserved three points.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Gardner, O’Shea, Cuellar, Colback, Johnson (Bardsley 46), Rose (Vaughan 69), Larsson, McClean, Sessegnon, Fletcher, Bardsley (Bramble 75).
READING: Federici, Cummings, Pearce, Mariappa, Shorey, McCleary (Samuel 72), Tabb, Leigertwood, McAnuff, Hunt, Le Fondre.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire).