ON a night in which a number of ghosts were laid to rest, Sunderland finally beat 11 men in a league game for the first time since March.
This handsome win – Sunderland’s biggest in almost a year – helped push the spectre of relegations past back into the shadows. For now at least.
And in doing so, it managed to achieve something that we’d almost forgotten about in recent times – it managed to put smiles back on the faces of Sunderland fans.
There was so much for them to enjoy about this game – not least Sunderland’s earliest goal of the season, a third minute cracker from James McClean allowing nerves to settle and finger-nails to remain unchewed.
Steven Fletcher’s goal midway through the first half gave Sunderland fans a luxury they’ve only enjoyed for the last 20 minutes of their game at Fulham this season – a two-goal cushion.
And with Stephane Sessegnon producing an eye-catching late goal to put the seal on an ultimately comfortable win, a crowd of close to 38,000 streamed happily away from the Stadium of Light after only the second league win of the campaign.
Fletcher’s returned to the side in place of Connor Wickham – the £12m leading goalscorer’s presence giving his team-mates a real boost.
And Jack Colback was restored to central midfield allowing Craig Gardner to play right-back at the expense of Phil Bardsley, who was dropped to the bench.
Reading had hoped to frustrate the hosts and quieten the home crowd, but that game plan went out of the window inside three minutes as McClean notched his first Premier League goal of the campaign.
An Adam Johnson corner from the right was flapped at by Reading keeper Adam Federici who pushed the ball out to the Irish winger, 16 yards out and right of goal.
It was all the invitation McClean needed, striking a low left-foot shot into the bottom corner.
It was the start of a frantic opening from Sunderland.
Seb Larsson forced a good save from Federici moments later.
And Johnson just wide on seven minutes, and when Fletcher wrong-footed Adrian Mariappa in the 13th minute, prompting a rugby tackle from the Reading defender and a booking, it was no exaggeration to say Sunderland could have just about been out of sight by that stage.
Reading though were were far from cowed, Alex Pearce going close from a free-kick.
But as the visitors looked to get back in the game, Sunderland added to their tally thanks to Fletcher’s seventh league goal of the season. Danny Rose crossed to Fletcher eight yards out, and with his back to goal the Scot found the net with a brilliant back heel.
Without Roberts, or the injured Pavel Pogrebnyak, Reading lacked penetration, and their best chances of success seemed to lie in inflicting casualties on their opponents.
Rose was injured when Adam Le Fondre fell on him and Jobi McAnuff somehow escaped a booking for a foul on Johnson, which prevented the winger emerging for the second-half.
Bardsley replaced Johnson at the start of the second half, leading to a reshuffle, which may have been responsible for the home side’s slow start after the break.
Reading had an immediate chance to get back into it, but Noel Hunt fired over the crossbar from eight yards in the 48th minute.
Shorey then forced a good save out of Simon Mignolet.
Sunderland had a couple of chances of their own as the tempo dropped.
Rose had to be replaced by David Vaughan in the 69th minute just seconds after a powerful snapshot by Sessegnon had been excellently saved by Federici.
Sunderland’s walking wounded continued though in the 75th minute when Bardsley went down clutching his knee and was replaced by Titus Bramble.
McClean almost grabbed a second goal on 77th minutes, but Federici did well to block.
In the last 10 minutes, Reading pushed on, and went close through Hunt – Mignolet producing a stunning reaction save to deny the Irishman.
With the game in time added Sessegnon put the icing on the cake for a delighted home crowd.
The Benin international got on the end of a hopeful ball from Carlos Cuellar, and rounded the keeper to slot into an empty goal.
Sunderland now need to produce good performances like these consistently – especially with Manchester United at Old Trafford next up this weekend.
They will need all of last night’s excellence, and more, if they are to get anything from the league leaders.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 7, Gardner 7, Cuellar 7, O’Shea 8, Rose 8 (Vaughan 69, 6), Johnson 7 (Bardsley 46, 6, Bramble 77), Larsson 6, Colback 6, McCLEAN 8, Sessegnon 8, Fletcher 7. Subs not used: Campbell, Wickham, Kilgallon, Westwood. Booked: Rose (53), Fletcher (73)
READING: Federici 6, Cummings 5, Mariappa 6, Pearce 5, Shorey 7, McCleary 6 (Samuel 72, 5), Tabb 6, Leigertwood 6, McAnuff 6, Hunt 6, Le Fondre 6. Subs not used: Gunter, Gorkss, Harte, Gunnarsson, Obita, Taylor.
Goals: McClean 3, Fletcher 28, Sessegnon 93, Booked: Mariappa, 13, Rose 53, Fletcher 73.
Man of the match: James McClean showed signs of being back to his best.
Highlight: James McClean’s confident early strike gave Sunderland the start they needed.
Lowlight: The game was like an episode of Casualty for Sunderland who saw a number of players pick up kniocks.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire)