SUNDERLAND started and finished this game badly and in between they weren’t very good either.
But despite that they were still only five minutes away from a valuable away point when the calamity they’d invited on themselves for much of the second half finally struck.
That was the moment when Titus Bramble, a strong candidate for Sunderland’s man of the match, clumsily brought down Reading striker Nick Blackman five yards outside the box on the right of goal.
Deadball specialist and ex-Black Cat Ian Harte had been given opportunities all afternoon by Sunderland’s foul-prone rearguard and not been able to take them.
But this time he got it exactly right, driving in a powerful inswinging free-kick from out on the flank which Jimmy Kebe at the far post flung himself at far more successfully than Sunderland’s defence, to send a header just under the crossbar from close range.
It was the right-winger’s second goal of the game, having struck just seven minutes in when he ended a move which showed none of the Sunderland back four in a good light.
Craig Gardner was beaten too easily by Gareth McCleary’s ball to Jobi McAnuff down the left wing, he pulled it back to Kebe who had already given left-back Jack Colback the slip, before flat-footing the slow-turning John O’Shea and driving a rising left-foot shot into the top-right hand corner of Simon Mignolet’s goal.
It was a beginning to the game which was not in the script – Sunderland’s defence and first-half performances this season have been their strong suit. Before the weekend, if games had ended at half-time, the Black Cats would have had their eyes on a Champions League spot, while only a handful of keepers have kept more clean sheets this season than Mignolet.
But then this wasn’t the sort of Sunderland performance that we would associate with their mid-season revival.
Stephane Sessegnon had one of his off-halves, Sunderland’s central midfield three failed to assert control and the full backs were given the run-around with far too many crosses coming into the box.
When the Black Cats did get back into the game on the half-hour mark, it was thanks to a Russian bearing gifts – Pavel Pogrebnyak, having proved himself an able striker, showing he was a far less capable defender when he lurched through O’Shea, who had his back to goal and was almost out of the 18-yard box at the time. Craig Gardner finished confidently from the penalty spot, smashing a low shot into the bottom right-hand corner of Adam Federici’s goal.
The leveller should have been the signal for Sunderland to really press, but while they did gain some traction once Gardner equalised, they never really made inroads in the final third of the pitch.
Illness prevented Seb Larsson’s re-appearance after the break and that allowed Martin O’Neill the chance to make a tactical switch – Danny Rose coming on at left-back, Colback switching to central midfield.
Sunderland flickered briefly, Fletcher getting a header on target which lacked power, but before the hour mark Reading had seized control and Mignolet’s goal was under pressure from a string of crosses and too easily conceded free-kicks.
But in the last 10 minutes Sunderland brought on £5m new signing Danny Graham – the Tynesider cheered onto the pitch this time by the Wearside supporters – and all of a sudden the game swung dramatically the way of the visiting team.
N’Diaye, who had been pretty poor overall, was given a shot at redemption, when Adam Johnson’s cute pass played him into the 18-yard box on the right in the 81st minute, but with only Federici to beat the Frenchman screwed his shot horribly wide.
Johnson seemed suddenly revitalised and hit a cross deep from the right, where Graham saw his header blocked by the frame of centre-half Alex Pearce.
From the resulting corner, Graham produced a far better goal-bound header but the effort was straight at Federici.
At that point the stage seemed set for a siege on the Reading goal, but play suddenly switched to the opposite end of the pitch – Bramble’s challenge, Harte’s free-kick, Kebe’s header.
For the fourth game in a row, Reading had pulled something out of the bag with a late goal.
But while the Royals’ never-say-die spirit was commendable, Sunderland’s players would know that they only had themselves to blame for a pointless afternoon.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 6, Gardner 5, O’Shea 5, Bramble 6, Colback 6, Sessegnon 5 (Graham 79, 6), Larsson 5 (ROSE 46, 6), N’Diaye 5, Vaughan 5 (McClean 62, 5), Johnson 5, Fletcher 6. Subs not used: Westwood, Bardsley, Mangane, Wickham.
READING: Federici 7, Kelly 6, Pearce 6, Mariappa 6, Harte 6, KEBE 8, Leigertwood 5, McAnuff 6, Akpan 6, McCleary 6 (Le Fondre 65, 6), Pogrebnyak 6 (Blackman 72, 6). Subs not used: Taylor, Shorey, Karacan, Morrison, Guthrie.
Man of the match: Danny Rose. Got forward well even though still a bit rusty.
Highlight: The warm welcome given to Danny Graham by Sunderland fans and the impact he instantly made, which bodes well for the future.
Lowlight: Martin O’Neill will be disappointed with both goals his side conceded.
Scorers: Kebe 7, 85, Gardner 29.
Bookings: McAnuff 1, Gardner 19, Bramble 33, Sessegnon 55.
Referee: Lee Mason (Lancashire)