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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 Sunderland as a substitute in O'Neill's first game in charge, a 2-1 win over Blackburn Rovers, the Ireland winger fired them into a third-minute lead which they were never in danger of relinquishing. Striker Steven Fletcher, who returned from an ankle injury to boost Sunderland’s attack, increased the advantage with an audacious 28th-minute backheel, before Stephane Sessegnon rounded Reading goalkeeper 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 were presenting a united front. However, a comfortable victory which lifted Sunderland out of the relegation zone was welcome. Promoted Reading remain locked in a battle for survival having won only one top-flight game to date, and struggled to improve 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. It took O’Neill’s side less than three minutes to get their noses in front when Federici punched Adam Johnson's inswinging corner to McClean on the edge of the box, and his skidded found its into the back of the net.
Sebastian Larsson might have doubled Sunderland's lead within two minutes, but his right-foot shot beaten away by Federici. However, the home side 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 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 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 a turn.
Reading's cause became more difficult 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 forward 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 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.
Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill: "[Steven] Fletcher had done absolutely no work whatsoever. When you were talking to me yesterday, I genuinely wasn't sure that he could play in the game.
"He came out this morning just to do a bit of a loosener and thought he wanted to give it a go. I personally thought if he could see it to half-time and just slightly into the second half, he would do great for us.
"He has been terrific for us, really terrific. You just feel that he is likely to get you a goal in there. Danny Rose did very, very well, but when it came in, he turned it into a goal for us and it was great."
"I just feel that this season will be really tough for us, I accept that. I kind of thought that anyway at the start of the year. I didn't want people starting to get carried away with it. From my own viewpoint, I just want to try with all my might to put a team together here that not only can we compete, but that a team that people would look forward to seeing play. But that's sometimes easier said than done."
Reading manager Brian McDermott: "It was a tough evening and we came up short. Giving away an early goal gave them a lift. We said we needed to keep it solid early on but the goal gave the crowd a lift, the whole place. Then 2-0 it's a mountain to climb. It was a great finish from Fletcher, that's why they paid their money for him. When you see him on the teamsheet you know he's a threat.
"In the first half we played some decent enough football, created chances but didn't make the goalkeeper work. At the end we had a couple of chances too. But we have to be more solid, and better in offensive areas.
“But I'm disappointed with the results. I'm used to winning games. At the moment we're not winning and we're in the results business. The boys are giving me everything though, I can't ask more from them and they had a real go for me. At the moment we've come up short but we have to stick together and drag ourselves out of it.
“We're struggling a wee bit with players out, we've had a shocking run with that. We need those players back and when we do we'll be competing in this league.
"Jason Roberts pulled out yesterday, [Hal-Robson] Kanu, the list goes on. [Adrian Mariappa] was playing with an injury, [Sean] Morrison is out, there's a long list and we had three pull out yesterday. We've had long term injuries, it's not helpful but I can't hide behind it, it happens in football."
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