It has not taken Martin O'Neill very long to become reacquainted with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on the refereeing front. Three weeks into his managerial return with Sunderland, the Northern Irishman was left temporarily nonplussed on the touchline when Howard Webb pointed to the penalty spot five minutes into the second half of a tight Premier League fixture.
Television replays clearly showed that Leon Osman caught his studs on the turf before crashing to the ground in the home penalty area and that no Sunderland player had made contact with the Everton midfielder. Mr Webb saw it differently, presumably deeming Lee Cattermole guilty of foul play, and Leighton Baines stepped forward to bury the equaliser.
Over the course of the 90 minutes, Everton were worthy of their Boxing Day point. However, even manager David Moyes was obliged to concede: "It was a terrible decision by the referee. It wasn't a penalty. Obviously Martin feels hard done by."
He did that. "It's not a great decision by an otherwise top-class referee," O'Neill said. "I have spoken to him. He's not had the advantage of seeing the incident back. He must have felt that there was contact. Clearly there wasn't. Obviously it's disappointing, but it's gone."
Asked whether he had missed referees in his 19-month absence from the game, O'Neill paused, then replied: "I think I probably did. I have to preface everything by saying that the job they do is the most difficult in the business. Even though he's seven or eight yards away, he only gets one look at it."
What was also clear was that Everton had done their homework, their compact formation denying Sunderland the kind of room they enjoyed on the break at Loftus Road in midweek. Indeed, it took O'Neill's men 21 minutes – and two spurned Tim Cahill chances at the other end – to forge their first opening, Nicklas Bendtner having a low drive blocked by Tony Hibbert and then curling a shot wide.
The Danish striker was his usual frustrating self, either wandering out to the flanks or wanting to take an extra touch rather than getting a shot away. Still, Sunderland were ahead in the 26th minute, Stéphane Sessègnon slipping a neat ball to Jack Colback, whose low drive from the left fringe of the Everton penalty area was deflected up and over Tim Howard off Sylvain Distin.
It was the young midfielder's first goal for Sunderland. He had only been on the field for five minutes, a replacement for the injured Titus Bramble, whose withdrawal prompted a reshuffle that took John O'Shea from right-back to centre-half.
If Everton had been unlucky to be behind at the interval, they were very fortunate to be level after Osman's tumble and Baines' conversion.
O'Neill had been forced to make another change at half-time, replacing the stricken Phil Bardsley with Craig Gardener at right-back. Not until injury time did they seriously threaten the Everton goal again, Distin blocking a cross-cum-shot from Sessègnon.
At the other end, Distin hooked a shot over the bar, leaving the Stadium of Light's first 40,000-plus gate since August politely applauding a sharing of the spoils. "In the end it was a fair result," Moyes said. "It's a hard time to come to Sunderland. Martin's got them going and they've a bit of momentum."
Asked whether he would have settled for seven points from his first four Sunderland games, O'Neill replied: "I would have done that, absolutely. The lads are disappointed with a draw today. Maybe that's encouraging."
Substitutes: Sunderland Colback 6 (Bramble, 21), Gardner 6 (Bardsley, h-t), McClean (Vaughan, 81); Everton Gueye (Drenthe, 75), Vellios (Saha, 84), McFadden (Cahill, 87).
Booked: Everton Heitinga.
Man of the match Distin.
Attempts on target Sunderland 8 Everton 7.
Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire).
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