One always had the impression Santa Claus would knock before having the temerity to venture down Roy Keane's chimney, but this year he may be tempted to send the presents via DHL, for there is nothing merry about Keane's Christmas to date. For the second successive week his Sunderland team finished the match surrounding the officials as another precious Premier League point slipped away.
Last week they were denied what they believed was a valid last-minute winner against Aston Villa. Yesterday they were convinced Steve Hunt's winner for Reading had not crossed the line before Craig Gordon clawed it away. The linesman, Steve Rubery, disagreed, and his opinion was the one that mattered. With the camera at the wrong angle television pictures were inconclusive, although the gut reaction suggested Rubery got it right. Probably.
Keane, inevitably, disagreed. "I'm told if an official is notsure they can't give it," he said. "Obviously the assistant had very, very good eyesight. If he is sure then credit to him, he must have fantastic vision."
Steve Coppell, Reading's manager, said: "The linesman was in a great position, we can't questionhis integrity." But he added, of the victory: "Fortunate is the best way of putting it. I thought he [Hunt] had hit the post and it had come out. I was disappointed, then I saw people celebrating and the linesman with his flag up."
Keane, meanwhile, was not just grumbling about the goal. "Other decisions went against us," he said, "their free-kick for their first goal, their throw-in before the second.
"There's hundreds of wrong decisions gone against us [this season]; if I were to stand here and talk about all of them I'd miss my Christmas dinner."
On the balance of play, justice was just about done. When Ivar Ingirmarsson put Reading ahead in the 69th minute after an hour of sporadic pressure, Coppell said he had hoped it would lead to "one of those emphatic 1-0 victories". Instead Michael Chopra levelled from the spot after Ibrahima Sonko had brought down Kenwyne Jones, and the latter spurned a great chance to win the game and put Sunderland in good heart before the Boxing Day visit of Manchester United. Now they drop back into the bottom three, and Reading secure some breathing space.
Both sides are seeking to hold on before reinforcements arrive in the transfer window. Coppell picked an unchanged team for the fifth match in succession in part because there is a lack of alternatives. Keane's need to freshen up his team was shown by his making four changes from last week's draw, including the return of the 9 million goal-keeper Gordon and the veteran Andy Cole.
The latter could have, should have, put the Black Cats into the lead after three minutes. Played onside by Graeme Murty, he ran unchallenged on to Dwight Yorke's clever chip, steadiedhimself, then shot at MarcusHahnemann. The ball came back to Cole, but his first touch was poor and the American goal-keeper was able to gather.
Reading thereafter dominated,but Bobby Convey pulled a shot wide, Dave Kitson curled a 20-yard attempt on to the roof of the net, and Doyle missed a trio of chances. In between, Hunt was denied by a stunning save from Gordon having risen to meet a Kitson cross at the far post.
A stalemate seemed improbable; the only clean sheets either team had kept since August came against goal-shy Derby County. But when Hunt struck the far upright soon after the break one wondered. Then the dam burst. Sonko met James Harper's free-kick at the near post, Gordon parried, and Ingirmarsson stabbed the ball in. Chopra, without a goal since August, levelled from the spot. Finally, after Hahnemann had denied Chopra and Jones, Long crossed, and Hunt, a Sunderland transfer target, swept the ball goalwards. Was it over the line? On such marginal calls are relegations sometimes decided.