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Match Report: Reading 2 Sunderland 1
DANNY GRAHAM should have no worries about playing for Sunderland - according to Craig Gardner, who knows only too well about crossing the divide between two rival teams.
Gardner, who signed for Birmingham City from Aston Villa, grew up in a family supporting the blue side of the second city, but denied that his loyalties were ever questioned as a player.
And the midfielder-cum-full-back, who scored in Sunderland's 2-1 defeat at Reading on Saturday, is convinced that Newcastle United-supporting Graham will be no different.
"Whatever's happened in the past, happened in the past. In football you never know what's around the corner," said Gardner of Graham, who made a ten-minute cameo at the Madejski Stadium to a good reception from the 2,000 travelling Sunderland fans.
"Danny's come in, he's a true professional and a class player. He's a good lad to have about the place. He came on and nearly scored a goal.
"Being a fan is totally different to being a player. Whoever you play for, you give 150 per cent for them.
"He'll run his heart out. Nobody's even talked about how good Danny Graham is and how good a player he can be for Sunderland. He'll show that."
Jimmy Kebe's brace at the start and finish of the game did for Sunderland, who threatened sporadically and were continually guilty of poor ball retention.
Gardner's 29th minute penalty brought them back into the game after John O'Shea was felled by Pavel Pogrebnyak.
And while the Black Cats had their chances - the best through Alfred N'Diaye ten minutes from time - Reading were an organised unit and relied on the dead-eye set-piece distribution from Ian Harte.
Joby McAnuff got the game off to an inauspicious start with a foul on Steven Fletcher with less than 30 seconds on the clock which brought the game's first booking, and perhaps one of the quickest in Premier League history.
But the former Leicester City schemer played a huge part in the Royals' opening gambit, supplying Kebe with a perfect cross for the striker to take a touch around the pedestrian O'Shea and fire into the top corner.
Sunderland, stunned by the goal, took their time in getting back into the game, but they showed their intent when N'Diaye's 24th minute shot was tipped away by Adam Federici and Seb Larsson's follow-up was saved by the Royals' stopper.
But five minutes later they were on level terms when O'Shea was brought down by Pogrebnyak, and Gardner made no mistake from the spot.
But Harte - who, at 35 could be described as evergreen - showed just why conceding free-kicks is a bad idea with the former Ireland international on the pitch.
Harte's 41st minute free-kick was glanced towards goal by Pogrebnyak and it took a fine stop by Mignolet to deny the Reading striker. But the full-back would go on to have a greater influence later on in the game.
After half-time, Sunderland were improved by the introduction of first Danny Rose, then James McClean, with Adam Johnson particularly benefiting from a move to the right flank.
But Adrian Mariappa could have had the game sewn up - again from a Harte delivery - when his header was touched on to the crossbar by Mignolet.
N'Diaye missed a fine chance to put his side into the lead before the introduction of Graham with ten minutes remaining. And he almost made an instant impact when Johnson's right-sided delivery allowed the former Middlesbrough striker to find space at the far post, only to be denied by defender Alex Pearce.
But his best was saved for a minute later, when Johnson's corner was met by the new signing, only to be denied by a point-blank save from Federici.
And, less than 120 seconds later, Reading notched the winner when Kebe headed in off the bar from Harte's free-kick.
A total of 15 of Reading's 32 goals this season have been scored in the final 15 minutes of games. But the contribution of Harte should not be forgotten, especially considering it was Sunderland who showed him the door after a forgettable spell at the Stadium of Light in 2007-8.
Gardner was only too aware of the defender's abilities. He said: "He's shown all the way throughout his career that his delivery is always pin-point, but we can't concede like that in the last minute.
"We were on top at the time, I thought we should have won the game, really. We had some good chances.
"The fans were absolutely unbelievable again. Week in, week out they sing their hearts out for us. We just want to put in as many good performances as possible for them as well."
Gardner added: "It was a game they tried to turn into a fight, it wasn't football, it was a fight. But it doesn't matter, we can't be conceding goals in the last ten minutes of a game.
"It was a tough game. They were just hoofing everything in the box from the goalkeeper, from free-kicks, the whole time everything was going into the box.
"We defended it brilliantly until the last ten minutes. To concede a free-kick like that, and to concede a goal like that, just deflates you."
1-0: Kebe (7, took ball around O'Shea and fired into top left corner)
1-1: Gardner (29, fired penalty low to Federici's left corner after O'Shea was fouled by Pogrebnyak)
2-1: Kebe (85, headed Harte's free-kick in off crossbar)
Bookings: McAnuff (1, foul); Gardner (19, foul), Bramble (33, foul), Sessegnon (55, foul).
Referee: Lee Mason (Preston): Was spot on with the penalty call and correctly waved away McAnuff's claims for a spot-kick. 8
READING (4-3-3): Federici 7; Kelly 6, Mariappa 5, Pearce 7, HARTE 8; Akpan 7, McCleary 6 (Le Fondre 65), Leigertwood 6; Kebe 7, Pogrebnyak 5 (Blackman 72), McAnuff 6. Subs: Shorey, Karacan, Morrison, Guthrie, Taylor.
8 MIGNOLET: The Belgian kept Sunderland out of trouble with several vital stops;
6 Gardner: Scored from the penalty spot but could not influence the game from
4 O'Shea: Made some key interceptions but was woefully turned for the first goal
6 Bramble: Imperious in the air and is growing with stature by the game
4 Colback: Was arguably worse when returned to his natural midfield position in the
4 Larsson: Did not offer much before being substituted
6 N'Diaye: Was poor, but covered a lot of ground and did not shy away
4 Vaughan: Inconsistency from the Welshman, unable to reprise his form from
6 Johnson: Barely had a touch in the first half, but seemed to spark into life when moved out
on to the right wing;
6 Sessegnon: Worked hard but could not find a break
5 Fletcher: Feeding off scraps but was buoyed by Graham's introduction.
Rose (for Larsson, 46): Tackled well, passed well and linked up on the left side to good effect. 6
McClean (for Vaughan, 62): First touch of the game was woeful but put the hard yards in. 6
Graham (for Sessegnon, 80).
(not used): Bardsley, Mangane, Wickham, Westwood (gk).
MAN OF THE MATCH
IAN Harte - the one-time Sunderland defender did not get a fair crack of the whip on Wearside and has since proven to be as influential a Premier League player as he was with Leeds a decade ago.
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