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After topping the Premier League momentarily after our early kickoff against Spurs upon our top flight return, the harsh realities of competing against the country’s best had well and truly kicked in.
We’d stormed to the Championship title in 2006/2007 but had struggled to get top flight points on the board and by the time we were edging towards Christmas, we’d won only two further games – at home to fellow strugglers Reading and Derby.
By the time we made the trip to the Madjeski Stadium, Roy Keane was firmly feeling the pressure, with only one win in eleven since Reading had been beaten at the Stadium of Light.
However, we’d been denied a win at home against Aston Villa the previous week after a controversial refereeing decision from Steve Bennett saw Danny Collins’ injury time headed winner ruled out.
The visit to Berkshire was an excellent opportunity to get a rare win on the board, but we were up against a Steve Coppell team for whom Stephen Hunt, a major transfer target for Sunderland throughout the summer, was starring.
Reading, to be fair to them, had the bulk of the play.
Hunt hit the bar, forced a great save from Craig Gordon, and generally orchestrated a dominant home performance. Sunderland, meanwhile, had few chances of note as Andy Cole, during a rare start, failed to capitalise when put clean through by Dwight Yorke.
It was therefore little surprise when Ivar Ingimarsson put Reading in front from close range.
After Kevin Doyle missed a great chance to make it two, Michael Chopra, playing on the right of midfield, equalised from the spot with eight minutes left following a foul on Kenwyne Jones.
From there, Sunderland looked more likely to win the game.
Collins went close while Jones missed a brilliant chance, and as the game edged towards a stalemate, injury time brought with it another controversial refereeing call, to the detriment of the Lads.
Hunt took a shot from a tight angle and the ball was clawed away by Craig Gordon – only for referee Steve Tanner to award the goal – much to Sunderland’s frustration.
In the days before goal line technology, the referee and linesman decided the ball had absolutely, definitely and certainly crossed the line, and Sunderland went down to another defeat.
While Keane wasn’t happy with the call in public at the time, he found himself embroiled in a bust up with the Reading staff which he later recounted in his second autobiography, ‘The Second Half’.
The game at Reading, just before Christmas, was the only time I really lost my temper as a manager. I’d lost my temper before, but I’d used my temper.
This time I used physical force. I grabbed a staff member, put his head on a table, and tried to pull his tie off. But he was a Reading staff member, not one of ours.
It was the first half, a tight game. Maybe the pressure was building on me, I don’t know.
Steve Coppell was managing Reading, and he had a couple of lads working with him, Wally Downes and Kevin Dillon. I looked across at their dugout, and Kevin Dillon was looking back across, calling me a w****r.
I go ‘What - me?’
He goes, ‘Yeah, yeah. You’re always on at the f*****g referee.’
I said nothing back. I never got involved with opposition managers or staff – never.
We were robbed – again – in injury time. Stephen Hunt got a shot in, and the linesman on the far side reckoned it was over the line. It wasn’t, but the goal was given.
At the end of the game, walking down the stairs, I saw Downes shaking all my players’ hands.
You generally don’t see staff shaking the other team’s hands. I said nothing. It had been a big win for Reading and there was a lot of celebrating. I went into our dressing room. I wasn’t annoyed with the players, more the decision. I spoke to the players and staff.
The players were getting themselves organised, and I was waiting for my staff to go in for a drink with Steve Coppell and the Reading lads. I didn’t want to but I kept thinking ‘We’re Sunderland, we’ll do things properly.’
The staff were taking ages, so I said ‘I’ll go on lads. Follow me in’.
I walked into Steve’s office. Wally Downes was there and their director of football, Nick Hammond. Kevin Dillon was sitting down.
I go ‘Well done lads, well done.’
As I was talking to Wally, Kevin Dillon stood up and goes, ‘Don’t you come in here and –’
I grabbed him, got his head on the table, pulled his tie up.
‘I’m f*****g warning you –’
Nick Hammond grabbed me. ‘What are you doing?!’
‘Get out of our office!’
I went ‘F*** yis anyway’.