Jimmy Kebe scored a brace as Reading secured a 2-1 victory over Sunderland in the Premier League at the Madejski.
The Royals were the dominant force for most of the first-half but went to the break level after a Craig Gardner penalty had cancelled out Kebe’s seventh minute opener.
A slowing of the tempo in the second period suited the visitors, who should have taken the lead as the game drew to a close but Alfred N'Diaye shot wide and debutant Danny Graham headed straight at Adam Federici.
Kebe then rose at the far post to head the winner with five minutes left.
Six points adrift of safety on Christmas Day, Reading looked destined for an immediate Championship return but they have now lost just once in seven matches to move out of the bottom three for the first time since mid-November.
Despite getting five goals in his last three Premier League games, Adam Le Fondre had to settle for a place on the bench but Hope Akpan made his first Premier League start.
Considering the uninspiring nature of their scoreless draw against Swansea last time out, Martin O’Neill’s decision to name an unchanged side may have come as a surprise to the travelling support and the visitors went behind early.
Garath McCleary, who had come into the side for Danny Guthrie, had already made two breaks in behind Gardner when Reading captain Jobi McAnuff found himself in space on the by-line.
He drew the ball back for Kebe, who took one touch to evade the attentions of John O’Shea and a second to fire past Simon Mignolet with only seven minutes gone.
With Mikele Leigertwood the fulcrum of midfield, and Adam Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon and Steven Fletcher isolated, the Royals were as comfortable as the Mackems were ragged, but a moment of defensive negligence from Pavel Pogrebnyak was to ensure the teams went to the interval level.
His decision to slide in on O’Shea, as the former Manchester United defender was playing the ball away from goal, rightly drew the ire of the Reading fans as referee Lee Mason pointed to the spot.
Gardener made no mistake from 12 yards with 29 minutes gone while Pogrebnyak had an opportunity to makes amends with five minutes of the half remaining but his header was well-saved by Mignolet.
The opening of the second-half was a far more sedate affair but as the game drew to a close, both sides increased their forays forward in the hope of stealing victory from what had turned into a scrappy match.
Reading were first to show their hand but Adrian Mariappa‘s header from an Ian Harte corner came back off the crossbar via the slightest of touches from Mignolet before the introduction of Graham gave the Black Caps more of a focal point up front.
First N'Diaye flashed an effort wide before Graham headed straight at Federici as it looked like the men from Sunderland would steal victory.
But Kebe rose highest at the far post with 85 minutes gone to secure what could be a vital victory in the Royals' battle against relegation.
Sunderland went long in search of a leveller but the hosts were stout in defence to see out the victory that makes it 14 points from a possible 21 available in their last seven Premier League matches.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Jimmy Kebe, Reading - put in a great defensive shift to nullify the Sunderland threat down the flanks but also managed to secure the victory for the hosts with a late header, his second goal of the game.
READING: Federici 6; Kelly 6, Harte 6, Mariappa 6, Pearce 7; Akpan 6, Leigertwood 7, McAnuff 6; McCleary 5, Kebe 8; Pogrebnyak 5. Subs: Blackman 5, Le Fondre 5.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 5, Gardner 5, Colback 5, Bramble 5, O'Shea 5; N'Diaye 6, Vaughan 5, Larsson 5, Johnson 4, Sessegnon 6, Fletcher 6. Subs: Rose 6, McClean 6, Graham 5.