There was a choice of Saturday matinee entertainment in Sunderland yesterday. At the Empire Theatre you could see the penultimate performance of Peter Pan. At the Stadium of Light you could see rather, hear Peter getting panned.
On Friday, 53 per cent of supporters polled by the fanzine A Love Supreme said Peter Reid should go, and the Sunderland manager's descent from hero to villain continued yesterday as his team were given the runaround for an hour by Jean Tigana's polished Fulham side. By full time, however, cries of 'Reid Out' had given way to restrained applause.
For that happier state of affairs, Sunderland's manager had Kevin Phillips to thank. The little forward's first goal in eight Premiership games transformed Sunderland from the dire to the dynamic. It also denied Fulham a first win on Wearside in the top flight since September 1950, when Clement Attlee was in his ministerial prime.
The chief frustration for Sunderland supporters has been their team's chronic lack of goals, just 19 in 23 matches, the third lowest tally in England's four professional divisions, and the equally chronic lack of support Phillips has enjoyed of late. The England striker was partnered by a patched up Niall Quinn yesterday, but Sunderland were on the back foot from the early stages, struggling to cope with a slick passing Fulham side who should have taken the lead after 90 seconds. Steve Finnan's long ball up the right put Barry Hayles clear of the home defence, but his left footed shot lacked the precision to beat Thomas Sorensen.
A brilliant covering tackle by Zat Knight on Gavin McCann snuffed out the first sniff of a chance at the other end, but it was no great surprise when Fulham were rewarded for their enterprise on the quarter-hour. Hayles flicked on a left wing throw in by Rufus Brevett and Steed Malbranque drifted past three defenders before cracking a right foot drive past Sorensen from the right edge of the penalty area.
Sunderland briefly rallied, Jason McAteer forcing a fine reflex save from Edwin van der Sar and Phillips having a close range shot deflected over the bar. By half time, however, Fulham were firmly in control. They could have doubled or trebled their lead, but first Sorensen denied Hayles for a second time and then, from a left wing corner by John Collins, the impressive Knight headed against the Sunderland crossbar.
The home side departed to the sound of booing at half-time and they did little to lift the mood of their supporters upon their return to action. Fulham continued to dictate the ebb and flow of the game, more often than not through the supremely assured Collins. The tide turned on one pass. It was delivered by Stefan Schwarz from just inside the Sunderland half in the 67th minute. That it was the kind of ball Phillips had awaited for some time was evident by the zeal with which he chased it. And buried it.
Rounding Van der Sar on the right edge of the area, the frustrated poacher hit the target with a venomous right-foot shot. Tigana's players appealed in vain for offside. Ultimately, however, they were happy to hold on for a point. Phillips fired up his team mates and very nearly fired the winner, shooting into the side netting after another darting break.
The Sunday Telegraph
Trailing to a first-half goal and with time fast running out, the Sunderland public sensed an impending crisis and let out a lusty roar of encouragement - or more probably desperation. Soon all four sides of the ground had taken up the call and their prayers were quickly answered.
If ever a team were roused into furious action by their supporters this was it as Kevin Phillips seized Stefan Schwarz's pass to score the equaliser that was the very least he deserved for his unstinting efforts.
Phillips, into double figures for the season, was not finished there and appeared to have a good case for a penalty shortly after. It was not given, so Sunderland were forced to settle for the draw which might not have been available had Steve Marlet accepted a late chance.
With the struggle for points and goals becoming more critical and the security of manager Peter Reid a matter for intensive debate on Wearside, what Sunderland needed was to begin the game as if they truly believed in their prospects of victory.
Instead what they got was uncertainty as Barry Hayles was allowed to run unhindered towards goal when Steve Finnan chipped down the line. Thomas Sorensen should have come to intercept the pass but instead chose reverse gear, saving himself and his team with a smart save to his right.
A couple of bristling tackles from Gavin McCann stirred Sunderland into life and the midfielder may well have scored as a result. Running on to Bernt Haas's low pass he delayed his shot and had his pocket picked at the last moment by the long legs of Zat Knight.
Within minutes Fulham were ahead courtesy of a fine example of the close control and trickery that is earning Steed Malbranque a growing Premiership reputation. The shot was a beauty too as he made full use of Hayles's lofted chip, holding off two defenders in the process.
The visitors continued to break through on a regular basis, with Hayles always threatening damage and Knight scraping the crossbar from a corner.
For their part Sunderland could reflect on and regret the athletic powers of Edwin van der Sar which twice came between them and an equaliser, Jason McAteer and the ever impressive Phillips the men to be denied.
The second half began with a succession of near misses as Reid's team looked to quell the discontent in the stands before it became inhibiting. McCann, hovering just outside the area, was well placed to put away a volley but sliced it in the fashion of a weekend hacker. Another McAteer chip was aimed towards Niall Quinn only for Finnan to make the block. Fulham's defensive work was worthy of substantial praise.
Then several thousand began to clear their throats and the fightback gathered real pace. Schwarz shrugged Hayles off the ball and sent Phillips scampering towards goal. He took a wide route around Van der Sar but had judged it right and finished with precision.
Kevin Phillips continues to stand between Sunderland and involvement in the Premiership's scramble for survival. The striker was again the saviour for Peter Reid's team as their supporters' patience was tested to the limit.
Phillips scored his tenth goal of the season in the 67th minute to quieten the complaints of the crowd, and he took it in a style that strengthens his case for a place in England's World Cup squad. The striker accepted a pass from Stefan Schwarz before rounding Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and steering in a goal that was not enough to earn Sunderland their first win in five games.
Goalscoring has been a problem all season for both teams. Sunderland went into this match with only 18 to their credit from 22 games, while Fulham had managed only four more. Yet there should have been one for Fulham after 85 seconds. Sunderland goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen was hesitant about going for a through-ball, but admirably alert when Barry Hayles thumped in a shot.
A goal at such an early stage would have had an immense impact on the match in view of the antipathy here over Sunderland's recent displays. Supporters who are increasingly critical of Peter Reid's approach would not have tolerated such a setback quietly.
Sunderland survived, though, and should have gone ahead in the 13th minute, when Gavin McCann, their transfer-listed midfielder, capitalised on a dummy by Niall Quinn to break into the penalty area before his run was halted by Alain Goma's excellent sliding tackle.
Two minutes later, Fulham were in front thanks to some superb finishing by Steed Malbranque, who drifted away from Bernt Haas and Stanislav Varga before beating Sorensen with a dipping shot from the edge of the area.
A hostile reaction from the home fans was at least delayed by the way Sunderland responded to the setback. Fulham were immediately put under intense pressure and only two superb saves from Van der Sar kept them ahead.
The Dutch goalkeeper beat away a fierce effort from Jason McAteer and, after Phillips went close with a snap shot, Van der Sar frustrated the striker again with an instinctive save after a scramble in the penalty area.
There could have been further goals before half-time for Fulham. Sorensen saved at the feet of Hayles in the 33rd minute at the expense of a corner, which brought a powerful header against the bar from Zat Knight. Then, in the 44th minute, another incisive break by Fulham exposed Sunderland's defence, but Hayles sliced his shot off target.
Sunderland were booed off at the interval and the mood of the crowd was not improved as Fulham continued to be the more imaginative team in the second half. They would have added a second goal within seven minutes if Steve Marlet's touch had been better after he seized on a poor header by Jody Craddock, but he lost control as he rounded Sorensen and the danger evaporated.
The Londoners' defence still looked fallible, though. Quinn was given too much space for a shot that was blocked by Steve Finnan and Van der Sar saved from Phillips after a mix-up between Goma and Andy Melville.
Should he stay or should he go? The question is the talk of Wearside with Sunderland supporters divided as to whether Peter Reid should remain as the club's manager.
Unhappy with mid-table mediocrity after two seventh- place finishes in the Premiership, Sunderland's highest position for half a century, the anti-lobby appear both ungrateful and unrealistic but they were not totally appeased yesterday.
Fulham's first visit to the Stadium of Light was distinguished by scorching acceleration and cohesive passing and, until Kevin Phillips temporarily silenced Reid's dissenters with a second-half equaliser, seemed destined to end in victory.
Jean Tigana's team were ahead in the 15th minute courtesy of a splendid goal from Steed Malbranque. It followed a Rufus Brevett throw-in which was flicked on by Barry Hayles, leaving Malbranque to evade a couple of markers and defy Thomas Sorensen with a curling, rising shot destined for the top corner.
The home defenders gave him too much space, but it is small wonder Malbranque is regarded as one of his country's brightest midfield prospects.
One thing most Fulham players have in common is pace. By the time Malbranque scored, Sunderland had already experienced a few frights in the face of the visitors' formidable counter-attacking speed.
With Reid's team holding a high defensive line and missing the injured Emerson Thome, they looked vulnerable to breaks.
Indeed, as early as the second minute, Sunderland were rescued by Sorensen, who narrowed the angle impressively before saving well from Hayles after the one time non-League striker had eluded the home offside trap and connected with Steve Finnan's long ball down the line, leaving him one-on-one with the Danish international goalkeeper.
Sunderland, too, had their attacking moments but although Gavin McCann was winning tackles all over the place it seemed Reid's key midfielder was fighting too many fires. McCann might have claimed a rare goal when he ran on to a clever pass from Niall Quinn but, having hesitated a second too long and taken one touch too many, was confounded by an awkward angle.
This week Sunderland's board must decide whether to give McCann, who was helped off the field with a broken nose after tangling with Zat Knight, the improved contract his agent is demanding or grant him a transfer. It might appear that the Wearsiders need McCann more than he needs them but, in reality, a move to, say, Leeds United would almost certainly involve the erstwhile England midfielder spending match days warming the bench rather than being a main man. Although David O'Leary is apparently keen to sign him, sometimes the grass on the other side of the fence is not quite as green as it seems.
On Friday, Phillips reiterated that he was content at the Stadium of Light but bemoaned a lack of crosses. This shortage was in evidence once again with the England striker regularly being forced wide and/or deep in search of possession. Reid is desperately in need of a high calibre winger.
At half-time the mood was turning a little ugly.
Even though Andy Melville, a one-time Reid reject, and Alain Goma, formerly of Newcastle, continued to suppress Phillips, who saw a penalty appeal dismissed after an apparent foul by Brevett, and Quinn, Sunderland improved appreciably after the break.
It came as no surprise that the catalyst for this change was Phillips, who held his nerve to round the advancing Edwin van der Sar before unleashing the 67th-minute shot which would boost his seasonal goal tally to 10.
Encouragingly, the goal began with some good midfield passing, McCann picking out Stefan Schwarz who has been increasingly outstanding on his recall to the first team for the first time since November.
The Swede's impeccably weighted delivery enabled Phillips to time his run to narrowly spring Fulham's offside trap and leave their Dutch goalkeeper one-on-one against a striker with his heart set on making England's World Cup squad.
"For me, Kevin Phillips is a fantastic player," said Tigana. Praise indeed, but Sunderland's leading scorer must hope Sven-Göran Eriksson starts feeling the same way.
News of the World
Kevin Phillips rescued Sunderland with his 10th goal of the season and stopped Fulham heaping more pressure on Peter Reid.
The England striker dragged the home side back into a game which the visitors looked to have in their grasp after a superb first-half display.
And Black Cats boss Peter Reid later admitted that he is running out of superlatives to describe the man he snapped up from Watford for just £650,000.
He said: "You must be fed up with me, the accolades I throw at the kid.
"I think you all know I'm trying to get another striker in and I'll settle for another one like him.
"He's just a terrific footballer, single-minded, and I thought it was a great display today.
But Reid is now facing up to the prospect of another selection headache after Gavin McCann left the field with a suspected broken nose following a clash with Zat Knight.
He added: "I think Gavin's got a beaut, his nose is all over his face.
"Hopefully it will improve his looks when we can get him into the operating theatre.
Fulham boss Jean Tigana, who saw substitute Luis Bo Morte stretchered off in the dying minutes of the game, admitted he was a disappointed man leaving the North-East.
He said: "I'm very disappointed because it was possible to win and we lost two points today.
"We had many chances to score and it's important that we score more goals.
"But we are progressing because a lot of my players have never played at the top level.
"The players are learning all the time, and at the end of the game, they were very disappointed. They wanted to win, and that's a good spirit."
Steed Malbranque had fired the Londoners into a 15th-minute lead to reward their early dominance.
But the Wearsiders eventually staged a rousing comeback, and it was they who looked the more likely winners as time ran down.
Jean Tigana may feel his side deserved more than the one point, but Reid was a relieved man after seeing a fightback which reinforced his belief in his players.
It could have been so different as Malbranque in particular ran riot before the break.
Barry Hayles should really have put the Londoners in front with less than two minutes gone after he outstripped the home defence to collect Steve Finnan's pass but he could not beat Thomas Sorensen.
His side had to wait just 13 minutes more for the opening goal.
Malbranque skipped away from Schwarz, Bernt Haas and Stanislav Varga before driving a shot across Sorensen and into the top corner.
Sunderland's failure to find the back of the net often enough to mount a serious challenge in this season's Premiership refused to go away.
Gavin McCann and Jason McAteer both squandering golden opportunities when through on goal.
Following the interval Gavin McCann had a long-range shot blocked by Goma after Quinn had flicked on Haas' long throw.
And the equaliser eventually came with 66 minutes gone.
Schwarz's pass allowed Phillips to race clear and round Edwin Van der Sar with ease before slotting into the empty net.