A deflection and an extremely dodgy penalty ensured that an afternoon spoilt by an increasingly swirling wind did not finish goalless but no one can have departed imagining either side will be challenging for Europe soon.

While Martin O'Neill is at least slowly improving a Sunderland team which had been sliding inexorably towards relegation under Steve Bruce, David Moyes seems to be overseeing a period of stagnation at Everton.

Moyes, beneficiary of that dubious penalty decision on Howard Webb's part, saw his players begin strongly and fall behind against the run of play before gradually fading as their shortage of invention and incision in midfield highlighted a worrying dependence on dead balls.

The Everton manager agreed that the penalty – given after Leon Osman had miskicked, lost his footing and fallen over in the area and converted by Leighton Baines – should never have been awarded. "I thought that, by the end, a draw was a fair result," said Moyes. "But it wasn't a penalty kick – it was a terrible decision."

Had Everton converted their early chances, Webb's mistake could have proved academic. Initially stuttering, Sunderland began by granting Everton too many free headers with Tim Cahill and Louis Saha both guilty of glaring misses. "I thought we played really well for 25 or 30 minutes," said Moyes. "We had two great chances and were clearly the better team but we couldn't capitalise.

"We passed the ball around but didn't do much with it and by the end the conditions were terrible. With their new manager giving them a bit of momentum this was always going to be a bad time to come to Sunderland and it turned into a hard game for us."

If the disappointing Tim Cahill is clearly a fading Evertonian force, Stéphane Sessègnon offers O'Neill's side some of the pace and creativity Sunderland otherwise lack and, breaking adroitly, the Benin forward delighted in dancing round Sylvain Distin before setting up Jack Colback to open the scoring.

Fresh from the substitutes' bench after replacing the injured Titus Bramble, Colback had stolen into the space conjured by Sessègnon dragging Moyes's defence out of position.

Even so, at that point the portents were not bright for O'Neill. Colback is no natural predator and, sure enough, the unmarked midfielder's shot did not bear the hallmarks of a seasoned finisher's dispatch. Tim Howard seemed to have it well covered until the ball took a kindly deflection off Distin before looping beyond his grasp. As Colback celebrated his first senior Sunderland goal, Moyes looked so utterly miserable he might have been auditioning, successfully, to play a pantomime Scrooge.

Early in the second half it was Sunderland's turn to feel fortune's frown as Webb's eyes deceived him. Evidently believing Osman was fouled by either Wes Brown or Lee Cattermole, both of whom were in close attendance as he toppled over, the official pointed to the spot. As Wearsiders expressed their collective disgust, Baines blasted the penalty into the top corner.

"Howard Webb is a top-class referee but it's not a great decision," said a commendably sanguine O'Neill, who stressed that occasionally succumbing to the "human factor" is an occupational hazard. "Howard felt there was contact, clearly there wasn't so, obviously, it's disappointing. It was a big incident, although I don't attach any blame to Leon Osman, he couldn't help falling over.

"Players and managers get things wrong and so do referees. But they don't intend to – and the job referees do is the most difficult in the business."