The latest setback in Newcastle United's season can be attributed to a combination of poor communication and bad timing. Alan Pardew claims to speak "a little" French and Yohan Cabaye's English is much improved. Even so, things clearly got lost in translation between the manager and his best midfielder on Saturday when a misunderstanding over fitness helped precipitate a damaging defeat.

Cabaye had started his first game in more than two months after a groin operation but, while Pardew believed the afternoon's outstanding individual would complete 90 minutes, his playmaker had different ideas.

Newcastle led 1-0 thanks to Cabaye's fine free-kick when, in the 66th minute, Pardew replaced Sylvain Marveaux with James Perch. The idea was to swap creativity with defensive grit but a hitherto supportive crowd booed its disapproval and five minutes later a Reading substitute, Adam Le Fondre, equalised.

Almost immediately Cabaye began gesturing to the bench, rotating his hands to signal that he needed to be withdrawn, and only nine minutes after Marveaux's exit he too headed off for a hot shower. On came the young, inexperienced defensive Gaël Bigirimana and two minutes later Le Fondre shot Reading's winner.

As Newcastle fans screamed "You don't know what you're doing" at Pardew and the atmosphere turned toxic, snow clouds rolled inexorably towards Tyneside. By 7pm conditions were so severe that any match would have been abandoned but the storm arrived too late to rescue the home manager from surely his most uncomfortable game at St James' Park.

"The fans were very angry but they didn't realise I needed to come off," said Cabaye. "They shouldn't blame the manager. It was my decision. I was feeling tired. I wasn't fit enough to finish the game. I was afraid about my groin. I've come back from surgery and didn't want to get pain again. My groin was tight.

"I didn't want to take any risks on my first start for so long. I've come back much earlier than originally planned and the pitch was very heavy. I think it was the right decision for me. When I came off it didn't occur to me that we'd lose."

Pardew, meanwhile, said he had been "confident" Cabaye would complete 90 minutes but acknowledged Marveaux's departure had been "a mistake". In mitigation, assorted injuries allied to a lack of investment in new players last summer left him with limited options on a worryingly weak bench but without Cabaye and Marveaux Newcastle's passing went horribly awry. Suddenly engulfed by nerves, they swiftly surrendered.

Those who believe in karma suspect it is no coincidence that virtually everything has gone wrong since the club signed a controversial new sponsorship deal with the payday loans firm Wonga. At around the same time Pardew agreed an eight-year contract extension but rather than promote much vaunted "stability", this grand gesture merely prefaced a dreadful run which should remind Mike Ashley that those who cut too many corners come eventually to inevitable grief.

Newcastle's owner gambled heavily when he neglected to restock Pardew's slender squad last summer and has now seen the team win only three of their last 18 Premier League games. Along the road towards a relegation fight a manager long admired for refusing to rush players back from injury has been left so short-staffed he concedes he has started asking his physiotherapy team to push first-teamers off the treatment table a bit faster.

If the imminent £6m arrival of the central defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa from Montpellier should help matters – especially as the personally troubled Fabricio Coloccini hopes that a meeting between his representatives and Newcastle's board on Monday will result in him being allowed to return to Argentina – a striker to replace Demba Ba and a left-footed midfielder are also urgently required.

While it would be foolish, extremely unfair and utterly knee-jerk for Ashley to exercise immediately his apparent contractual right to dismiss Pardew in exchange for a year's salary, the manager cannot realistically expect to survive three defeats in the forthcoming fixtures against Aston Villa, Chelsea and Tottenham. "Our confidence is low, a lot lower than before," said Cabaye. "We're in a bad position. We must stick together, stay calm, work hard and fight for the points we need to stay up."

By showing precisely those qualities Reading suggested they may yet escape a return to the Championship in May. On another day Newcastle's Papiss Cissé might have claimed a hat-trick but Adam Federici made three brilliant saves before Brian McDermott's inspired unleashing of Le Fondre. "Adam cost us £300,000 [from Rotherham]," said Reading's manager. "You couldn't buy his right sock for that now."

Man of the match Adam Le Fondre (Reading)