A little snow, some icy rain and lots of sleet made for an unpleasant afternoon on Tyneside. All in all it seemed thoroughly emblematic of the misery engulfing Alan Pardew and his Newcastle United players.

Pardew's team appeared poised for a rare win until Brian McDermott introduced Adam Le Fondre as a second-half substitute. Two goals from him transformed the game, lifting Reading out of the relegation zone in the process, but McDermott also had reason to thank another Adam, namely his goalkeeper Adam Federici, for a series of stunning saves that restricted Newcastle to a single-goal lead at half-time.

If Reading are renascent it was no surprise their hosts were booed off at the end of an edgy 90 minutes played out against a mounting soundtrack of muttered discontent that spilled over into something near mutiny when Pardew made a couple of deeply unpopular second-half substitutes. Newcastle have won only two of their past 18 games in all competitions, losing five matches and drawing one since their last victory, at home to QPR a month ago.

The way in which McDermott – who got his big break a decade or so ago when Pardew, then Reading's manager, appointed him chief scout – made a point afterwards of talking about his Newcastle counterpart as "a great person" and "fantastic coach" suggested that Pardew's controversial eight-year contract may not provide quite as much insulation against dismissal as originally envisaged.

Mike Ashley, Newcastle's owner, could reportedly sack Pardew in exchange for one year's salary, but a positive first-half performance highlighted plenty of reasons why that would represent an unnecessarily knee-jerk solution to Newcastle's ills. Much of their play goes through Yohan Cabaye, and with the France midfielder restored to the starting X1 for the first time since suffering a groin injury in early November they looked a decent passing outfit again.

Cabaye is also pretty useful at dead balls and it was from his first-half free-kick that Newcastle assumed a lead that had Pardew punching thin air with palpable, if misplaced, relief. Won around 20 yards out courtesy of Sylvain Marveaux's dribble and Adrian Mariappa's foul, Cabaye curled the kick into the top corner, leaving Federici helpless.

Earlier the Frenchman had conjured an excellent headed chance for Papiss Cissé only to see Federici save splendidly. Deployed in the centre of a front three with Shola Ameobi to his right and Marveaux on the left, Cissé was looking lively and Reading's goalkeeper reacted smartly to keep his volley out before making an impressive point-blank range save from the Senegal striker at the end of a sweeping move featuring Mathieu Debuchy and Vurnon Anita.

Reading were up against it but Tim Krul seemed relieved to see Pavel Pogrebnyak shoot wide following Gareth McLeary's stellar, defence-splitting dribble beyond Debuchy.

McDermott's team were becoming menacing at set pieces and might have scored from one two minutes after the break. When Cabaye fouled Danny Guthrie – who left Newcastle last summer after tiring of understudying the Frenchman – Jonás Gutiérrez deflected Ian Harte's free-kick inches wide.

Everything changed when Reading's manager made what turned out to be the most inspired of substitutions. Off went Guthrie, on came Le Fondre and, almost instantly, Reading drew level.

Mikele Leigertwood hit a wonderful crossfield ball for Jimmy Kébé, who centred it into the six-yard box. Once Mike Williamson spurned a chance to clear the danger, Le Fondre twisted his body instinctively to meet the ball, using the top of his chest to bundle it past Krul from close range.

If his first goal looked scrambled, Le Fondre's second was an accomplished shot unleashed after Hope Akpan's miscued effort rebounded to his feet. In contrast, nothing was falling for Newcastle during a second half filled with slapdash passing, surrendered tackles and failure to seize second balls.

Two turning points for the worse came when Pardew replaced the creative Marveaux with James Perch and then Cabaye with Gaël Bigirimana. He admitted that withdrawing Marveaux was "a mistake", but had believed Cabaye would get through the game only for his key midfielder to succumb to groin trouble.

No matter that Perch headed on a stoppage-time Debuchy cross from which a swivelling Cissé should have equalised but instead shot wastefully over the bar, home fans exiting into the snow and sludge had already blamed Pardew for this latest defeat.

It could have been worse. Fabricio Coloccini – still desperate to return to Argentina – was arguably lucky to escape unpunished after raising an arm during a stoppage-time altercation with Kébé, broken up by the intervention of Mark Halsey, the fourth official.

Pardew had reason to be grateful but right now Newcastle's manager could really do with a spot of divine intervention.