THIS was a Premier League match Sunderland simply had to win. A point would not have been good enough and a defeat would have been unthinkable from their visit to Craven Cottage.
So thankfully for once everything, and I do mean everything, went Martin O’Neill’s way.
The Sunderland manager would surely say this was not before time.
Fulham had a man sent off after half an hour. They suffered injuries to two of their best players.
Sunderland’s second goal was scored when the home side were down to nine men because Mladen Petric suffered a nasty cut on his leg in the process of scoring an equaliser and was off the park receiving treatment.
It was that kind of a day. Even this Sunderland team which has struggled with form and confidence was going to take advantage of the situation.
That’s not say that O’Neill’s men didn’t play well for spells.
All three very different goals were superbly taken and they could and should have scored a few more.
However, it would be grossly misleading not to make the point that the red card given to Fulham captain Brede Hangeland with an hour still to play – a decision he and his team wholeheartedly disagreed with – changed the match, because Martin Jol’s men had been clearly the better team up until that point.
Sunderland still have problems to solve.
However, training should be a lot more enjoyable this week. They will hope this is the start of something better.
It took Fulham a little over three minutes to put Sunderland under real pressure.
Steve Sidwell’s lovely cross-field pass to Damien Duff on the right wing gave the Irishman his first run at Danny Rose.
He checked back on to his left foot and crossed for Dimitar Berbatov who out-jumped both John O’Shea and Carlos Cuellar – but his header was just wide of the post.
Sunderland’s response was a Seb Larsson shot, which was weak, then a Stephane Sessegnon 30-yard drive, which was wild.
They struggled to find their rhythm because Fulham are at times a lovely team to watch.
A move after 18 minutes which saw them make more passes than Russell Brand in the VIP room at Stringfellows ended with Berbatov cleverly slipping the ball to Sidwell inside the box, but he didn’t get much power into his shot.
Sunderland’s defensive tactic at this time was to allow the Londoners plenty of possession and hope they couldn’t find the right pass when they got near their penalty area. Fulham were forced into a change on 27 minutes when Alexander Kacaniklic, who had been lively, limped off to be replaced by Hugo Rodallega. It was the start of their misfortune, but then with half an hour gone, Sunderland were handed a huge break by referee Lee Probert.
He had no hesitation in showing Fulham captain Hangeland a red card for a tackle on Lee Cattermole.
It was two-footed, a big no-no these days, and one foot was off the ground, but he got the ball, which he never took his eyes off.
It looked a booking, but the Norwegian walked. You can’t make challenges like that any more. It’s as simple as that.
It was now Sunderland’s game to lose, but nothing is straightforward, certainly not this season.
In fact, Fulham should have taken the lead two minutes after their numbers were reduced.
John Arne Riise’s long ball found Duff who brilliantly controlled before rolling his pass to Berbatov, who had galloped to the edge of the box from his own half.
He had a clear shot at goal, albeit he had to take it first time, but his effort when straight into Mignolet’s body.
Sunderland’s best chance of the half came with five minutes before the break.
Phil Bardsley played a lovely ball inside Riise which allowed Stephane Sessegnon a run in on Fulham’s goal but, when a shot seemed his best option, he instead crossed for Steven Fletcher (pictured left), the wrong option, and Sascha Riether cleared from his own six-yard box.
There was still time for Berbatov to miss another good chance before O’Neill got his players in for a chat.
Fulham won a free-kick 30 yards from goal, which is Riise territory, and Bardsley, who used a delicate area to do so, blocked the Norwegian’s rocket of an effort.
Sunderland should have countered, but they gave the ball away to Aaron Hughes who threaded a pass along the turf to Berbatov who sent his shot from an angle just wide of the far post.
Martin Jol made a second substitution before half-time when, understandably, centre-half Philip Senderos was sent on for Giorgos Karagounis. Two subs used and a man down, things were not going their way.
It got worse for them four minutes after the restart.
Riise saw a speculative shot hit the top of Mignolet’s goal and then, within 60 seconds, Sunderland took the lead.
Johnson produced a quite outstanding pass which took out last man Senderos and at the same time laid the ball on a plate for Fletcher.
The Scot still had some work to do, but his first touch and finish past Mark Schwarzer were exquisite.
Fulham lost another player through injury before the hour when Ruiz, who in flashes has been excellent, pulled up and Mladen Petric replaced him.
Incredibly, he almost scored with his very first touch, a shot he blazed over from close range. He scored with his second on 62 minutes.
Poor Sunderland defending allowed Duff time and a ridiculous amount of space inside the penalty area to collect a pass, look up and then pick out Petric with a low cross, which the striker swept home from six yards.
Cuellar desperately tried to stop him, which was never happening, but did accidentally drag his studs down the leg of Petric who had to go off for repairs.
Fulham were now two men down. They were soon 2-1 down.
A Johnson corner on 64 minutes was met by Cuellar who sent a powerfully accurate header into the goal via a post.
Sunderland could hardly believe their luck and soon the fans were celebrating a third on 70 minutes.
Danny Rose deserves great credit for bravely winning a header on the edge of his own box as he jumped with the much bigger Sidwell. That allowed Fletcher the opportunity to take the ball upfield. He slipped a pass to Sessegnon who cut in from the left and, from outside the box, he produced a stunning shot that gave Schwarzer no chance.
Fletcher was offside when he thought he’d scored a fourth goal ten minutes from time.