WHEN the time comes to look back on this season, the two games against Fulham may well be seen as among the most pivotal of the lot.
Football is all about momentum and in that first meeting, on the opening day of the season, Sunderland were denied it just when their newly assembled squad and novice Premier League manager needed it most.
They were punished that August afternoon for the first, but certainly not the last time, for proving unable to score goals at one end and prevent them going in at the other.
It was a habitual failing which was to spell Paolo Di Canio’s doom.
On Saturday, Sunderland’s momentum was merely confirmed by a dismantling of Fulham which capped off a run under Gus Poyet of only one defeat in their last nine.
It was still the most significant game of the nine though, because despite Sunderland’s improvement in form and results, they still arrived at Craven Cottage knowing this was a relegation “six-pointer”.
They could not afford to lose without risking being cut adrift at the bottom with more than half the season gone.
That they won it was one thing.
That they ended up winning it emphatically was another.
They did so because, apart from the odd slip, their defence was as firm as Fulham’s was fragile, while their midfield edged Fulham’s in every department and, in Adam Johnson, they possessed the game’s outstanding player.
They also held their nerve better in a tense opening half-hour which could easily have gone either way.
Poyet had made two changes to the side which beat Manchester United in the Capital One Cup – the fresher legs of Jack Colback and Adam Johnson preferred to Seb Larsson and Emanuele Giaccherini, who both dropped to the bench.
The team-sheet appeared to be just about Sunderland’s strongest side, but the biggest selection boost before kick-off arrived when the Fulham line-up showed that their best defender, Brede Hangeland, and first-choice keeper had failed to win fitness battles to reinforce the most porous defence in the division.
Given the importance of the match, it was understandable that both sides concentrated on making slow and unspectacular starts.
The Cottagers welcomed back former goalscoring hero Clint Dempsey – the on-loan midfielder making his second home debut behind the in-form Dimitar Berbatov, scorer of three goals in his last three Premier League games.
And it was the Bulgarian who forced the first save when, having won a corner in the sixth minute, he headed Adel Taarbat’s flag-kick from the left, straight at Vito Mannone.
Sunderland were looking comfortable but had a scare in the 10th minute when Wes Brown lost possession to Sascha Riether and Berbatov was inches away from connecting with the ball across the box from the right flank.
An ambitious through ball from Johnson three minutes later was just beyond the stretching Fabio Borini as the Black Cats flickered into life in attack.
But it was still a scrappy start by both teams – something underlined as the quarter-hour arrived with Taarabt trying his luck from range with a low shot which was wayward; a move Dempsey repeated a couple of minutes later.
It took Sunderland’s joint top-scorer at the start of the game, Phil Bardsley, to produce Sunderland’s first shot on goal, a 19th-minute effort which David Stockdale was equal to, despite it taking a slight deflection off Jack Colback.
That was followed up, a couple of minutes later, by a well-worked free-kick, driven from deep by Johnson and nodded across goal by John O’Shea on the right but headed over by Steven Fletcher.
Mannone was then called on to make an excellent save after Taarabt sprinted down the right and drove in a powerful shot at the near post which the keeper palmed away one-handed.
Things were evenly balanced at this stage.
But they swung dramatically Sunderland’s way in the 29th minute when Steve Sidwell upended Johnson and, from a near identical position from which he scored against Carlisle the previous weekend, the former Manchester City winger produced a goal of the highest quality.
Twenty-five yards out and in front of the 18-yard box, slightly to the right, he curled the ball over the wall and into the top left-hand corner of Stockdale’s goal, the keeper getting both hands to it but unable to stop it finding the back of the net.
Fulham responded and had the ball in the back of the net a minute later after Berbatov set up Dempsey to fire home, but the linesman’s flag was already up for offside.
Sunderland were not tempted to go into their shells, though, and after Borini saw a 35th-minute shot blocked the visitors doubled their lead in the 41st.
Forty per cent of Sunderland’s goals, going into the game, had come from free-kicks and that ratio increased again as the Black Cats scored their second set-piece of the game.
It came after Borini was fouled near the right-hand corner flag and it was a triumph for a rehearsed training ground move – Johnson driving a low ball straight to Ki Sung-Yueng, who fired home from 12 yards out with the shot deflecting in off centre-half Philippe Senderos in a crowded penalty area.
Sunderland would have known Fulham would come at them straight away in the second half.
What they wouldn’t have known was that the defensive frailty which marked the first third of their season would return – Marcos Alonso conceding a needless corner in the 52nd minute and Sidwell stealing in to nod home from inside the six-yard box with his markers AWOL.
Briefly, Sunderland tensed, defending deeper and deeper, but they held their nerve before Lee Cattermole saw a shot deflected wide in the 63rd minute for the first of two quick corners.
Cattermole and Sidwell were both lucky to stay on the pitch five minutes later after the Sunderland man fouled Scott Parker, while Sidwell’s retributive challenge on Cattermole was worse.
This was a game though when all the things which have tended to go against Sunderland went in their favour – Cattermole stayed on the pitch, the Dempsey offside was spotted, the challenges which led to Sunderland’s free-kick goals were both rightly penalised when on another day referee Mike Dean might have waved play on.
There was no luck about Sunderland’s third goal 20 minutes from time, though.
It was a superb counter-attacking move, with Ki carrying the ball upfield before exchanging passes with substitute Jozy Altidore on the left and playing in Johnson, on the right, with a ball behind the defence and the winger’s superb first-time finish driven between Stockdale’s legs.
And Johnson was just as confident, five minutes before full-time, from the penalty spot after Altidore was clumsily brought down in the box by the hapless Senderos.
Johnson powered a low shot to Stockdale’s left as the keeper dived to his right, giving the Sunderland wide man the first hat-trick of his Premier League career.
In one game, he had doubled his goal tally for the season.
Watching the magic Johnson show was former Sunderland hero Darren Bent – the last man to score a hat-trick for the Wearsiders, back in 2010 – who was taunted by the delighted travelling fans when he arrived on the pitch in the last quarter of an hour.
He cut a hapless figure.
Before his desertion from Sunderland’s ranks, Bent had forced his way back into England’s plans thanks to his performances in a red and white shirt – just as Johnson hopes to do now.
The striker’s goals per game ratio at Sunderland was the best in his career; his goals per game at Fulham, his worst.
It’s just another reminder of how swiftly things can change football – it is all about momentum and Bent’s for certain and Fulham’s potentially is threatening to be downward.
As for Sunderland, after such an eye-catching result in such a high pressure game, one is tempted to suggest things might only get better.