THE first Premier League hat-trick of Adam Johnson’s career fired Sunderland to a victory which finally lifted them off the bottom of the table and to within a point of safety.
The Black Cats were superb at Craven Cottage over the course of the 90 minutes, but they had to negotiate a testing start to the game in which both sides looked understandably edgy.
Johnson calmed the nerves just before the half-hour with a free-kick which was a carbon copy of his goal against Manchester United during the week.
And it was Johnson with an assist for Sunderland’s second, pulling a free-kick back for Ki Sung-Yueng to fire in off Philippe Senderos in the 41st minute.
Fulham pulled one back soon after the break when Steve Sidwell took advantage of poor defending to head home from inside the six-yard box.
But Johnson restored Sunderland’s two-goal advantage in the 69th minute when he drilled home Ki’s defence-splitting pass.
And he grabbed his hat-trick from the penalty spot – doubling his goal-tally for the season in the process – five minutes from time after substitute Jozy Altidore was upended by the hapless Senderos.
Sunderland are now five games unbeaten away from home – having won the last two out of three on their travels – and that’s the sort of form which must give fans hope that the club can pull off a remarkable escape from the drop zone this season.
Gus Poyet made two changes to the side which overcame Manchester United in the Capital One Cup in midweek – the fresher legs of Jack Colback and Johnson preferred to Seb Larsson and Emanuele Giaccherini, who both dropped to the bench.
The team-sheet had a look of arguably Sunderland’s strongest side, and it needed to be, with Fulham having had a good record so far this season of beating the teams in and around them at the bottom.
Former Sunderland players Darren Bent and Kieran Richardson were on the bench for the Cottagers, who welcomed back former hero Clint Dempsey on loan to play behind the in-form Dimitar Berbatov.
But neither first-choice keeper Maarten Stekelenburg nor captain Brede Hangeland had recovered from injuries in time to play for the Londoners and that would have boosted Sunderland hopes before the game of prospering in attack.
The visitors kicked off and, after a slow start, Sunderland launched the first meaningful attack with Ki Sung-Yueng eleasing Johnson down the right in the fourth minute.
John Arne Riise gave away a free-kick bringing down the winger, but the attacking opportunity was wasted when Johnson surged into the box but ran the ball out of play.
Fulham’s first attack came in the sixth minute with Dimitar Berbatov winning a corner from John O’Shea which Adel Taarbat put in from the left and the Bulgarian headed straight at visiting keeper Vito Mannone.
Sunderland looked comfortable, but they had a lucky escape in the 10th minute when 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 in the 13th minute was just beyond the stretching Fabio Borini .
And then Taarabt, for Fulham, tried his luck from range with a low shot which was wayward and Dempsey removed the move a couple of minutes later to confirm the patchiest of starts of both sides.
Phil Bardsley produced Sunderland’s first shot on goal in the 19th minute when he took a pass from Johnson and, from the right-hand channel, curled in a left-foot shot which took a slight deflection off Steven Fletcher but did not deceive keeper David Stockdale, who dived low to his left to palm the ball away.
Sunderland had a good chance two minutes later after Borini was fouled 10 yards inside the Fulham half.
Johnson drove the ball to O’Shea, on the right of goal, and his header across the six-yard box went over the bar off the top of Fletcher’s head when the striker would have been expected to get over it.
Mannone was then called on to make a fine save after Colback this time gave the ball away cheaply and Taarabt sprinted down the right and drove in a powerful shot at the near post which the keeper palmed away one-handed.
From the resulting corner, Berbatov was unable to swivel successfully on a Damien Duff cross from the right and played switched to the other end, with Johnson winning a free-kick from Steve Sidwell in a dangerous position.
It was in a near identical position, five yards outside the 18-yard box, to the right of goal, from which he had scored against Carlisle last weekend.
And JOHNSON’s 29th-minute free-kick was an exact replica too – curling over the wall and into the top left-hand corner of Stockdale’s glove, the goalkeeper getting a glove to it but unable to stop it finding the back of the net.
Johnson’s fourth goal of the season – making him his side’s top scorer – was a great boost to Sunderland.
But the visitors did not do themselves any favours on the half-hour when Bardsley was needlessly booked for petulantly kicking the ball away.
And Fulham had the ball in the back of the net a minute later from an attack which saw Berbatov set up Dempsey to fire home but the linesman’s flag was already up for offside.
Sunderland have done with a second goal and they might have got it in the 35th minute when a foul on Borini saw Ki drive in a free-kick from the left-wing which the keeper fumbled.
Borini reacted quickly, but the on-loan Liverpool man’s low shot struck the prone stopper and was blocked away to safety.
Sunderland kept the pressure on though, winning a corner and then grabbing that all-important second goal in the 41st minute from a free-kick.
It was conceded near the right-hand corner flag after Riise sliced through Borini and received a yellow card for the challenge.
Johnson put a low ball into the danger area and KI’s low shot from 12 yards struck Stockdale before rebounding off centre-half Philippe Senderos and over the line.
It was Sunderland’s 7,000th league goal and, while it might not have been the cleanest, it looked to be priceless for the Wearsiders, who hung on to half-time to take a good lead into the break.
HT: Fulham 0 Sunderland 2
Both sides resumed unchanged in what was a frantic start to the second half.
Fulham needed that early goal but were unable to to create anything from a 48th minute free-kick conceded by Colback near the right-hand corner flag – O’Shea and Johnson combining to head the ball clear.
Fulham got back into it the 52nd minute though from one of the poorest goals Sunderland have conceded all season.
It came when a deep cross from the left was needlessly put out for a corner at the far post by Alonso.
Former Newcastle United wideman Damien Duff put the ball in and SIDWELL nipped in unmarked to head the ball home inside the six-yard box in the centre of goal.
Sunderland had been defending deeper and deeper before the goal and they continued to do so up to the hour, launching sporadic attacks with Borini shooting wide from range in the 58th.
The Black Cats dug in, though, and after a Cattermole shot was deflected wide in the 63rd minute, Sunderland won two corners in quick succession, Fletcher nodding the second corner wide from a decent position.
Fulham made the first change of the afternoon seconds later, taking off Taarabt and replacing him with Pajtim Kasami – the matchwinner in this fixture at the Stadium of Light.
From the resumption Fletcher might have capitalised on a mix-up between Stockdale and Senderos at one end, before Dempsey headed wide at the other.
Poyet took off the lacklustre Fletcher in the 65th minute and brought on Altidore.
Cattermole and Sidwell were hugely lucky to avoid yellow cards in the 68th minute – the Sunderland man for a foul on Parker and Sidwell for a retributive challenge on Cattermole.
Fulham brought on Ashkan Dejagah for Duff and the Cottagers looked to press, only to be caught out on the counter-attack with a classy goal from Sunderland to restore their two-goal advantage.
Substitute Altidore had a hand in it, taking possession on the left-wing and playing a smart ball inside to Ki, who spotted Johnson racing up the other wing.
The South Korean held on to the ball coolly before playing the ball inside the last Fulham defender and JOHNSON sprinted into the box before driving a first-time right-foot shot through Stockdale’s legs.
Five goals for the season for the England hopeful.
Sunderland frustrated the home side in the minutes that followed before Borini was replaced by Larsson in the 75th minute.
Fulham gathered themselves for one last effort and brought on Darren Bent in place of Clint Dempsey, the Cottagers forcing several corners and occasionally getting the ball into the danger area without seriously threatening.
And in the 85th minute Sunderland put the issue beyond doubt when Johnson brought up his hat-trick from the penalty spot.
The penalty was awarded from Larsson’s long ball up to Altidore who got into the area and as he jinked one way and then the other, tempted Senderos into raising his leg waist high.
Contact looked minimal, but it was a clear penalty and JOHNSON stepped up to drive a low shot down the centre of goal.
He was substituted seconds later by Ondrej Celustka, with the mission all but accomplished.
Sunderland wanted to see the job through though and Mannone produced a world-class save on his line from Sidwell’s point blank range shot in the 90th minute – Wes Brown being alert to sweep the trickling ball off the goal-line after the instinctive block.
Four minutes were added on at the end of the 90, but Fulham were a spent force by then and Sunderland’s players were cheered off the pitch by the travelling fans, none more loudly than Johnson who ran from the bench to make sure he grabbed the match ball.
FT: Fulham 1 Sunderland 4
13 Stockdale, Riether, 4 Senderos, 35 Amorebieta, 3 Riise, 16 Duff (sub Dejagah 68), 7 Sidwell, 28 Parker, 32 Dempsey (sub Bent 78), 19 Taarabt (sub Kasami 63), 9 Berbatov. Subs: Etheridge, Richardson, Hughes, Kacaniklic.
25 Mannone, 2 Bardsley, 5 Brown, 16 O’Shea, 28 Alonso, 33 Cattermole, 31 Borini (sub Larsson 75), 14 Colback, 4 Ki, 11 Johnson (sub Celustka 86), 9 Fletcher (sub Altidore 65). Subs: Pickford, Gardner, Giaccherini, Ji.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral). Att 25, 564
Booked: Bardsley (Sunderland) 30, Sidwell (Fulham) 37, Riise (Fulham) 40, Colback (Sunderland) 58, Parker (Fulham) 60, Johnson (Sunderland) 70