ADAM JOHNSON’S sixth goal in six games propelled Sunderland out of the bottom three for the first time since August after triumphing in their relegation clash with fellow strugglers Stoke City.
But Sunderland made hard work of their first home win in the Premier League since November against the 10-man Potters.
Johnson gave Sunderland the lead in the 17th minute when he coolly slid home the rebound after Fabio Borini’s shot was spilled by Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic.
The Black Cats were then indebted to Vito Mannone for keeping their lead after the keeper produced two superb saves before the interval to deny Peter Crouch and Ryan Shawcross.
Stoke were reduced to 10 men early in the second half when Steven Nzonzi was handed a second yellow card.
Jozy Altidore immediately went close to adding a second, but then the nervy Black Cats were forced to hang on during the finale for a crucial victory.
Gus Poyet re-introduced his first-team regulars after making 10 changes for Saturday’s FA Cup fourth round win over Kidderminster.
But there were two fresh faces from the side which progressed against Manchester United in the Capital One Cup semi-final.
Jozy Altidore came in for Steven Fletcher up front, with the Scot on the bench after struggling with a knock.
He was joined among the substitutes by the recalled Connor Wickham, but there was no place in the 18 for the injured Lee Cattermole.
Seb Larsson took the place of Cattermole, who has been linked with a £5million move to Stoke for the last week.
The Potters made four changes from the side which lost against Chelsea in the FA Cup, with Glenn Whelan, Oussama Assaidi and Charlie Adam all starting, along with new signing Peter Odemwingie.
Asmir Begovic was forced into the first save of the game in the seventh minute when Fabio Borini surged inside from the left and found Seb Larsson, midway inside the Stoke half.
Larsson should have threaded the ball back to the Italian, who had made a good run in behind the Potters back-line, but instead opted to try his luck from 20 yards with a low right-footed shot that Begovic parried low to his left.
Moments later, Vito Mannone was forced to readjust when Oussama Assaidi’s cross deflected off the head of Ki Sung-Yueng and required the Sunderland keeper to dash back towards his line and pluck the ball out of the air.
Phil Bardsley almost netted a contender for goal of the season in the 15th minute when he met Marcos Alonso’s cross from the left at the back post.
Bardsley connected with a scorching volley back across goal which was a yard wide of the far post.
Two minutes later, Sunderland got their noses in front when Borini unleashed a low right-footed shot from 20 yards which was spilled badly low to his left by Begovic.
Johnson reacted sharply and gathered the rebound before trickling the ball over the line.
Charlie Adam went desperately close to a stunning leveller in the 23rd minute when he let fly with a left-footed drive across goal from 25 yards which was inches wide of the far post.
Sunderland were indebted to Mannone for preserving thier lead in the 32nd minute when Geoff Cameron crossed from the right and the Black Cats keeper collided with John O’Shea after claiming the ball.
It dropped to Peter Crouch who sent a shot goalwards, only for Mannone to recover and block it smartly.
Mannone produced an even better save in the 39th minute to deny Ryan Shawcross what seemed a certain equaliser.
Adam drilled a cross into the area from the left which was met by Shawcross at the back post, six yards out, whose diving header from point-blank range was blocked brilliantly by the Italian.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 1 Stoke 0
Sunderland’s hopes were boosted in the 53rd minute when Stoke were reduced to 10 men.
Jozy Altidore got the wrong side of Nzonzi to Mannone’s hoof forwards and an arm came out from the midfielder to halt the American striker.
Referee Robert Madley deemed there was sufficient contact and Nzonzi was shown a second yellow card after he was booked in the first half.
Moments later, Altidore had a golden opportunity to double Sunderland’s advantage.
Stoke were caught in possession on the edge of their own area and the ball cannoned through to Altidore, 12 yards out.
Altidore took a touch to bear down on Begovic, but his powerful right-footed shot was saved well by the outstretched leg of the keeper.
Johnson then went close in the 58th minute when Borini played him in down the right-hand side of the area, but the winger sent his shot wide of the far post.
Larsson drew another save out of Begovic in the 71st minute when the Swede unleashed a low drive from 25 yards which swerved in the air and required the stopper to push it around the post smartly.
Stoke were still a threat at the other end though and Odemwingie really should have done better in the 73rd minute.
The ball dropped to the Nigerian just inside the area and he nutmegged Jack Colback before hitting a right-footed shot to the far corner which lacked power and Mannone was able to gather low to his right.
The woodwork spared Sunderland in the 84th minute when Shawcross met Cameron’s cross from the right with a looping header which cannoned off the top of the crossbar.
With three minutes to go, Sunderland went perilously close to sealing it when Larsson played a corner short to Johnson whose cross from the right was met by a glancing header from Wes Brown which bounced inches wide of the far post.
Brown went desperately close to putting the ball in his own net in the last minute when substitute Marko Arnautovic sent in a cross from the left which the centre-half deflected just wide at the near post.
Colback’s shot was then tipped over the top in stoppage time after he was fed down the left-hand side of the area by substitute Craig Gardner.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 1 Stoke 0
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Bardsley (Celustka 46), O’Shea, Brown, Alonso, Larsson, Ki, Colback, Johnson (Gardner 87), Borini, Altidore (Fletcher 67). Subs not used: Wickham, Giaccherini, Vergini, Ustari. Booked: Bardsley (45), Borini (79)
STOKE: Begovic, Cameron, Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters, Odemwingie (Guidetti 90), Nzonzi, Adam, Whelan, Assaidi (Arnautovic 71), Crouch (Walters 65). Subs not used: Sorensen, Muniesa, Palacios, Ireland. Booked: Nzonzi (34), Adam (40), Wilson (50)