"This is what I had been waiting for," exclaimed Gus Poyet after Sunderland's most accomplished league performance since he took charge three months ago and an upswing in the form of Adam Johnson, who struck the first hat-trick of his career. Poyet's glee reflected his growing conviction that his team can become the second in the Premier League era to escape relegation despite being bottom at Christmas. On this evidence they look a better bet to survive than Fulham.
Sunderland have been gradually gaining positive momentum over the past month even if they arrived here in last place. They were unbeaten in their previous four away matches and beat Manchester United in midweek in the Capital One Cup. To Poyet's credit, they handled this showdown with a composure seldom seen from strugglers.
The visitors calmly deflated a Fulham side that began as if buoyed by two wins in their past three league matches and the return of Clint Dempsey, who was making his first league start since rejoining the club on loan from Seattle Sounders. It turned out that the continued absences of the injured goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg and defender Brede Hangeland were more significant for the home side as the most porous defence in the top flight was pierced with a regularity that distressed their manager. "We keep addressing it and it needs to improve, simple as that," said an exaspertaed René Meulensteen, who felt all of Sunderland's four goals could have been prevented.
At least Fulham began brightly. Dimitar Berbatov should even have put them in front but spurned two early chances. First the Bulgarian headed an Adel Taarabt corner into the arms of Vito Mannone in the seventh minute and then he miscontrolled after being sent clear on goal by Sascha Riether.
Sunderland gradually asserted themselves going forward. Phil Bardsley forced an awkward save from David Stockdale before Steven Fletcher nodded over from close range. Taarabt tried to shift the flow back in Fulham's favour and, in the 25th minute, waltzed into the opposing box before shooting from a tight angle. Mannone batted the ball behind. Johnson pestered the home defence constantly with his jagged runs and cutting crosses.
This was more like the player Sunderland signed from Manchester City in 2012 but had flickered since. Still, Fulham fans were irate when Johnson was awarded a free-kick on the edge of the area in the 29th minute following questionable contact from Steve Sidwell. More irate, still, when Johnson curled the free-kick into the top corner despite Stockdale getting two hands to it. "It was saveable," Meulensteen said.
Fulham's familiar frailties re-emerged. Their veteran players started to look sluggish and disjointed as Sunderland showed greater energy and cohesion. The second goal encapsulated that difference. From a free-kick on the right Johnson cut the ball back to the unmarked Ki Sung-yeung, whose shot from 10 yards got a slight deflection on its way into the net. "We knew they can pull something like that, we had worked on it," Meulsenteen said.
Sidwell's goal for Fulham in the 52nd minute also owed much to slack defending, Marcos Alonso merely watching as his opponent nodded a Damien Duff corner into the net from close range. Sunderland still posed danger on the counterattack and went close before they secured three points in the 69th minute thanks to the best move of the match. Ki glided through midfield, swapping passes with Jozy Altidore as he went, before sliding a gorgeous pass behind Riether to Johnson, who struck a first-time shot under Stockdale from a tight angle.
A deflected cross from Pajtim Kasami had Mannone scrambling to claw the ball clear before Johnson completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot late on, sending Stockdale the wrong way after Philippe Senderos oafishly fouled Altidore.