STEPHANE Sessegnon’s first goal since March capped a priceless victory for Sunderland after securing a 3-1 win at 10-man Fulham.
A first away win for nine months moved Sunderland three points clear of the bottom three after profiting from Brede Hangeland’s dismissal with three second half goals.
Hangeland was shown his marching orders for a two-footed challenge on the half-hour mark after a poor first half which Fulham had edged.
Sunderland broke the deadlock five minutes into the second half when Steven Fletcher notched his sixth goal for the Black Cats since his £12million summer move.
Fulham substitute Mladen Petric levelled, but Sunderland almost immediately regained the lead when Carlos Cuellar scored his first in red and white.
Martin O’Neill’s men then secured an unassailable two-goal advantage when Sessegnon produced a spectacular strike from 25 yards, although they were indebted to two splendid late saves from Simon Mignolet to preserve the margin.
Sunderland received a boost prior to kick-off after all of their injury doubts were passed fit.
Top scorer Steven Fletcher continued up front after shaking off a calf problem, while Phil Bardsley and Lee Cattermole – who both missed last weekend’s defeat at Everton – returned.
Bardsley took the place of the suspended Craig Gardner at right-back, while Cattermole came into central midfield at the expense of James McClean, with Seb Larsson reverting to a wide role.
Fulham made three changes, with Alexander Kacaniklic, Damien Duff and Giorgos Karagounis handed starts at the expense of Ashkan Dejagah, the suspended Chris Baird and injured former Sunderland man Kieran Richardson.
The hosts created the first opportunity inside the opening four minutes when Karagounis swept a beautiful crossfield ball out to the right for Duff.
The ex-Newcastle United man checked back on his left foot and curled in an inswinging cross which Dimitar Berbatov headed a couple of yards wide.
But Sunderland comfortably contained the hosts in the exchanges that followed, with Martin Jol trying to inject some attacking threat into his side in the 27th minute when Hugo Rodallega replaced the injured Kacaniklic.
Three minutes later, the game finally burst into life after Fulham were reduced to 10 men when skipper Brede Hangeland was shown a straight red card.
Hangeland went in two-footed to a 50-50 challenge with Cattermole and referee Lee Probert immediately produced a red for the centre-half.
Despite the man disadvantage, the Cottagers almost took the lead moments later when Duff collected a long ball down the left, turned and laid it off to Berbatov who could only send a harmless shot straight at the keeper from 12 yards.
Jol made a second change in the 35th minute to boost Fulham’s rearguard, with Philippe Senderos replacing Karagounis.
Three minutes before the break, Sunderland carved out their best opportunity of the half when Bardsley clipped a lovely ball down the right-hand channel for Stephane Sessegnon.
The Benin international had just Mark Schwarzer to beat, but opted to square it with a dreadful pass that bobbled out of the path of the waiting Fletcher.
Moments later, Fulham went close again when Aaron Hughes threaded Berbatov away down the right-hand channel, but the Bulgarian could only shoot across the face from an acute angle.
HALF-TIME Fulham 0 Sunderland 0
The woodwork denied 10 man Fulham the opener four minutes after the break when John Arne Riise’s shot from the left-hand side of the area was deflected off Bardsley onto the top of the Sunderland bar.
Sunderland immediately broke and the ball came to Adam Johnson, just inside the Fulham half.
Johnson swept a magestic pass in behind Senderos into the path of Fletcher, who controlled with his left foot and poked it beyond Schwarzer into the far corner.
Fulham substitute Mladen Petric almost scored with his first touch after replacing the injured Bryan Ruiz on the hour mark.
Rodallega headed the ball into the path of Petric down the left-hand side of the area, but the Croatian sent his effort over the top.
Moments later, Johnson was denied by a superb stop from Schwarzer after collecting Cattermole’s square ball 25 yards out and unleashing a curling left-footed which the Fulham stopper pushed around the post.
But Fulham found a leveller almost immediately after Sunderland appealed in vain for an offside flag against Damien Duff when Rodallega’s mis-hit shot went straight into the winger’s path.
Duff, was being played onside by Carlos Cuellar, and the Irishman’s low cross was turned home by Petric.
The Croatian suffered an injury while turning the ball in and with Fulham temporarily down to nine men, Sunderland took advantage by regaining the lead.
Larsson’s corner from the left found the head of Cuellar, 10 yards out, whose effort bounced off the far post and into the net.
Sunderland doubled their advantage in the 70th minute in spectacular fashion after breaking from Fulham’s corner.
Fletcher burst down the right and laid it back to Sessegnon, who let the ball come across him and then curled a magnificent right-footed shot into the net via the far post from 25 yards.
Sunderland had a fourth goal ruled out for offside in the 76th minute after Sessegnon caught Sidwell in possession just inside the Fulham half.
Colback broke and slipped in Johnson down the left, whose perfectly-weighted ball across the face was turned it at the back post by Fletcher, only for the linesman to correctly raise his flag.
But Mignolet had to be at his best to deny Fulham in the 77th minute when Sunderland’s defence was needlessly stretched and Sidwell burst into the area.
Mignolet had charged off his line though and spread himself well to block the former Reading midfielder’s effort.
The Belgian produced an even better save in the 83rd minute after substitute McClean needlessly gave the ball away on halfway.
Rodallega threaded Petric through on goal and after nutmegging Cuellar, he let fly with a decent right-footed shot that was superbly blocked by Mignolet’s outstretched left arm, but that was the last real scare as Sunderland claimed a vital 3-1 win.
FULHAM: Schwarzer, Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Risse, Duff, Sidwell, Karagounis (Senderos 35), Kacaniklic (Rodallega 27), Ruiz (Petric 60), Berbatov. Subs not used: Stockdale, Kelly, Dejagah, Smith. Sent off: Hangeland (30). Booked: Sidwell (53)
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Bardsley, O’Shea, Cuellar, Rose, Larsson (McClean 70), Colback (Vaughan 79), Cattermole, Johnson, Sessegnon, Fletcher. Subs not used: Westwood, Campbell, Wickham, Kilgallon, Saha. Booked: Johnson (59), O’Shea (74), Cattermole (87)
Referee: Lee Probert (Gloucestershire)