After a tortuous year there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel for Sunderland

Sunderland celebrate Josh Maja's winner against Fulham. Picture by Frank ReidSunderland celebrate Josh Maja's winner against Fulham. Picture by Frank Reid
Sunderland celebrate Josh Maja's winner against Fulham. Picture by Frank Reid
On long runs like these, it is impossible not to feel like fate is conspiring against you.

Sunderland played some good football right from the first whistle of Saturday’s contest, but at points you feared that the ball would just not drop for them.

Fulham had their chances, but so did the hosts.

Lewis Grabban glanced a header just wide minutes before the break. Minutes after, visiting keeper Marcus Bettinelli made a save from James Vaughan that defied belief.

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The inswinging cross from Adam Matthews was wicked, and Vaughan met it superbly. Somewhow, Bettinelli made contact with his flailing right arm and turned the ball onto the bar.

In the first half, the Fulham keeper had looked uncertain in the extreme when dealing with some fairly weak long-range efforts.

Sunderland just began to fade and, ominously, Fulham looked to have the better of them as they broke with pace.

Then came Chris Coleman’s intervention, one of the gutsiest substitutions the Stadium of Light has seen for many a year.

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The goal that followed from the left boot from Josh Maja was superb and, though the closing stages were nerve wracking, Sunderland deserved their win.

Keeper Robbin Ruiter was rarely tested seriously, and Sunderland made a significant stride forward in their performance.

Not just in the defensive organisation, which again was impressive, but in their composure on the ball.

They were not afraid to keep hold of it and play their way out of difficult areas, going long to Vaughan not purely out of habit or panic but when he had bodies in support and the space to launch a counter-attack.

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All over the pitch, players who had looked one-dimensional in the early stages of the season were making contributions.

Had they been unable to get over the line, the winless run at the Stadium of Light would have passed the year mark and sparked a litany of embarrassing national headlines.

It would have been understandable but undeserved given the clear steps forward made in the five games since Coleman arrived on Wearside.

It had felt like there was some light beginning to emerge at the end of the tunnel even before kick-off.

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After being forced into some serious make-do-and-mend selections in his opening games, Coleman was able to name a bench that offered excellent options to change the tempo and shape of Sunderland’s play.

Didier Ndong played his part in pushing Fulham back after a promising spell, offering a real injection of energy after the excellent Lynden Gooch began to tire.

In the end, the Black Cats boss did not even use Aiden McGeady and Callum McManaman, two players who have struggled for form of late but offer undoubted quality.

With the new-look back five, Sunderland look more like a team than they have done at any point in 2017. When Bryan Oviedo returns from injury, he will find a wing-back slot perfectly suited to his talents waiting for him.

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Coleman will feel he has the foothold he needs to stop the slide and slowly begin to build.

Of course, Sunderland have been here before. After the last home win, in December 2016, it looked like David Moyes had found his spin on Sam Allardyce’s 4-3-3 that could begin a surge to safety.

The Wearsiders conceded seven goals in the next two games and did not win again until February.

Coleman warned, in his pre-match programme notes, that it could be one step forward and two backwards.

For now, Sunderland supporters can simply revel in the warmest of glows, the feeling that this Saturday’s home clash against Birmingham City is a prospect to be relished, not feared.