An extraordinarily peculiar start to the 2012-13 season saw Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland lose only one of their eight games - but yet look like a team that were destined to struggle throughout the season.
In truth, the one defeat in eight games did not tell the full story as the team only gained one win in that amount and looked rudderless.
New signing Steven Fletcher was certainly holding up his side of the bargain in the early encounters, with five goals in his first games seeing himself as a sure bet for a goal. However, this was never going to last forever and as more games began to go by, so did Fletcher’s goals, along with his team’s.
As O’Neill and his squad travelled to face Martin Jol’s Fulham in London in mid-November, the team were sitting in 16th position after no wins in their previous five and only one all season to that point.
This was an enormous game for Sunderland against a team that they would have perceived as one close to them in their ability. With the Sky Sports cameras at this one, it was a perfect opportunity for them to denounce the growing criticism of them and their manager.
The first half showed everything that was bad about Sunderland under Martin O’Neill around this time - with the description by the BBC match report perfectly accurate for O’Neill’s latter days with Sunderland and the Republic of Ireland:
O’Neill’s side lacked cohesion, confidence and sustained threat; they were insipid not inventive. While they desperately needed tempo, they produced only tedium.
With Dimitar Berbatov in the Fulham team, the Cottagers showed moments of threat with the Bulgarian going close with a header.
The most significant moment of the half - and possibly the entire game - was the sending off of Fulham defender Brede Hangeland for a two footed tackle on Lee Cattermole for what was described as a ‘reckless challenge at best’.
It took Sunderland until the second half to make the most of the extra player. Early into the second half, Fletcher poked away his first goal in five games from a counter attack after John Arne Riise had hit the crossbar.
Fulham equalised just over ten minutes later from Mladen Petric but this didn’t last long as another new signing scored for Sunderland when Carlos Cuellar headed home from a corner.
Five minutes later, Sunderland sealed their victory as their talisman Stephane Sessegnon lashed an unstoppable shot in from range - a superb goal.
Five minutes later, Sunderland added a third following another swift counter-attack. This time Johnson fed Sessegnon whose fierce curling shot found the corner of the net from 25 yards.
The game petered out after this point and this was an enormous result for the away side who were still struggling to display any semblance of a game plan into place.
After the game, a ‘relieved’ Martin O’Neill looked forward to back to back home games in order to build on this big win down south.
“There is a good feeling in the dressing room,” said O’Neill. “The players have never lost spirit. To win the game was great for us.
“We’ve got back-to-back home games now so it’s something we can build on. We’ll take a lot of confidence from that and keep working and try to climb the table.”