It just had to be, didn’t it? Sunderland secured their first win at the Stadium of Light in 364 days and it was masterminded by former Fulham favourite Chris Coleman and his bold second half substitutions that enlivened the Black Cats, who had previously displayed their newly acquired defensive resolve to keep Slavisa Jokanovic’s side at bay. One of the two young strikers to whom Coleman turned, teenager Josh Maja, got his start in the Fulham academy and, of course, it was he who provided the game’s decisive moment.
The Lewisham-born 18 year-old, cruelly denied the chance to build upon an encouraging pre-season by an untimely knee injury, punished Tim Ream’s uncharacteristically sloppy defensive distribution in the most ruthless fashion. Maja showed great poise in front of goal just five minutes after stepping off the bench to slip a splendid finish past the helpless Marcus Bettinelli and leave Sunderland twelve minutes to cling on for that elusive home win.
Coleman’s success with Wales was built on a well-drilled defence and both John O’Shea and Tyias Browning produced splendid tackles, but after absorbing wave after wave of Fulham possession, Robbin Ruiter was required to make just six saves. Three of them were routine and best stop of the match actually came at the other end, when Bettinelli reacted brilliantly to palm James Vaughan’s seemingly goalbound header onto the crossbar. Sunderland’s former Utrecht keeper was only really extended by a swerving shot from Rui Fonte when Sheyi Ojo should have done better than head straight at him and Tom Cairney, earlier denied by a goalsaving tackle from Browning, sent a late curling effort just over.
Such feebleness in the final third frustrated Jokanovic, whose side had started brightly but failed to make the breakthrough. Ryan Sessegnon looked dangerous all afternoon when pushing forward from full back and his fifth minute cross fizzed across the six-yard box, just out of reach of a sliding Johansen at the far post. Fonte fashioned Fulham’s clearest opening of the first half when his chipped cross left Ruiter in no-man’s land, but Ollie Norwood headed wide from almost underneath the bar.
Sunderland grew in confidence as the half went on with Bettinelli having to bat away a swerving shot from George Honeyman and, after a brief flurry before the break, they returned after Coleman’s team talk with more belief and attacking intent. Where Fulham had been assured with the ball at their feet in the first period, the extra endeavour of the hosts unsettled them and Sunderland no longer looked distinctly second best. Lewis Grabban suddenly received the ball in more dangerous areas and Bettinelli twice denied the Black Cats’ leading scorer.
Jokanovic declined to introduce Aboubakar Kamara as an outright striker until after Fulham had gone behind and, although the move that led to Sunderland’s winner was well put together by the home side, it had its genesis in Ream, usually so reliable in possession, lofting an aimless ball forward that none of his team-mates had a hope of winning. The hosts worked the ball to the left where Adam Matthews sauntered to the edge of the box unchecked and Maja, having timed his run perfectly, spun around Ream and produced a finish of the highest order. It was a hell of a way for Maja to mark his league debut. Coleman joyously dashed down the touchline and enveloped Kit Symons in a joyous bearhug – only this time their delight wasn’t shared by the Fulham faithful.
SUNDERLAND (5-3-2): Ruiter; Love, Matthews, Browning, O’Shea, Wilson; Gibson, Honeyman, Gooch (Ndong 67); Grabban (Asoro 73), Vaughan (Maja 72). Subs (not used): Steele, Galloway, McManaman, McGeady.
GOAL: Maja (78).
FULHAM (4-1-2-1-2): Bettinelli; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas (de la Torre 89), Ream; McDonald; Norwood (Graham 72), Cairney; Johansen; Ojo, Fonte (Kamara 78). Subs (not used): Button, Odoi, Djalo, Cisse.
BOOKED: Ojo, Fredericks.
REFEREE: Steve Martin (Staffordshire).