Less likely was the chance that the helping hand would come in the form of a first-half red card for Fulham defender Brede Hangeland.
As Martin Jol, the Fulham manager, bemoaned afterwards as he unpicked a game that turned on the 35th minute dismissal for a two-footed lunge on Lee Cattermole, red cards and Fulham simply don’t go together. In fact this was their first in 18 months.
Jol complained his side were harshly treated but presented with the chance to kick-start their season, Sunderland weathered home pressure before Steven Fletcher gave them a 56th-minute lead before Carlos Cuellar and Stephane Sessegnon secured the points after Mladen Petric levelled.
“By the letter of the law, two feet off the ground, so maybe a red card, but I thought it was maybe a bit harsh,” said Jol. “It would be nice if refs had played football themselves, and reffed in the spirit of the game.”
The manager’s complaints were less convincing when it emerged Hangeland had been in to see referee Lee Probert after the game to apologise.
O’Neill, though, had little sympathy with Hangeland. “It is amazing when we’ve been given the directives. How many times do we have to be told about it?” said the manager. “We’ve been guilty ourselves, with Lee Cattermole sent off. Sometimes I don’t understand players.”
Before this game O’Neill’s side had scored just seven league goals — five from Fletcher — the lowest return in all four divisions. Now, with a three-point cushion between themselves and the bottom three, they face back-to-back home games against West Brom and QPR with optimism.
Dimitar Berbatov was wasteful in the first half and there were further signs this would be Sunderland’s day as Fletcher finished after being picked out by a superb Adam Johnson pass seconds after John Arne Riise struck the visitors bar.
Petric turned home from Damien Duff’s low cross but was receiving treatment reducing the home side to nine when Cuellar headed Sunderland ahead again in the 65th minute. Sessegnon secured the victory with a superb turn and swerving shot.
“Confidence is a big thing,” said O’Neill. “When you see someone like Sessegnon score that type of goal... he’s been searching for that confidence all season.”
Fulham: Schwarzer 7, Riether 7, Hangeland 6, Hughes 6, Riise 7, Duff 7, Sidwell 5, Karagounis 6 (Senderos 35, 4), Kacaniklic 6 (Rodallega 26, 6), Ruiz 6 (Petric 60, 7), Berbatov 7.
Sunderland: Mignolet 8, Bardsley 6, O’Shea 6, Cuellar 5, Rose 7, Larsson 6 (McClean 71), Cattermole 7, Colback 6 (Vaughan 79), Johnson 9, Sessegnon 8, Fletcher 7.
Referee: Lee Probert 7.