Sunderland prosper as Poyet finds 'right way' to play Johnson

Posted by Colin Randall

At one of the nicest of Premier League stadiums, Craven Cottage, reached by a pleasant walk through the Bishop's Park on the banks of the Thames, there is a wonderful rarity of modern football: the neutral or mixed section.

It brings back memories of times when opposing supporters would stand shoulder to shoulder, enjoying friendly banter without trace of menace or hatred. Around the overpriced food and drink stalls, fans of both clubs and neither mingle happily enough. Over-romantic? Almost certainly. Inside the ground, at least when Sunderland come to town, neutrality is stripped away so that the seats become essentially an extension of the sold-out visitors' section.

- Report: Fulham 1-4 Sunderland

This was just the result Gus Poyet needed to show that his mini-revival of Sunderland fortunes was for real and not restricted to exciting cup distractions.

Adam Johnson showed the kind of skills and finishing that led Martin O'Neill to pay 10 million pounds for him at the start of last season. He has done much better since then than his critics claim, but not as well as the fee and his England status promised.

On Saturday, as when he ran on as a substitute and changed the course of the Capital One Cup semifinal against Manchester United, he gave the impression of a man whose confidence and hunger for success had been restored by a new manager.

A man behind me moaned loudly about a first-half Johnson corner that failed to beat the first defender, one of player's most common lapses. "Typical. Praised in the papers one day," he shouted. "Rubbish the next." Moments later, the winger ran threateningly across the edge of the Fulham penalty area and was tripped. He took the free kick himself and it was a cracker that ended up in the top right of the net, David Stockdale getting a hand to the ball but unable to keep it out. I turned to ask whether the man wished to revise his view. "Wasn't me," he lied.

Then Johnson sent in a low free kick from the corner flag that the cool, authoritative and thoughtful Ki Sung-Yueng swept in to the delight of the sprinkling of fellow South Koreans sitting among the Sunderland fans. Please make his loan move from Swansea City permanent, Gus, before Michael Laudrup realises his mistake.

There were scary moments early in the second half after Sunderland, for the umpteenth time this season, made a hash of defending a corner and Steve Sidwell headed in. But with Dimitar Berbatov utterly off the pace, his thoughts perhaps on a possible move to more a successful corner of London, there was little in Fulham's laborious approach work or finishing to worry goalkeeper Vito Mannone. Darren Bent, a target of pantomime jeers from Sunderland supporters, was invisible after his second-half entry.

And Sunderland were exceptional on the break. From Ki's sublime pass, Johnson sprinted forward to slot home his second. And when Philippe Senderos clumsily upended Jozy Altidore, Johnson was not letting anyone else take the penalty to deprive him of his thoroughly deserved hat-trick. He was substituted immediately afterwards, but was quickly back on the pitch at the final whistle to claim the match ball.

"A player like Adam needs to be played in the right way," Poyet wrote to supporters in his post-match e-mail. "And we’ve been trying to make sure the team play in a way that suits him to make the difference. The last two or three weeks I think he’s been outstanding and if he can maintain this level and consistency he’s going to be a great help."

What is particularly significant about this victory is not that it was the third in six days. That is heartening in itself, but the other two wins were in cup competitions. Much more important was the lift-off the three points provided. Sunderland finally climbed off bottom place and a glance at the Premier League table shows only six points now separating 10th-placed Hull City and Sunderland and, with an inferior goal difference, Crystal Palace in 19th and 20th.

Before the end of January, as well as a couple of cup games, one of which- - the second leg versus Man United -- presents the tantalising prospect of Wembley, there are two home league ties against Southampton and Stoke City, respectively. The same fixtures also came together last season, albeit in reverse order, and yielded only two points, deepening relegation fears that persisted until Wigan's heavy defeat at Arsenal in the penultimate game of their season.

Sunderland supporters can take some reassurance from the knowledge that Poyet, potentially the club's finest manager in more than a decade, will prepare his men well for the test that presents itself -- trebling that tally with two more wins.

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