It was a game of nothingness. Half an hour disappeared into a void a absolute that it warped our collective perceptions of space and time. And then, football! Sort of. Brede Hangeland, hung out to dry by an awful pass, was forced to go for a fifty-fifty ball with Lee Cattermole... and it didn't go so well. The big Norweigian went into the challenge with both feet off the ground, and Lee Probert didn't hesitate in showing red for the infraction.
It was a controversial call. Although it was a two-footed, studs up tackle, it wasn't particularly dangerous, a fact that many seized on as justification to defend the centre back (and castigate the referee). But, by the book, that's a red card offence, and Probert has to call matches by the book.
Regardless of whether or not the dismissal was fair, Martin Jol had to react to his side going down to ten men. He did so by dropping Bryan Ruiz into midfield, withdrawing Giorgos Karagounis and adding Phillippe Senderos to the back line. Fulham had already been forced to use one substitute when Alexander Kacaniklic came off injury after 27 minutes.
Despite the visitors being handed a crucial edge with Hangeland's dismissal, the match still needed a goal to sting it into life, and one finally arrived in the 50th minute. Fulham had just gone close, John Arne Risse rattling the crossbar via a deflection, but it was the Black Cats who grabbed the lead. Adam Johnson picked up the ball on the left, spotted Fletcher's run down the centre, and picked out the striker with an inch-perfect pass. A dink into the bottom corner later and it was 1-0 to Sunderland.
Jol made his final throw of the dice with the introduction of Mladen Petric for Bryan Ruiz, a gamble which had an immediate impact. The Bundesliga missed his first chance when he was played in on the left, but his second drew the Cottagers on level terms. The visitors' back line fell asleep when Damien Duff played a one-two with Hugo Rodallega, allowing the former to send a dangerous low cross off the six-yard box and Petric to finish off Simon Mignolet.
But the former Hamburg man had hurt himself on the play, and had to go to the bench for treatment. With Fulham down to nine men, Sunderland could attack once more and within five minutes of Petric's goal they were back in front. Awful marking from Steve Sidwell allowed Carlos Cuellar an unmarked header from a corner, and the centre back made the most of it, nodding Johnson's delivery in off Schwarzer's left post.
And then, 70 minutes in, Stephane Sessegnon delivered the killer blow. With Fulham forced into the attack, spaces were left at the back, and Fletcher was able to tear down the left channel and draw the defence with him. Sessegnon peeled off with a clever run, spun away from Sasha Reither, and produced a wonderful 30-yard curler past a helpless Schwarzer to make it 3-1. Fulham's misery was very nearly compounded shortly thereafter when a poor giveaway by Sidwell allowed the visitors to break, Fletcher eventually slamming home from close range, but he'd strayed offside and the goal was mercifully overturned.
And despite their defensive frailties, Fulham were making a real go of things. Dimitar Berbatov, now in the centre of midfield, was the source of everything good in the Cottagers' attack, and he very nearly got them back into match when a lovely pass played Sidwell one-on-one with Mignolet. Unfortunately for the hosts, Steve Sidwell remains Steve Sidwell, and his effort was batted away easily.
Petric made less of a mess with his chance when he nutmegged Cuellar and advanced on goal, forcing Mignolet to block an effort aimed at his far post, but the minutes were slipping away and Fulham never looked like pulling two goals back. That didn't stop them from attacking, but as time wound down it looked increasingly futile, and by the end of the match only Berbatov was still anything approaching a threat.
At the end of the day, the red card turned the match on its head. Had the hosts not been playing with ten men for an hour, they'd have been expected to win it. But Sunderland took full advantage of Hangeland's dismissal, and even though they looked incredibly shaky at the back, managed to hold on for a vital three points.