SUNDERLAND gave their Premier League survival hopes a massive boost as they claimed their biggest victory of the season with a 4-1 hammering of Fulham.
Adam Johnson was the star of the show, claiming his first top-flight hat-trick to maintain his recent fine run of form.
The England winger opened the scoring with a wonderful free-kick, added a second with a slick finish to round off a fine passing move and sealed his hat-trick from the penalty spot five minutes before time.
Ki Sung-Yeung was also on target before the interval, and while Steve Sidwell briefly threatened to spark a Fulham revival at the start of the second half, the visitors thoroughly merited such a wide winning margin.
They have climbed off the foot of the table, with the result taking them to within a point of safety and strengthening hopes of an escape from the drop in the second half of the season.
Gus Poyet made two changes to the side that beat Manchester United in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday, with Johnson and Jack Colback replacing Seb Larsson and Emmanuele Giaccherini.
Johnson had made a big impact off the bench four days earlier, and the England winger was the key figure again as Sunderland produced arguably their best first-half performance of the season.
They had to withstand some early Fulham pressure, but Dimitar Berbatov wasted a decent opening when he failed to properly connect with Sascha Riether's cross, and Adel Taarabt could only drag a 25-yard shot well wide.
Sunderland's first opportunity came in the 18th minute, with Johnson rolling the ball back to Phil Bardsley, and the full-back producing a smart low shot that was saved by former Darlington goalkeeper David Stockdale.
The Black Cats went even closer moments later, but after John O'Shea headed Johnson's free-kick back across goal, Steven Fletcher headed over as he beat Stockdale to the ball.
Vito Mannone had to be alert at the other end to keep out Taarabt's near-post strike, but having gradually begun to dominate possession, Sunderland claimed a deserved lead shortly before then half-hour mark.
Johnson won a free-kick as he was clipped by Sidwell on the edge of the area – there was definite contact, even if the winger perhaps went to ground too easily – and he made the most of it himself, stepping up to curl a brilliant 20-yard effort into the top right-hand corner.
After scoring in similar fashion against Carlisle, Johnson has claimed two goals direct from free-kicks in as many weeks.
He was a threat whenever he ran at the Fulham defence before the interval, and was involved again as Sunderland doubled their lead four minutes before the break.
John-Arne Riise's dreadful tackle on Fabio Borini gave the Black Cats a free-kick close to the touchline, and a routine that had been rehearsed on the training ground resulted in a goal.
Johnson rolled the ball to Ki, and the South Korean swept home a fine first-time effort via the aid of a deflection off Phillipe Senderos.
Having gone into the break in a position of comfort, Sunderland would have been looking to consolidate their advantage at the start of the second half.
Instead, however, some slack defending enabled Fulham to haul themselves back into the game within seven minutes of the restart.
Damien Duff delivered a corner from the right-hand side, and Steve Sidwell was allowed to run unchecked between Lee Cattermole and Marcos Alonso to head home from close range.
The goal re-energised Fulham, and with Sunderland's defenders dropping into their own area, the hosts began to throw more and more men forward.
However, that left gaps at the back, and Sunderland were a threat on the counter-attack throughout the second half.
Stockdale got down well to turn Cattermole's deflected strike around the post, before Fletcher headed Johnson's cross over the crossbar.
Clint Dempsey headed Riether's cross over the top at the other end, but Sunderland restored their two-goal lead with a brilliant counter-attacking goal in the 69th minute.
Substitute Jozy Altidore played the ball to Ki, and the South Korean threaded a fantastic pass behind the full-back.
Johnson raced on to it, and slotted an excellent first-time finish through Stockdale's legs to claim his second goal of the game.
Mannone clawed Riether's deflected cross out from under his own crossbar as Fulham attempted to claw their way back into the game for a second time, but Sunderland claimed a fourth goal with five minutes left.
Altidore's trickery in the box drew a foul from Senderos, and Johnson calmly rolled home from the spot to complete his first hat-trick in Sunderland colours.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Stockdale; Riether, Senderos, Amorebieta, Riise; Duff (Dejagah 68), Parker, Sidwell, Dempsey (Bent 79); Taarabt (Kasami 63); Berbatov.
Subs (not used): Etheridge (gk), Hughes, Richardson, Kacaniklic.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Mannone; Bardsley, Brown, O'Shea, Alonso; Cattermole; Johnson (Celustka 87), Ki, Colback, Borini (Larsson 75); Fletcher (Altidore 66).
Subs (not used): Pickford (gk), Gardner, Giaccherini, Ji.