AFTER 1,980 minutes of football, 364 days, four different men leading the team and a drop in division, the wait is over. Sunderland have finally delivered a victory at the Stadium of Light, just a day short of going a full calendar year without one.

The relief was clear at the final whistle, as supporters cheered, some chanting songs, as players hugged and congratulated one another as the PA system belted out Jackie Wilson’s I Get the Sweetest Feeling.

Chris Coleman, the Sunderland manager responsible for the recent revival, was not even born when the motown track hit the top ten in the summer of 1968 … so there’s a chance that Saturday's fresh-faced match-winner hasn’t even heard the song before.

Loading article content

Josh Maja doesn’t turn 19 until December 29 but he has already made the sort of impact that has ensured he will be remembered around the Stadium of Light for years to come.

It was a brave move by Coleman to throw on the two teenagers, Maja and his sidekick Joel Asoro, for the more experienced pairing of James Vaughan and Lewis Grabban with 18 minutes remaining and the scoreline goalless.

It turned out to be a brilliant one, though. Five minutes later Maja controlled Adam Matthews’ ball into feet, rolled his marker Kevin McDonald before calmly slotting a lovely finish low and beyond goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli.

It wasn’t a bad way to mark a first appearance in the league, hitting the winner against the club whose academy he left in 2015 to bring to an end the 21-match winless run without a home win – an English league record. Maja may well figure in a pub quiz for years to come on the streets of Sunderland.

"I never thought of it that way, but that would be nice. It's crazy, really,” said Maja. "It's weird, I come in and we win in my first game, I'm happy to get my first chance and happier that I took it.”

After months of depressing results and performances on Wearside, Coleman hinted after the defeat to Reading in his first home game in charge that he might have to be bold and change things.

The freshness and spark provided by Maja and Asoro was vindication of, arguably, the boldest move he could have actually made against Fulham.

With people crying out for something new and different to lift spirits, perhaps it was fitting the man responsible for ending the long wait had never kicked a ball in any of the previous 21 matches at the Stadium of Light. It’s safe to assume he will have the chance to kick a few more in the weeks and months ahead under Coleman.

"He's got more belief in us young ones, each and every single one of us,” said Maja. “He's helped us loads on the training pitch, off the pitch as well and he's given us the confidence to show what we can do and hopefully we can build on this in the future.

“I worked so hard in pre-season because I wanted to break through this year but then I picked up injuries that set me back. Now I'm fit again, I want to prove what I can do.

"I knew when the new manager came in it was a case of having to prove myself all over again, but that's the nature of the game. You have to keep proving yourself over and over again and I'm happy to do that.

"The gaffer now knows what I can do, so hopefully I can get more opportunities. I suppose there's a bit of friendly competition now between myself and Joel after he got an assist at Burton a couple of weeks ago.

“We both push each other, we always have and both of us want to keep showing the manager what we can do. When the manager takes off two experienced players and replaces them with the two of us, it's a big gamble. I'm just so pleased we took the opportunity.”

There had been chances at both ends of the pitch but either poor finishing or good goalkeeping had prevented either side from taking the lead. When James Vaughan’s decent header in the second half was incredibly tipped onto the bar and to safety by Marcus Bettinelli there was a sense that the elusive goal was never going to arrive.

But the introduction of the two teenagers raised the noise levels again in the stands, and their positive early touches were reminiscent of the impact James McClean had against Blackburn at this time of the year in 2011 when Martin O’Neill threw him on to inspire a victory.

"It was absolutely buzzing in the dressing room,” said Maja. “Everyone's just so happy and pleased with the win, over the moon. For me, the goal's a perfect early birthday present.

"It was a great feeling when the fans reacted so positively to Joel and I coming on, it made us feel great and I think they'd been waiting for Joel and I to play together in the first team and hopefully we can keep doing it.

“The Stadium of Light feels a great place to me and we have another important game next week so we need to build on this. With this result the fans will be right behind us and hopefully pick up another win.”

Of course, the bigger picture is that Maja’s goal does not solve all of Sunderland’s problems overnight. It should help though. Under Coleman the players are playing with greater confidence and resilience, highlighted by three clean sheets from his five games in charge.

These three points have lifted the Black Cats out of the relegation zone before this Saturday’s visit of bottom club Birmingham, and the important thing is to build momentum and capitalise on the signs of positivity.

Suddenly supporters are looking at certain players like Darron Gibson, who has endured a difficult first year on Wearside because of injury and his outburst with fans, and thinking he is starting to show he can hit the levels that made him a Manchester United and Everton starter earlier in his career.

Without the suspended Lee Cattermole, Gibson operated effectively in the middle of the midfield as the main holding player – just as he did at Wolves a week earlier after his midfield partner’s dismissal.

Defensively Tyias Browning is growing as a player alongside the more experienced John O’Shea – who made his professional debut when Maja was just ten months old – and Marc Wilson, while Adam Matthews has impressed in an attacking sense at wing-back.

But Coleman knows he needs to keep everyone focused. He said: “I am really happy for a lot of other people at the moment. We have been here a few weeks, we have inherited a lot, the people already here, and the supporters, they have been suffering throughout the year without a home win. I am really pleased for them.

“It’s a great feeling and they need to enjoy it because they deserve it. It’s nice to get rid of an unwanted record if you like. But from my view it is only three points. It’s a small win for us, a positive day but we are not getting carried away. We know what is ahead that’s for sure.”