Sunderland climbed into the Sky Bet Championship play-off places with an inspired come-from-behind 3-1 victory against Plymouth, who lost for the first time in the league under Ian Foster.
Argyle were unbeaten in three Championship games since Foster replaced Steven Schumacher and looked well positioned to continue their fine run when Ryan Hardie fired them into a half-time lead at the Stadium of Light.
But the Black Cats were a team transformed after the break, with Pierre Ekwah, Jack Clarke and substitute Jobe Bellingham all on target as Michael Beale’s improving side extended their own unbeaten league run to three games.
Buoyed by their impressive recent form and their first away win of the season at Swansea, Plymouth settled well and created the only meaningful chance in the early stages when Hardie forced a good save out of Anthony Patterson.
Sunderland dominated possession in the opening 45 minutes, but lacked invention, and their only shot on target in the first half was a speculative Clarke effort from distance that was stopped by visiting goalkeeper Conor Hazard.
After stifling and frustrating Sunderland for much of the first half, Plymouth caught the hosts cold on the counter to get themselves in front six minutes before the break.
In-form Morgan Whittaker turned defence in to attack with a brilliant pass to set Hardie away. The striker still had work to do, but kept his cool to round Patterson twice before clinically and delicately chipping home.
Hardie almost doubled Plymouth’s lead instantly with what would have been a stunning second goal. From inside his own half, the striker spotted Patterson off his line and his audacious attempt to catch the keeper out bounced just wide.
Sunderland turned the game on its head after the break and were level just seven minutes into the second half.
The Black Cats won a free-kick on the edge of the area when Darko Gyabi fouled Patrick Roberts, and former West Ham midfielder Ekwah fired through the broken wall and found the bottom corner.
Just seven minutes later, Sunderland were in front after Clarke’s latest moment of magic.
The winger’s 14th goal of the season was undoubtedly one of his best. There was plenty of work to be done when he picked up the ball on the left, but he cut inside before hitting an unstoppable drive that went in off the post.
Bellingham secured the victory for Sunderland halfway through the second half and just two minutes after coming off the bench.
The teenager had barely touched the ball before setting off on a driving run into the box, cutting inside and lashing into the far corner beyond the helpless Hazard.
Sunderland’s Michael Beale:
“We only played in one half, to be honest. We started the game well, but we really fell away and there were too many individual errors.
“We went really bold with our line-up and it certainly impacted our cohesion early in the game, I wasn’t pleased with our pressing.
“We had honest words at half-time, got out there early and I thought from the moment we kicked off, we were much much better.
“We scored three excellent goals and we’re mixing around the goalscorers now as well. It was three special goals.”
“We’re a young team and so we always can get better. In that first half, there weren’t too many in a Sunderland shirt who did themselves justice and we spoke about that.
“We spoke about wanting to excite our fans at home, to run, play front-foot football and for people to express themselves.
“I could have made five subs, but I told the players that I thought it was the right team and they had to put it right.
“We didn’t want any regrets and I expected more. The second half was fantastic and we have to stay at that level.”
Plymouth’s Ian Foster:
“My understanding is a player has to spend 30 seconds off the pitch, which he did, and they won’t allow him on.
“I got told then the fourth official must get a signal from the referee to allow him back on, which he does straight after they score, which is disappointing.
“In that moment, it’s become very costly for us. He’s got injured, he’s received treatment, I don’t understand why it’s a punishment.
“I’ll try and choose my words carefully here, if I was the referee I’d go home disappointed tonight having watched the game back. I thought it was a very one-sided decision-making process from him.”