FIRST-HALF goals from Zoltan Gera and Shane Long set Albion on their way to a first-ever fourth successive win in the Barclays Premier League.
Not since 1953/54 have the Baggies started a top-flight season so well and Craig Gardner’s deflected 74th-minute free-kick could not knock them off course from surging into third spot.
Sub Romelu Lukaku appeared to have sealed Albion’s second successive away victory by converting an 81st-minute penalty.
Stephane Sessegnon set up a nervy finale by making it 3-2 on 87 – but Albion weren’t to be denied.
Marc-Antoine Fortune made the spoils absolutely safe with a fourth in the 95th minute.
Gera opened the scoring with a stunning 25-yard strike on the half-hour mark – his third of the season.
And Long capitalised on a Simon Mignolet error a minute before the break to tap home his fifth league goal of the campaign.
This was enough terrific team performance from Steve Clarke’s side, which oozed quality and tenacity from start to finish.
Fourth visited 15th in this televised, lunchtime kick-off for which Steve Clarke made two changes. Fit-again Gareth McAuley replaced Gabriel Tamas in central defence while Chris Brunt came in for Youssouf Mulumbu (hamstring). Romelu Lukaku returned to the bench after being ineligible for the visit of his parent club Chelsea.
Martin O'Neill stuck with the starting XI that won 3-1 at Fulham last Sunday.
There was a subdued atmosphere inside the Stadium of Light, which is often part and parcel of an early kick-off, and it wasn’t until the fifth minute that either team recorded an effort at goal. Adam Johnson ghosted in from the left and saw his 18-yard shot smothered by Boaz Myhill at his near post.
Albion saw plenty of the ball during the early exchanges and patiently prodded and probed for an opening. As their pressure mounted, Peter Odemwingie had a 25-yard drive deflected into Mignolet’s arms by Carlos Cuellar.
After a brief Mackems purple patch, Claudio Yacob had a great chance to put Albion ahead on 16 but was off target with a header inside the six-yard box from Brunt’s corner.
But it was Sunderland’s turn to go close two minutes later. Stephane Sessegnon skipped past a couple of challenges before volleying goalwards from 20 yards, which Myhill turned wide in front of his right-hand post.
Myhill was proving the busier of the keepers and he had to pull off a smart save low to his right to keep out Sessegnon’s glancing header from Johnson’s free-kick. McAuley then hacked the loose ball to safety.
But it was Albion who drew first blood – and how.
After Odemwingie had dispossessed Johnson just outside the Sunderland box on 30, the Nigerian fed Gera who curled home a delicious shot from 25 yards. Mignolet got a hand to it but couldn’t be faulted.
The goal was just reward for Albion’s hard work and lengthy spells of possession.
Sunderland were packing a threat, though, and John O’Shea was only inches away with a 15-yard curler after Jonas Olsson had not got enough purchase on his clearance from Lee Cattermole’s centre.
That proved the Sunderland skipper’s final contribution as he limped off moments later and was replaced by Craig Gardner.
Sunderland continued to press for an equaliser but Myhill had a comfortable save to make when Sessegnon skipped into the box from the left and shot weakly at him.
But the 700 or so loyal Albion fans who had made the long journey to Wearside were in raptures a minute before the break when the visitors made it 2-0.
There appeared to be little danger when Mignolet spread himself low to his right to clutch Brunt’s slightly over-hit through-ball. But the Belgian international fumbled it, giving Long a split second to steal the ball from his grasp and tap into an empty net.
To their credit, the hosts kept going until the half-time whistle. Myhill did well to push away Gardner’s ferocious 25-yard free-kick before Steven Fletcher shot well wide from the edge of the box.
Within two minutes of the restart, Liam Ridgewell got a vital touch on the foraging Gardner’s low cross to deny Sessegnon a clear sight of goal.
Incredibly, it could have been 3-0 on 49. Morrison slipped Long through on goal but the ex-Reading striker saw his shot blocked by the onrushing Mignolet.
Myhill was called into action again on 52 when he diverted away from goal Johnson’s awkward 30-yarder which dipped right in front of him.
It was Danny Rose’s turn to take evasive action moments later when his wonderfully-timed last-ditch tackle halted Billy Jones’ run and denied him a clear chance.
The action continued to come thick and fast but Fletcher could only head over from Sebastian Larsson’s centre.
Back came Albion and Brunt and Odemwingie both saw crosses whistle across the six-yard box, just lacking a finishing touch.
The Baggies looked composed and assured and Odemwingie came within a whisker with a right-foot rocket from 20 yards on 69.
However, Sunderland earned themselves a lifeline 16 minutes from time when Gardner’s 25-yard free-kick clipped sub Marc-Antoine Fortune in the Baggies wall and looped past the helpless Myhill.
The Black Cats now had the bit between their teeth and Sessegnon wasn’t far away with another long-range effort which also took a deflection.
Albion had a great chance to make the points safe nine minutes from time when they were awarded a penalty for Johnson’s trip on Ridgewell. Sub Lukaku made no mistake, calmly slotting the ball into the bottom left-hand corner.
But Sunderland set up a nervy finish when Sessegnon netted from close range from a Sunderland corner three minutes from time.
However, sub Fortune made the points absolutely safe with a coolly taken fourth goal in the 95th minute.
SUNDERLAND (4-4-1-1): Mignolet; Bardsley, Cuellar, O’Shea (McClean HT), Rose; Larsson, Cattermole (c) (Gardner 35), Colback (Saha 73), Johnson; Sessegnon; Fletcher. Subs not used: Westwood (gk); Campbell, Kilgallon, Vaughan, Westwood.
ALBION (4-2-3-1): Myhill; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Yacob, Morrison (Tamas 90+1); Odemwingie (Fortune 69), Gera, Brunt; Long (Lukaku 69). Subs not used: L Daniels (gk); Dorrans, Rosenberg, Popov.
GOALS: SUNDERLAND – Gardner (74), Sessegnon (87). ALBION – Gera (30), Long (44), Lukaku (pen 80), Fortune (90+5).
BOOKINGS: SUNDERLAND – O’Shea (foul 9), Gardner (foul 53). ALBION – Long (simulation 20), Morrison (39), Ridgewell (foul 90).
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirrall).
ATTENDANCE: 36,390 (685 Albion fans).
ALBION STARMAN: Zoltan Gera.