A goal three minutes from time, scored appropriately by their inspirational captain, Dominic Matteo, gave Leeds their best result of a troubled season at the end of a compelling second half at Elland Road.
Leeds looked to have squandered their chance of an uplifting victory over the side which ranks as the best-of-the-rest in the two-tier Premiership when their goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, allowed Louis Saha's shot under his body for the French striker's second goal after 85 minutes. But then Ian Harte floated in a free-kick from the right and Matteo got his head to it for what could be a most significant goal.
"They showed a lot of belief in themselves to win the game and we thoroughly deserved it over the 90 minutes,'' said the man charged with turning Leeds' fortunes around, Eddie Gray. "While there's time left in football you've still got a chance. I thought all the players were tremendous today."
There was little sign of what was to come in a generally inept display from both sides in a first half which threatened to produce something better only when Leeds probed down the right flank. It always looked a potentially productive area for them, but too often their approach work was ruined by a poor final delivery, as when Gary Kelly released Jermaine Pennant with a raking through-ball only for Pennant to overhit his cross. At least Leeds were looking solid enough in defence, with Matteo providing extra insurance by playing in front of the back four.
Five minutes before half-time, Harte made his first major contribution from a dead-ball situation and Leeds profited. Luis Boa Morte was adjudged to have brought down Alan Smith with a lunging tackle just outside the area. Harte took a wickedly curling free-kick and Edwin van der Sar punched it straight out on to Michael Duberry, who could hardly have got out of the way if he had wanted to.
Given that unexpected fillip, the game picked up markedly in the second half. After only 46 seconds, Mark Viduka had doubled Leeds' advantage. There was no apparent danger when he took the ball with his back to goal and ran across the fringe of the penalty area but he lashed it in for his first goal since 30 August. Just as quickly, the lead was halved when Saha took Sean Davis's pass and drifted through a defence which had allowed its collective mind to wander, and slid his shot past Robinson for his 10th goal of the season.
Robinson had to be at his very best to prevent Saha from equalising with a hooked effort from Davis's corner, then Pennant hit the bar and Matteo put one over after a goalmouth scramble. Pennant also had a long-range effort deflected on to the bar as the game continued to reach boiling point before Saha came up with his second. Matteo then quickly retrieved the situation for Leeds, who remain in the bottom two but with renewed confidence in their ability to climb the table.
Gray, however, knows that the turmoil within the club may not be over yet. "We've got a long way to go, but we can look at the table now and see that there are other teams around us and we're not adrift," he said.
Goals: Duberry (41) 1-0; Viduka (46) 2-0; Saha (47) 2-1; (86) 2-2; Matteo (88) 3-2.
Leeds United (4-1-3-2): Robinson 5; Kelly 5, Duberry 6, Radebe 6, Harte 6; Matteo 8; Pennant 7, Batty 5, Milner 7; Smith 6, Viduka 7. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Morris, Bridges, McPhail, Richardson.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar 6; Volz 5 (Hayles 5, 63), Knight 6, Melville 6, Harley 5; Malbranque 7, Legwinski 6, Davis 7, Boa Morte 5 (Sava, 77); Clark 6; Saha 7. Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Djetou, Goma.
Referee: N Barry (Lincolnshire) 6.
Bookings: Leeds: Smith, Batty; Fulham: Boa Morte.
Man of the match: Matteo.