A TROPHY was paraded at the Stadium of Light last night after Sunderland's mascot, Samson, won a race held for Comic Relief at Scarborough's McCain Stadium.

But there is only one trophy that counts on Wearside, and the Championship gong moved significantly closer after Sunderland made the most of Ipswich's surprise slip-up against Watford to move within three points of the top of the table.

First-half goals from Dean Whitehead and Sean Thornton enabled the Black Cats to brush aside a frankly awful Rotherham side, and move level with second-placed Wigan.

Thornton's second, following a close-range header from Gary Breen, gave the scoreline an emphatic look that much of Sunderland's football barely deserved.

While Rotherham's Andy Monkhouse pulled a goal back in the closing stages, Mick McCarthy's side were indebted to Millers goalkeeper Mike Pollitt for two horrendous howlers that both ended with the ball in the net.

Pollitt could do little to help the Black Cats during a brief spell on Wearside in 1998, as former boss Peter Reid failed to hand him a single start during his time with the club.

But, five years on, he gave their promotion charge a huge hand by allowing innocuous headers from both Whitehead and Breen to pass through his legs when they looked well within his grasp.

The mistakes allowed Sunderland to make light of the horrendous weather conditions and, while there was limited quality on display from either side, it is getting to the stage of the season where points are far more important than pretty passing moves.

McCarthy underlined as much when he set a target of nine wins from his side's final 13 games and, with another home game against Cardiff to come on Saturday, this could yet prove to be a pivotal week in Sunderland's season.

It might not have started very well at Brighton on Saturday but, rather than ringing the changes, McCarthy gave his players the opportunity to atone for their mistakes by naming an unchanged line-up for the fourth game in a row.

They could not have wished for better opponents on which to exact their revenge as, while the Black Cats continue to eye the Premiership, Rotherham already have their minds focused on League One.

Former manager Ronnie Moore left Millmoor in January and, with current boss Alan Knill already making preparations for next season, Michael Proctor missed out on an emotional return to the Stadium of Light after being farmed out on loan to Swindon yesterday morning.

That still left one former Black Cat in the Rotherham starting line-up, and former Manchester United trainee Pollitt was to prove one of the key men in Sunderland's fourth successive home win.

Paul Jones' error had handed Marcus Stewart his hat-trick on a plate in Sunderland's last home game, and Pollitt's moment of madness was every bit as integral to Whitehead's opener last night.

The midfielder, who had scored the only goal of the game when the Black Cats won in South Yorkshire in October, looked to have found neither the pace nor the placement to trouble the Rotherham goalkeeper when he met Stewart's left-wing cross with a tame header from eight yards.

But, after the ball bounced at Pollitt's feet in the centre of the goal, he somehow allowed it to evade his grasp and trickle apologetically between his legs and into the net.

Julio Arca was forced off with a hip injury in the 34th minute but his replacement Thornton fired Sunderland into a slightly fortuitous two-goal lead with his first touch of the game.

Standing over a 20-yard free-kick, the Irishman, who had almost earned the Black Cats a point at the Withdean Stadium on Saturday, produced a delicate curler that evaded Pollitt's despairing dive before dipping into the top left-hand corner.

Pollitt was left with a red face four minutes after the interval as he inexplicably repeated his first-half howler to end any hopes of a Rotherham revival.

From a corner Pollitt let Breen's harmless header bounce between his legs in a bizarre replica of Whitehead's opening goal.

Thornton then duly bagged his second of the night with another sublime set-piece 17 minutes from time.

But the home side's defence went to sleep as Monkhouse ended the night by ghosting through the middle unmarked to slip the ball beyond an exposed Thomas Myhre.

Result: Sunderland 4 Rotherham 1.

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