ONWARDS and upwards. Sunderland’s surge towards automatic promotion continues, and while the majority of their rivals for a top-two position are achieving positive results of their own, Phil Parkinson’s side can do no more as they attempt to repair the self-inflicted damage that was sustained in the first half of the season. Keep going as they are, and their fellow promotion hopefuls will surely slip up eventually.

Last night’s dismantling of Rochdale made it two home wins in the space of four days and means the Black Cats have now lost just one of their last 12 matches. In anyone’s book, that is quite some run.

Whereas they were made to wait for Saturday’s win over Ipswich Town, last night’s game was done and dusted before half-time with Sunderland scoring all three of their goals in the opening 45 minutes.

Chris Maguire was involved in all three, helping set up a brace for Lynden Gooch that bookended a comical own goal from Eoghan O’Connell. The Black Cats eased up markedly after the interval, but it mattered not a jot with the game already won.

On a night like this, it is easy to see why Parkinson was so keen to improve Maguire’s fitness levels. The 31-year-old has been transformed since Parkinson encouraged him to work with fitness coach Nick Allenby, with the Sunderland boss having been concerned at his inability to get around the pitch in the immediate aftermath of Jack Ross’ departure.

Maguire had lost his way under Ross, resulting in his demotion from the starting line-up both towards the end of last season and sporadically in the first half of the current campaign, so Parkinson deserves credit for successfully refocusing the forward in the wake of his appearance in the controversial ‘McDonald’s photograph’ with Aiden McGeady.

While Parkinson couldn’t wait to jettison McGeady, he clearly felt Maguire was worth working with, and his faith has proved justified. Having scored his tenth league goal of the season against Ipswich, Maguire had a hand in all three of Sunderland’s first-half goals last night as the hosts produced their most dominant 45-minute display of the season.

Admittedly, the Black Cats benefited from Rochdale’s suicidal attempts to play the ball out from the back – while it is commendable to try to play like Barcelona, it’s probably not the best policy to adopt with League One defenders – but there was still much to admire in the way Maguire buzzed around the final third with pace and purpose.

His link-up play with fellow attacking midfielder Gooch has been a key feature of Sunderland’s improved attacking form in the last couple of months, and the pair combined for their side’s 11th-minute opener.

Maguire delivered a wonderful teasing cross from the right after turning away from full-back Rhys Norrington-Davies, and having broke decisively into the area, Gooch stuck out a foot to prod a first-time finish into the corner.

With Maguire and Luke O’Nien tearing down one flank and Denver Hume enjoying the freedom of the opposite side of the pitch, Sunderland’s attacking players swarmed all over their opponents from the outset.

It did not take them long to double their lead, and while their second goal was somewhat fortuitous, it was hardly undeserved.

Maguire was involved again, breaking down the right after Gooch pickpocketed a dawdling Jimmy Ryan and firing another dangerous ball into the box. O’Connell attempted to hook clear, but only succeeded in shanking the ball over his team-mates and into the far corner. It was the kind of own-goal tailor-made for a bloopers DVD.

Still, Sunderland poured forward, and a third goal arrived shortly after the half-hour mark. Maguire, who else, was the catalyst for a third time, surging into space down the right yet again before cutting the ball back into the path of O’Nien. The wing-back’s initial shot was saved, but Gooch was on hand to slam home the rebound.

O’Nien threatened again before the interval, firing a low shot at Sanchez after his initial effort had struck a defender, and the contrast between Sunderland’s rampant dominance and Saturday’s more patient approach against Ipswich was marked.

With Rochdale continuing to offer next to nothing in terms of an attacking threat – Jon McLaughlin’s only save all night saw him parry a long-range effort from Jimmy Ryan – the hosts were able to take their foot off the gas in the second half.

The only surprise was that it took Parkinson until the 71st minute to start resting players and making changes, and his reticence to alter things might have come at a cost with Maguire hobbling around the touchline in a degree of discomfort after he was replaced by Antoine Semenyo. The grimace on the forward’s face was the only negative aspect of the night.