West Bromwich Albion 1, Sunderland 2.

THE Hawthorns is the highest professional football ground in the country but, on Saturday, Sunderland's players left the home of West Bromwich Albion dreaming of even loftier climes.

Goals from Dwight Yorke and Stern John - two-thirds of the club's Trinidadian triumvirate - kept the Black Cats within the Championship summit, and significantly increased the likelihood that Roy Keane's side will be playing in even more exalted environs next season.

The Premiership beckons, and after Saturday's success made it eight victories in the last ten games, Sunderland appear capable of scaling heights that appeared utterly insurmountable when a newly-appointed Keane watched his side defeat the Baggies to secure their first victory of the season last August.

Not that you'd know as much from listening to the former Manchester United midfielder. Keane has altered expectations irrevocably since replacing Niall Quinn a little over six months ago, but while his players have sent Sunderland soaring into the Championship stratosphere, their manager has kept his feet firmly on the ground.

"We're close, but close to what?" asked the Black Cats boss, whose repeated insistence that Sunderland remain promotion outsiders has lost much of its credence given that his side have taken seven points from successive games against the only three teams above them in the table. "Lots of teams are close, but I don't like that word.

"We've had three tough challenges against Birmingham, Derby and West Brom, and we've taken seven points that should really have been nine. But could have and should have means nothing, and all that we've done is given ourselves a chance.

"Birmingham and Derby are still in pole position to go up. We have to keep battling away and hope that, if they do slip up, one of us is ready to pounce."

Given the extent of Sunderland's dominance over a West Brom side that had lost just one previous Championship home game all season, Keane's refusal to play up his players' prospects, while understandable in the wider context of the promotion race, was strange.

It was nothing, however, compared to the unfathomable bitterness displayed by Baggies boss Tony Mowbray. West Brom had just been outplayed and outthought by a vibrant Sunderland side blending composed passing football with a series of incisive counter-attacking breaks.

Mowbray should have praised Jonny Evans' doughty defending, Dean Whitehead's relentless running or David Connolly's artistic attacking play. Instead, he attempted to rewrite history in a manner that does neither he nor his club any credit.

"I want to be gracious in defeat, but hopefully they (Sunderland) understand who was the better team on the day," said Mowbray, seemingly oblivious to the fact that an honest answer to that question would not reflect kindly on West Brom.

"I think they're a defensively set-up team and, because of the way the two teams play, we will score more goals than they will.

"I haven't seen Sunderland every week but, if that's the way they play, good luck to them. If that's the standard of the two sides, and that's as good as they can play, then I'm pretty confident that we'll finish with more points than they will."

Mowbray's verdict would have been the ramblings of a sore loser had Sunderland performed a smash-and-grab raid. As it was, the Black Cats' mastery of their opponents meant his attempts to play mind games were as ineffectual as the efforts of his players.

Sunderland did not win Saturday's game because an occasional foray forward went well for them - they claimed their eighth away win of the season because they were better than their opponents in every facet.

Defensively secure during a cagey opening period, Whitehead and Yorke had already wrested control of the midfield battle when the latter gave Sunderland the lead.

The improving Danny Simpson cut in from the right flank and, after John teed up his compatriot with a deft backheel, Yorke swept a precise side-footed finish past Albion goalkeeper Dean Kiely.

"I told Yorkie to sit," said Keane. "But he obviously didn't listen to me. That's the magic of being a manager - you tell them to do one thing and they go and do the other."

Mowbray must have been thinking the same when his defence went missing five minutes after the break, enabling John to convert the simplest of back-post headers from Whitehead's left-wing corner.

Buoyed by a two-goal lead, Sunderland then spurned a succession of gilt-edged opportunities to make the game safe. Kiely saved well from substitutes Tobias Hysen and Daryl Murphy, but the Black Cats' dominance was briefly interrupted when Darren Carter, a former Sunderland loanee, pounced on a weak clearance in the 73rd minute.

Carter's goal could have set up a grandstand finish, but having displayed the skill needed to establish a platform for victory, the visitors duly displayed the steel required to see it through.

The 88th-minute dismissal of Paul Robinson for a professional foul on Liam Miller merely underlined Sunderland's superiority, and enabled the vast visiting support to dream of more elevated destinations.