MICK McCarthy wore the smile of a Black Cat who got the cream as he basked in the delight of victory and extolled the virtues of having four hungry strikers to choose from.

And from his seat high in the rafters, how opposite number Steve Cotterill must have wished he had similar options after Robbie Blake for once failed to bail Burnley out.

All the possession in the world counts for nothing unless there is an end result to all that hard work.

And, against a workmanlike but unspectacular Sunderland side, you sensed the disappointment in Cotterill's voice as a nagging defeat marred his first return to the Stadium of Light.

Despite Graham Branch capping his 200th league appearance for Burnley with a clinical strike, Cotterill reflected on a missed opportunity as the visitors otherwise failed to genuinely test Thomas Myhre in the Sunderland goal.

Bang-in-form Blake ploughed a lonely furrow as the marking got ever-tighter, and with the attack-minded Ian Moore unable to stamp any mark on proceedings and midfield raids sporadic to say the least, it became evident that Burnley's watertight defence was always going to determine the outcome.

And unfortunately, the nightmare before Christmas saw two gift goals ultimately made all the difference.

The nature of those strikes hardly helped Cotterill's mood. Burnley's back line has been immeasurably stiffened this season and the comic-cut goals conceded in recent campaigns are now thankfully distant memories.

But the travelling fans got an icy blast from the past as first a Blake mistake - a genuine collector's item - then a simple short corner routine at a crucial juncture, proved their undoing.

Such a defeat was especially hard on young Gary Cahill, who, on a glittering stage fit for Premiership football, was once again a class act at the heart of the Burnley defence.

Carrying all the attributes - height, pace, aggression and a cool head - I'll gladly eat my laptop if the Aston Villa youngster does not go on to become a star.

John McGreal was almost as dominant alongside Cahill in the absence of the suspended Frank Sinclair - which leaves an intriguing conundrum for Cotterill to solve when both first-choice defenders become available again for the Boxing Day trip to Crewe.

Unfortunately, on a day when Sunderland had two wide men looking to carve out opportunities against that rock-like central defence, the Clarets full backs both suffered.

Michael Duff was always likely to be tested to the limit by the class of Julio Arca, while Mo Camara's spectacular raids down the left took second place to keeping an eye on livewire winger Liam Lawrence.

The former Mansfield Town wide man, so anonymous in last season's FA Cup tie against the Clarets at Field Mill, certainly made his presence felt a year later in a gripping duel with Camara.

But it made for painful viewing for Cotterill, who was left shuffling in his seat "on the moon" as he served his one-match touchline ban.

Blake almost provided the perfect opening after just 90 seconds with a trademark dip of the shoulder and rising drive from 30 yards that flew just over the angle.

And the signs looked good as, having settled well, Moore then forced Myhre to save with his knee after his weak shot deflected off Gary Breen.

But slowly, Sunderland clawed their way into the game and Brian Jensen was tested for the first time by Arca's angled effort.

The threat grew and in the 20th minute, Burnley were twice grateful to Jensen within a matter of seconds.

The Dane first made up for his own mistake by punching Michael Bridges' effort for a corner, and following the flag kick his instincts denied Stephen Wright from 12 yards.

There would be no escape in the 35th minute though as Blake inexplicably found Bridges as the only Sunderland player in the Burnley half with a sweeping ball from left to right intended for Duff.

The former Leeds striker advanced and waited for Arca to race in behind Duff before sliding a perfectly weighted ball behind the right back for the Argentine to convert.

Burnley's brilliant response was to equalise straight from the kick-off.

The tireless James O'Connor found room to fire over a cross from the right and Blake's flick fell perfectly for Branch, who swept the ball home with his right foot for his third goal of the season.

Jensen kept the mood buoyant in the Burnley dressing room at the break with a third great save in added-on time, somehow getting a fingertip to Lawrence's 30-yard piledriver.

But sadly, there were question marks left over the goal that finally caught the Clarets cold seven minutes after the restart.

Crucially, Jean-Louis Valois, who had been hobbling for several minutes, needed to be replaced by Lee Roche with Burnley defending a corner.

That left his marker, Arca, free to sneak upfield and take a short corner with Lawrence, who, before the Clarets could regroup, whipped in a cross from the right. The ball somehow evaded everyone and as Jensen dived in vain on the line, Bridges' final touch carried the ball into the centre of the net.

Cahill survived a hand-ball appeal soon after as Sunderland pressed for a third, before Burnley once again began to battle back.

And you sensed that, had strikers been aplenty, Cotterill might have thrown the proverbial kitchen sink at the ever-nervous hosts.

Instead, Blake picked out O'Connor with a peach of a pass, which the goal-shy midfielder drilled agonisingly into the side netting with Myhre beaten.

Another Blake chip then found substitute Richard Chaplow at the far post, where only a last-ditch tackle denied the midfielder a potential equaliser.

Alas it was not to be and Burnley's last chance went when Lee Roche was denied a clear run on goal by a dreadful offside decision by the linesman.

Those Black Cats get all the luck!

SUNDERLAND: Myhre, Wright, Breen, N Collins, McCartney, Lawrence, Whitehead, Robinson, Arca (Whitley 82), Bridges (Elliott 73), Brown (Stewart 73). Subs not used: Alnwick, Piper.

GOALS: Arca 35, Branch 36, Bridges 52.

REFEREE: Dermot Gallagher. Impressive. 8

BOOKINGS: Duff 44, Hyde 69