Sunderland moved up to fourth in Nationwide Division One tonight as they completed the double over struggling Gillingham with a 2-1 win at The Stadium of Light.
The Wearsiders took the lead in the 11th minute when Leon Johnson fouled Darren Byfield 20 yards out and Sean Thornton curled in the resulting free-kick.
Gillingham equalised with a scrappy 28th-minute goal from Patrick Agyemang, who knew little about the contact he made from Richard Rose’s cross for the Kent side’s first away goal in six games.
At that stage it appeared Sunderland were again going to drop crucial midweek points – having been held by Preston and Stoke in the last two weeks.
But Byfield changed that eight minutes into the second half with a mazy run and low shot for his third goal in as many games.
It means Mick McCarthy’s team are unbeaten in 17 games at home since the first day of the season – and moved them to within a point of third-placed Sheffield United, with two games in hand.
The Blades slipped up against Derby at Bramall Lane in a game where most of the action happened before half-time.
Sheffield United took the lead in the 21st minute when Andy Gray finished from close range after Peter Ndlovu capitalised on hesitancy in the visitors’ defence.
But Derby denied Neil Warnock’s men the chance of moving within five points of leading duo Norwich and West Brom four minutes later.
Referee Lee Mason pointed to the spot when he ruled Nick Montgomery had fouled Leon Osman inside the box – and Ian Taylor sent Paddy Kenny the wrong way for his 10th goal of the season.
Only one of the match’s seven bookings came after the interval – and there were no further goals.
Crewe bounced back after three successive defeats to end Stoke’s recent good run, with a 2-0 win over their near rivals at Gresty Road.
There was an element of good fortune about Crewe’s opener, with Kenny Lunt’s shot going well wide until it deflected off Marcus Hall in the 25th minute.
But there was no doubt about the second goal from Lunt just past the hour mark, as he shot home crisply from 25 yards.
However, the visitors can count themselves unlucky in succumbing to only their second defeat in 16 games – they hit the woodwork three times.
In Division Two, Chesterfield failed to take advantage of the opportunity to move out of relegation trouble when they lost 2-1 at home to Colchester – who move up to places to 12th.
The visitors took the lead just past the half-hour mark at Saltergate when Greg Halford curled in a free-kick.
Chesterfield levelled five minutes into the second half when Glynn Hurst, left unmarked at the far post, headed past Colchester goalkeeper Simon Brown.
But Wayne Andrews’ 82nd-minute header leaves Roy McFarland’s team just two points above the relegation zone in 18th.
In Division Three, Carlisle gave themselves a survival lifeline with a battling 3-2 victory at Scunthorpe.
The visitors, who started the night bottom of the table 10 points from safety, took a 15th-minute lead through on-loan Peter Duffield – who netted the winner for Boston in the match between the two teams at Glanford Park on December 28.
The prolific Steven Maclean levelled the scores in the 28th minute, only for Mark Boyd to restore the visitors’ advantage 10 minutes into the second half with a low left footed shot.
Maclean, on loan from Rangers, netted again in the 73rd minute from the penalty spot after Cleveland Taylor had been fouled by Kevin Gray.
But their hopes of averting a fourth successive defeat were ended when Chris Billy netted four minutes later with a powerful shot to give Carlisle only their second win of the season away from home – and a precious three points.
The other Division Three match, between Mansfield and Swansea, ended in a 1-1 draw at Field Mill.
The home side had Tony Vaughan sent off for violent conduct before Andy Robinson put Swansea ahead in the 31st minute.
But the Stags, whose promotion challenge has faltered in recent weeks, earned a point six minutes into the second half through Liam Lawrence.
His 18th goal of the season came from the penalty spot after he had been fouled by Roberto Martinez.