FRAIZER Campbell has been told he has an important part to play for Sunderland over the Festive period – and quite possibly beyond, writes STUART RAYNER
The 25-year-old forward (left) has been persistently linked with moves away from the Stadium of Light since the end of last season, with suitors such as Hull City and Huddersfield Town encouraged by the fact he has not started since the opening day of 2012-13.
On Saturday, Campbell scored his first goal since February 1 in the 3-1 defeat to former club Manchester United.
With Steven Fletcher troubled by a back injury to add to the ankle problem suffered earlier this month and fellow strikers Connor Wickham and the out-of-favour Ji Dong-Won and Louis Saha yet to score this season, manager Martin O’Neill was at great pains to stress Campbell’s importance to his squad.
“Fraizer did really fine,” was O’Neill’s assessment of the Yorkshireman’s 32-minute run-out at Old Trafford.
“We will need Fraizer around here between now and New Year for a start and I would say we want to try and strengthen if at all possible rather than let players go.”
As in his only start of the campaign, at Arsenal, Campbell was deployed on the right as Sunderland tried to reduce a 3-0 deficit.
Saturday's hosts Manchester United had been in excellent form in the first half.
They scored twice in the opening 20 minutes through Robin van Persie and Tom Cleverley and ought to have been 5-0 up within half an hour.
However, Sunderland stood firm and eventually got into the game.
Wayne Rooney hit the crossbar before scoring in the 59th-minute, but by then the Black Cats were starting to cause opposition goalkeeper David de Gea problems.
In view of that, Campbell’s close-in header after persistent Sunderland pressure was deserved.
In keeping with every other Monday this season, they spent today fretting over Fletcher, who has scored seven of Sunderland’s 19 goals this season.
Campbell apart, two-goal Stéphane Sessègnon is the only other striker to have shared the goalscoring burden.
O’Neill added: “Steven hurt his back in the warm-up and twisted it in the game which caused him problems in the last ten minutes before half-time, when it became more painful.
“I don’t know how bad it is, but it’s a different injury to the one he’s had in the last two weeks.”
With winger Adam Johnson also leaving the field in discomfort, injuries are starting to take their toll on the Black Cats – hence O’Neill’s talk of strengthening in January.
Danny Rose (ankle), Phil Bardsley, Lee Cattermole and long-term absentee Wes Brown (all knee) were all missing through injury.
Compared to the rest of the Premier League, Sunderland can hardly claim to be too badly off but the quality, seniority and positions of those players make their losses hard for a small squad to absorb.
If travelling to a ground where they had not won since 1968 never really presented a realistic opportunity to build on Tuesday’s much-needed win over Reading, Saturday’s trip to relegation rivals Southampton does.
That Rose was close enough to have a pre-match fitness test on his ankle on Saturday bodes well for Sunderland’s best player this season being involved.
The Saints are the only team between the Wearsiders and the relegation zone.
Meanwhile, in springing to O’Neill’s defence, opposite number Sir Alex Ferguson has criticised Alan Shearer.
The former Newcastle United striker used his newspaper column last week to speculate O’Neill was in danger of being sacked as Sunderland manager.
Ferguson said: “Perhaps there was a touch of the old Newcastle-Sunderland rivalry behind such a bitter remark.”