WITH two Sunderland debutants, another playing only his second game, and a teenager as the Black Cats’ best performer, a routine FA Cup third round win could easily be billed as the start of some sort of new era for the Wearsiders.
But perhaps its greatest significance was in the effect it could have on a player who has been at the Stadium of Light for half a season.
Fraizer Campbell needed the two goals that booked his side’s place in round four. Steve Bruce has been unwavering in his faith in the summer signings but no striker can afford to go too long without goals, and the England Under-21 international’s record of one League Cup goal in 18 appearances was in danger of bringing his value to the side into question.
On paper this was a game in which Sunderland had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Bruce had little choice but to field his strongest side on a slippery pitch which threatened both the health of his few fit players and their FA Cup prospects against a side not used to the manicured lawns of the modern Premier League.
Victory would end a miserable seven-match sequence without, but statistics are irrelevant, it is confidence that matters, and not much could have been taken from seeing off a side who are, after all, at the wrong end of the Conference.
But for a centre-forward – and for all his appearances on the right-hand side of midfield, that is what Sunderland’s number nine is – goals are goals. Had it not been for the inspired Tim Deasy, Campbell would have had a hat-trick despite a dreadful first half.
It all started with an assist for the 22-year-old. The Black Cats had begun with some bright passing considering the sticky pitch, but it was far too open a contest to be described as a good performance by the top-flight outfit. The fit-again Steed Malbranque, revelling in tactical freedom, had only just returned from a couple of minutes in the dressing rooms replacing a contact lens when he put his side ahead. The move was typical of all that was good about Sunderland in the first half, Daryl Murphy’s well-judged pass playing George McCartney in down the left, and Campbell backheeling into the path of the Frenchman, who netted for the first time since December 2008’s demolition of Hull City, his only previous Black Cats’ goal.
Fifteen minutes in, it ought to have changed everything. In fact, it changed nothing. With 8,000 noisy fans behind them, it would take more than that to dishearten Barrow. Sunderland remained sloppy. McCartney was fortunate when he let the ball go over his head in the 28th minute that Lorik Cana – centre-back for the day, allowing a youthful central midfield pairing of David Meyler and the impressive Jordan Henderson – intercepted to spare his blushes. Both players were very lucky Neil Swarbrick was in such a good mood.
The Lancashire official was perhaps overly strict in interpreting fouls in such difficult conditions, but lenient in his view of two tasty tackles. Cana, carried away trying to finish a move he started, sprinted towards Deasy – not for the last time doing a good job as sweeper – and lunged in two-footed. The result was a free-kick, no more. Cana was later booked for the seventh time this season for kicking the ball away as he complained about another free-kick against him. A minute later McCartney lunged at Marc Goodfellow. On another day, the punishment would have been more than a yellow card.
His assist did little to lift Campbell either. Malbranque dallied too long over an injury-time through-ball, ruling out the possibility of releasing Darren Bent. Campbell got it instead, and should never have missed the target.
He made amends after the restart, heading in a near post free-kick from the much-maligned Murphy. When he glanced Phil Bardsley’s left-footed cross inside the far post seven minutes later, it was mission accomplished.
Rather than protect Bent immediately, Bruce gave 18-year-old substitute Ryan Noble much-needed time to warm up, allowing Bent’s final contribution to be a 71st-minute shot tipped onto the post by Deasy.
At 3-0 the sole aims were to get Campbell the matchball and debutant Noble a goal to add to his 32 for the youths and reserves this season. They were denied by Deasy and Lady Luck.
Campbell saw the ball pass through his legs as he slid onto Henderson’s deflected shot, had it taken off his toes by the goalkeeper, headed over and forced a few saves. Noble poked a shot wide, just failed to reach a Henderson cross, shot at Deasy after cutting inside and waltzed inside a couple of defenders in injury-time only to miss the target.
The fairytales would have to wait, but at least Campbell’s Sunderland story may have taken a positive twist.