BEFORE last night’s match Martin O’Neill told fans not to expect “miracles” of Fraizer Campbell, but the person doing most to raise expectations is the striker himself.
With less than half an hour of his first Premier League appearance since August 2010, Campbell had scored one, made one for Sunderland.
O’Neill arrived at the Stadium of Light in December with a reputation as a manager who could inject confidence into his players, but even so, the effect he has had on the previously demoralised Wearsiders has been little short of astonishing.
When players come back from serious injury, you normally expect them to be a little tentative. But O’Neill’s magic formula has already taken effect on Campbell. After two potentially career-ending cruciate knee ligament injuries, he has returned to senior football in the sort of form he left it in.
Suddenly O’Neill’s failure to sign a striker in January is not looking so calamitous.
As well as providing the focal point the Black Cats attack has struggled for this season, Campbell will also inject the pace O’Neill will be looking for in the next transfer window.
More importantly than both, his eye for goal looks as sharp as ever. If his goalscoring comeback as an FA Cup substitute three days earlier was the stuff of fairy tales, the strike which marked his return to the starting line-up was pure Roy of the Rovers.
Given the ball by James McClean after beating his man from a throw-in, Campbell teed himself up for a volley outside the area. He hit it with the sweetness of Craig Gardner’s here against Swansea City.
It was a goal that oozed the confidence O’Neill has magicked into the side through his sheer excitable presence on the touchline. Twenty-one minutes in, Campbell was back. He had a hand in the second goal seven minutes later, though in truth it was Stéphane Sessègnon’s from start to finish.
The Benin international had started the move when he collected Michael Turner’s header and nutmegged Bradley Johnson in the centre circle.
Sessègnon sprayed the ball to Campbell, who had peeled to the right wing.
Campbell headed for the byline and put in an excellent cross his diminutive striker partner nodded into the net.
Only 28 minutes were on the clock, but it looked like O’Neill’s unbeaten record at a ground his players so struggled at in 2011 was guaranteed for another couple of weeks.
Unbeaten on their travels since December 3, Norwich had until then provided little by way of threat.
It was the 13th minute before Simon Mignolet was called into action, making a good diving save from Grant Holt Steve Morison had flicked Kyle Naughton’s free-kick to his strike partner.
The Welshman was first to the saved ball, but hit it into a defender.
Sunderland had been into their stride much earlier, Campbell having his first shot at goal after 42 seconds. A big deflection made it comfortable for John Ruddy, but it was a statement of intent from the forward.
Four minutes later his faint glance on a James McClean corner was also kept out by the keeper.
Larsson dragged a shot wide after Sessègnon had wriggled into the space to find him.
Out of the blue Campbell’s extraordinary goal may have been, but not against the run of play.
Paul Lambert might be known as “Mini Martin”, but he was unable to match his mentor’s motivational skills during a half-time interval which did nothing to alter the flow of the game.
Five minutes after the restart Ruddy was in action again, saving low from Gardner.
At times towards the end of Steve Bruce’s reign, Sunderland had looked almost scared to perform in front of their own fans, but with the comfortable cushion of two goals and no discernable threat from the Canaries, they were pushing and running with the best of them. Ten minutes into the half Phil Bardsley played the ball to Gardner, and got it back via Larsson.
The full-back’s drilled cross hit Daniel Ayala and spooned into the net. “The third goal credited to Phil Bardsley” the PA said, playing diplomatically to the crowd.
The celebration matched the goal, Bardsley tripping as he headed for the corner flag.
It allowed the South West corner to run through its full repertoire of songs, imploring O’Neill (successfully) and television pundit Kevin Phillips (less so) to give them a wave, and for the Wearsiders to continue playing their football.
Campbell was a fraction away from a second on the hour.
Sessègnon’s pass to Larsson looked overhit but the Swede made the most of it.
Campbell was a fraction late on his low cross. Well, you can’t expect miracles.
Soon Campbell was taking his leave to a deserved ovation, Sunderland having survived a Morison header only marginally the wrong side of Mignolet’s goal.
While inevitably Norwich had a couple of late pot-shots, O’Neill could do as he please.
After 74 minutes Campbell got the rest and the ovation he deserved and with eight left Wayne Bridge – almost as much of a stranger to first-team football as Campbell – got a run-out.