Sunderland 3 Norwich 0: Chris Young’s verdict

Fraizer Campbell
Fraizer Campbell
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HOURS spent on the phone trying to land an experienced head up front ultimately counted for nought as Sunderland opted for prudence rather than panic on deadline day.

While missing out on the likes of Kevin Davies and Frederic Piquionne hardly ranks as a major blow in the transfer market, Martin O’Neill would at least have possessed a few more arrows to his bow in the absence of the injured Nicklas Bendtner.

But unlike February 1 last year, when Sunderland were left with Asamoah Gyan and a crocked Danny Welbeck, O’Neill does at least have forward options.

The dilemma for the Black Cats boss was which precarious card to play.

Did he chance the raw cult hero Ji Dong-won, the yet-to-shine Connor Wickham, the rusty Fraizer Campbell or simply opt for caution and deploy Craig Gardner or Kieran Richardson in the hole behind makeshift focal point Stephane Sesssegnon?

There were pros and cons to each, yet those who have underestimated O’Neill since his arrival on Wearside have done so at their peril. Again, his decision proved a masterstroke and, in the process, potentially shone a spotlight into the future.

It’s too soon to predict that a Sessegnon/Campbell axis will continue to devastate defences and emerge as Sunderland’s first-choice strike partnership.

Few Premier League back lines will surrender as much space in the final third as the Canaries, who looked like a side beginning to show the first signs of losing the bubble of momentum from promotion.

Neither will Campbell’s exuberance and ability to keep up to speed by pure adrenaline persist indefinitely. A time will come in four or five games when the 24-year-old inevitably suffers a dip from such a lengthy hiatus from competitive action.

But, for arguably the first time this season, Sunderland boasted a front two that looked eminently capable of leaving an opposition back line stricken with fear.

By and large, Sessegnon has linked up effectively with Bendtner and, on paper, they are the perfect double act – the rangy striker who holds the ball up, coupled with the slighter, quicker partner in crime.

But Bendtner’s lack of goals leaves defenders concentrating on the not insignificant threat offered by Sessegnon, rather than worrying about the on-loan Arsenal man’s frustratingly constant wandering to the flanks.

In Campbell though, Sunderland have found the striker from within that they have been lacking – someone capable of lingering on the last man, who will worry sluggish centre-halves by his pace in behind.

That allows Sessegnon the licence to roam deeper and pick off the weak links with such eye-catching ease, perfectly highlighted by the nutmeg on Bradley Johnson in the centre circle before bombing forward to head home Campbell’s cross for his sixth of the season.

But while Sessegnon was the supreme foil, the story again revolved around Campbell and his Lazarus-esque impact on Sunderland’s affairs.

The former Manchester United man’s finish against Middlesbrough showed little tentativeness and his goal last night was similarly emphatic. There should have been more – miscuing a header straight at John Ruddy early on and just failing to latch on to Seb Larsson’s cross on the hour mark.

Campbell’s off-the-ball contribution was equally encouraging though.

Fears over the psychological impact of two devastating knee injuries inevitably lingered over Campbell’s head and whether he would shirk the physical demands of Premier League football.

Those doubts were erased in the opening minutes when Campbell was sent head over heels by Zak Whitbread’s crunching challenge on the touchline.

Campbell immediately dusted himself down and continued to clatter into physical contact with zeal, harrying Whitbread and Daniel Ayala and closing down the space available to the full-backs.

Crucially, he never allowed Bradley Johnson a minute in the hole in front of Norwich’s back four, with the ex-Leeds man unable to dictate the tempo and provide the Canaries’ midfield diamond with sufficient service.

Campbell complemented that work-rate with a willingness to latch on to balls down the channels or dinked in behind the Norwich defence, just being waved offside as he knocked Jack Colback’s pass against the woodwork.

It was a performance of genuine quality from Campbell and one which sparked genuine laments over how long he was ruled out for last season, particularly in the second half of the campaign when Sunderland’s attack was, at best, down to the bare bones.

The only surprise was that the Huddersfield-born hitman lasted so long, O’Neill waiting until the 74th minute before replacing him with Ji, even though the game was won long before.

But every second on the field counts for Campbell in his attempts to return to full match fitness and he will reap the rewards once today’s inevitable fatigue fades away.

Whether he can lead the line from the opening whistle at Stoke City on Saturday is another question, yet, like so many times, since his appointment, you would bet on O’Neill finding the right answer.