Had Nicklas Bendtner not been absent with a facial injury, Fraizer Campbell would almost certainly have been left struggling to keep warm on the bench. As it was Martin O'Neill thought long and hard before offering the striker his first start since August 2010 but Sunderland's manager must be delighted he did.

Watching the former Manchester United forward score a quite brilliant volleyed opening goal, create a second and, thanks to a most menacing change of pace, generally promote attacking havoc, it was hard to believe that Campbell had spent so long sidelined by serious knee problems before returning as a scoring substitute against Middlesbrough last Sunday.

On this evidence O'Neill's failure to lure Kevin Davies from Bolton Wanderers before the transfer window's closure is perhaps not quite the blow it might have been. "You should see Fraizer's smile in the dressing room," said the home manager, whose team passed and moved with real assurance. "He has given us a big, big lift. I'm really, really pleased for him."

During part of the 18 months in which Campbell nursed two cruciate ligament injuries he frequently disguised himself with baseball caps and hoodies before travelling to away grounds and sitting cheering his team-mates on alongside diehard Sunderland fans.

Back out on the pitch here, Norwich City's defence persistently struggled to recognise Campbell's true intentions and their failure to spot his first advance very nearly saw Paul Lambert's side concede within minutes.

Ghosting through the visiting backline as he raced onto a cross from the exciting left-winger James McClean – "James has been a real revelation," O'Neill enthused – Campbell unleashed a header, pushed to safety by John Ruddy.

Norwich's goalkeeper had no hope of diverting Campbell's subsequent, thoroughly spectacular effort. Once again receiving possession from McClean, the returning striker extended his right foot to tame the capriciously looping delivery. Next he allowed the ball to bounce before directing a perfect dipping volley into the top corner from just outside the area.

Shortly afterwards Campbell showed he can create as well as score. After exchanging passes with the excellent Stéphane Sessègnon during a teasing buildup featuring the latter nugmegging Bradley Johnson, he floated in a beautifully-weighted cross. Outjumping all comers the diminutive Sessègnon made a firm connection before steering a header past Ruddy from six yards.

O'Neill may once have helped Lambert secure a managerial job at Wycombe but, on the bitterest of Wearside evenings, his Sunderland players were singularly neglecting to show Norwich's manager similar generosity.

Bar saving a solitary volley from Grant Holt – the subject of a failed bid from Rangers on Tuesday – Lambert's side rarely menaced and instead simply seemed mesmerised by Sessègnon's skill, Campbell's incision and Craig Gardner's control of central midfield. Certainly O'Neill had no need to rush Wayne Bridge, his new on-loan left-back, freshly arrived from Manchester City, off the substitutes' bench.

Poor Ruddy quickly found himself beaten again. This time a clever Sunderland attack concluded with Phil Bardsley's driven cross-shot being deflected beyond the wrongfooted keeper by Daniel Ayala.

By now Bridge could hardly have wished for a less stressful 81st-minute introduction. The former England full-back was warmly applauded but his reception was nothing next to the ovation Campbell received when he had earlier been withdrawn for a well-deserved sit-down.

"Fraizer Campbell's goal was a wonder-strike but they were the better side," acknowledged Lambert, who played for O'Neill at Celtic. "We were second-best. It's absolute no surprise to me that Martin has revived Sunderland in this way though."