The greatest compliment that you could pay Keiren Westwood is that no one is talking about Simon Mignolet anymore.
The brilliant Belgium goalkeeper was the difference between Sunderland kicking off this season in the Championship or Premier League, such was his importance to the cause before his big money move to Liverpool in the summer.
We are just two games into the new campaign and Westwood has already earned one for the Black Cats with a sparkling display at Southampton. On current form, it will be the first of many for a player who has rediscovered his form, belief and confidence after a year as “tough as anything” in his career.
Three fine stops on the South Coast provided further justification of Paolo Di Canio’s big call to go with Westwood over close-season signing Vito Mannone this season – a decision that Westwood is acutely aware can be reversed at any point of this “revolutionary” red-and-white season.
That moment looks a long way away at the moment, with Westwood making a trio of superb stops on Saturday in a performance hewn with authority. The fact that the visiting supporters have already taken to vocally acclaiming their new number one just goes to show that there is plenty of life after Mignolet for Sunderland.
Westwood says: “It’s difficult for me to talk about because Simon is a friend. He did well last year but I’m not concentrating on Simon anymore. He’s gone to Liverpool and he’ll prove himself there. He’s a good goalkeeper. I’ve just got to look after myself and put in more performances like I did on Saturday. I need to keep going myself and put more confidence in myself and my own ability. I think what it is about for me is proving to people what I can do. I had 12 months, more or less, on the sidelines and it’s not what any professional wants to do.
“When you get that opportunity you’ve got to go out there and show what you can do.
“From not playing for so long you do have a few nerves so it is just about getting back into the swing of things and that’s what I’m trying to do now.
“Hopefully I’m putting in some performances that I can be proud of, my team can be proud of and the whole club can be proud of. It’s about the whole team, not just me. It was tough last year – mentally it was very, very challenging but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think I’ve become a better goalkeeper for it. Mentally it has made me a lot stronger and hopefully I can put in the performances that show that.”
Belief is a key theme for Westwood. He is trying to top up his as he contemplates life as a regular Premier League starter, but there is a bigger agenda unfolding for Sunderland, who are yet to gain the victory that their improvement from last season might have warranted.
For Westwood, it is a case of the team starting to believe in their own ability. That transition from a team that defended what they had – a key strategy last season as they muddled by with inferior resources – to actually setting the tempo and pace of games, is going to be crucial for the Black Cats.
“We know we’re a good side, we just need to start showing it on the field. We need to have a bit more confidence I think. A bit more belief in what we have got in our squad. It’s a good squad,” he said.
“The club is a very big club. We get big followings – look at the number who backed us at Southampton. The potential is there but we’ve been saying it for a long time. Now we’ve got a team that is more than good enough to hold our own in this division. If we have a bit of belief and confidence in our own ability I think we’ll be OK.” Next up for Sunderland is an MK Dons side that they defeated last season in the Capital One Cup. It is a distinctly glamour-free assignment for the Black Cats but nonetheless, it is one they must move past quickly if they are to have an “impact” in one of the competitions Di Canio has targeted.
Westwood agrees. “This is a big competition for us this season. We’ve got a home game against MK Dons. We played them last season and won 2-0. We want to progress – we’re a Premier League side and you don’t want to be beaten by a League One side, with the greatest respect to them. It would be unacceptable. We have to be switched on, we have to approach it in the right way and we have to make sure that we’re as ready for it as we can be because they will make it very difficult for us.” Di Canio has already alluded to his belief that the “vultures” are circling for new model Sunderland this season. Westwood feels the team have a duty to silence the critics.
He said: “We could be sat in the table with six points but there is no point crying over spilled milk. You make your own luck, I suppose and we have to go out there and force the issue in the next couple of games. You just keep going.”