MARTIN O’Neill has compared Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to Pat Jennings and Peter Shilton – and insisted that his head won’t be turned by talk of top-four interest, writes MARK DOUGLAS.
The Belgium goalkeeper will pick up the North East Football Writers’ Association player of the year award tomorrow in recognition of the fantastic campaign that has seen him cement his place as the Black Cats’ number one and turn heads among Champions League clubs.
Arsenal and Liverpool are among the clubs with an interest in the former Sint-Truiden man but O’Neill (pictured left) says the club view those links as a compliment rather than a frustration.
Indeed in drawing comparisons with legendary stoppers like Jennings and Shilton – who both played alongside O’Neill during his storied playing career – he has done little to dampen the hype that is building up around the goalkeeper.
He said: “It’s something we just have to get used to. We’re delighted with him and it’s great he won the award considering the season Newcastle had, they had 2-3 players who could easily have won it. It’s a great boost for him as well.
“At the moment, he’s playing brilliantly for us and here’s the
place for him but it doesn’t stop big teams coming and hovering around. He’s been brilliant; I’m delighted for him.”
It is quite a compliment for O’Neill, not one to indulge in rhetoric of hype for the sake of it, to draw a comparison with such greats as Jennings and Shilton.
He said: “He comes in every morning and wants to do it, to work hard and improve. I’ve been lucky in my career to have played in front of two unbelievable keepers in Pat Jennings and Peter Shilton and he’s got a similar approach to both.
“Peter Shilton and Jennings played at a time without any goalkeeping coaches, so what Shilton would do was get some of the apprentices down to fire in shots at all angles so he could do his work.
“At international level, when Jennings felt he had a point to prove, he was unbeatable; Mignolet has this.
“He’s still very young and he’s got a similar mentality to those two, if he ends up having half the career of those I’ll be ecstatic. He’s clever without being smart. He’s no smart alec, he’s intelligent.
“We show highlights good and bad after matches and he’s up there analysing them with Seamus McDonagh to see where he can improve. It’s been a fantastic year for him and he seems very happy. It’s a compliment that big clubs are keeping an eye on him, there’s no question.”
If there is one area he needs to improve, O’Neill thinks it is the mental side of the game. The goalkeeper let a previous mistake against West Brom play on his mind for too long.
“He took his opportunity last season, against Manchester City that day and followed that up and has never really looked back,” O’Neill said. “He was devastated with the mistake against WBA, and the very fact he’s shown the ability to recover for that is great credit. He’s not one of those who could immediately put that mistake out of his mind.
“There was an incident early in the match where he felt he should have done better and I feel that was playing on his mind when he fumbled and that sort of thing he can get out of his mind – maybe he needs to do it a bit quicker.
“I’m of the view that you’ve always got a point to prove. Only when you’ve had a career like Jennings or Shilton you can look back and feel you’ve done okay. Simon’s still got plenty to prove.”