IN Simon Mignolet, Martin O’Neill thinks Sunderland have a goalkeeper whose bravery ranks alongside greats like Peter Shilton and Pat Jennings.
The former Nottingham Forest and Northern Ireland international played in front of both during his playing career, and believes the current Black Cats’ shot-stopper shares an important quality with both.
“Simon has been fantastic for us,” he said. “There’s parts of his game he wants to improve on, but he’s as brave as a lion.
“The save at Upton Park (which he made from Kevin Nolan during last month’s 1-1 draw) was fantastic, but for me the two on Saturday were even better. If they had gone in, we were going 2-0 down. He kept us in the game big time.”
Mignolet missed the start of O’Neill’s tenure as Sunderland manager after a badly fractured cheekbone and nose in a collision with then-Aston Villa striker Emile Heskey.
The Belgian rushed back ahead of schedule when Keiren Westwood started 2012 with a virus, initially playing in a protective mask. Mignolet has kept his place ever since.
Of the regular Premier League goalkeepers, only Petr Cech has conceded less league goals this season. The Chelsea man has leaked three in six games, to Mignolet’s four in five.
Arsenal’s Vito Mannone has shipped four in six since coming in for the injured Wojciech Szczesny.
Joe Hart is yet to keep a clean sheet for Saturday’s opponents Manchester City this term.
“I must give some credit to the lunatic goalkeeping coach (Seamus McDonagh) who has brought that part of his game out!” joked O’Neill.
“Simon’s definitely improved. He’s stronger looking. I’ve been very, very pleased with him. I don’t think there’s a time since I came to the club when I’ve not been pleased with him.”
Shilton and Jennings are their countries’ most capped players and, while the former might play second-fiddle to Gordon Banks as England’s best goalkeeper, Jennings is indisputably Northern Ireland’s and in many people’s eyes Britain’s finest.
“Unfortunately I always compare goalkeepers to Jennings and Shilton,” said O’Neill.
“There’s something about brave goalkeepers I like.”
Manchester City will no doubt be aggrieved at having to play Sunderland at 12.45pm on Saturday having played Champions League football on Wednesday. Escaping with their first point of the European campaign after being totally outplayed by Borussia Dortmund could also have a bearing on their mindset. O’Neill realises it could make them more, not less, dangerous.
“They have the squad to make changes,” he pointed out. “They had good players on the bench who would be in lots of teams. If you think James Milner was really important for us at Villa and is not regular in the side that may tell you the strength of the squad. They can make changes in the team and not be weakened. But we can go there and cause problems.”
Unlike City, who lost their opening Champions League game in the Bernabeu, Sunderland are unbeaten this season. That said, last week’s 1-0 win over Wigan Athletic was their first against top-flight opposition since March.
“The Wigan win was a big one for us, really important,” O’Neill reflected. “There was a sense of relief of course. We wanted points on the board rather than chasing. We will be chasing at some point but that was a big win for us and keeps confidence high.
“We played well against them on both occasions (last season). It was a great atmosphere at home on New Year’s Day.
“We looked at their team and thought we could get a hiding, so we played loads of people out of position. It was a big concern and we came through it. It was a wonderful day.
“We had our best away performance there too. We took four points off them in the league.”