MARTIN O'Neill last night described Simon Mignolet as the best goalkeeper he has ever managed.
The Belgian has been Sunderland’s best player this season by a stretch and his impressive performances earned him special praise from his manager.
O’Neill is not one to single out any of his players in public, but believes his keeper merits it because of his consistently excellent form since breaking into the team just over a year ago.
The Sunderland boss said: “Simon came into the team on New Year’s Day against Manchester City when he was nowhere near fit because Keiren Westwood was ill, but the very fact he wanted to play says a lot about him.
“He is a very impressive young man, an intelligent boy who is doing some external degrees and things like that, but he is never one to push himself forward – he has been fantastic, really fantastic.
“Simon has made some very important saves. He made two big saves last Sunday, which had he not, would have allowed Fulham into the game and meant a very nervy last ten minutes.
“At this minute, any accolades bestowed on
him he really deserves. He has been terrific, brave and the big thing is he really wants to improve. He is as good a trainer as we have at the club.
“I had Kasey Keller at Leicester City who was a very good keeper and for a while I had Tim Flowers (pictured right) who was absolutely brilliant, but those two had bit more experience and were bit older.
“This boy is only 23 so he can improve by a big percentage even yet. Even without that experience he is getting, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be a really fine top-quality keeper for a long time.”
Sunderland today entertain the Premier League’s surprise team of the season so far, West Brom, who sit fourth in the table having taken 23 points from a possible 36.
O’Neill said: “They have had a fantastic start. Some of the games that they’ve lost – at Newcastle, for example – they might consider themselves a little unlucky.
“It’s a big test for us but we have to look forward to it now because of the result against Fulham at Craven Cottage and just be ready for the game.”
Starting today, Sunderland have a run of home matches to look forward to. Six of their next nine fixtures are at the Stadium of Light and the manager wants his players to use this sequence as the springboard to better things.
Speaking on the club’s website, O’Neill said: “We should be looking forward to the games there; we haven’t played that many at home this season.
“Now with Fulham out of the way – I tend not to look that far in advance – West Brom present plenty of problems to us, it will not be easy and (the game against) QPR won’t be either.”
Craig Gardner will be available again after serving a one-match ban, and with right-back Phil Bardsley now fit, there is some much-needed competition in midfield.