Highly-rated custodian

Simon Mignolet is very much at home in Sunderland and boss Martin O’Neill has hailed the professionalism of the big Belgian stopper, who was described by Manchester City and England’s Joe Hart as the best ’keeper in the English Premier League earlier this season. By Will Jackson.

There is a long-time footballing cliche that you have to be mad to be a goalkeeper, but Simon Mignolet is proof that is no more than a myth.

The Belgium international has established himself as Sunderland’s first-choice keeper with some fine displays for the Black Cats and the 24-year-old is also achieving great things off the field.

Mignolet has been studying a degree in politics at the University of Leuven just outside Brussels in his homeland. It is also a little known fact that the Sunderland keeper can speak five different languages, so he is clearly anything but mad.

But while he is well prepared for life after football, Mignolet still has many years in the game ahead of him and he has been linked with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.

However, Mignolet is very much at home on Wearside and boss Martin O’Neill has hailed the professionalism of the big Belgian stopper, who was described by Manchester City and England’s Joe Hart as the best keeper in the English Premier League earlier this season.

“He really wants to be good. His attitude is fantastic. He is always striving to improve. Even on some days off, he wants to come in and do the work.” said the Black Cats boss.

“I think that determination to be really good at his trade has shone through, it really has shone through. He has been brilliant.”

Such is the competitions for places in the Belgium squad that Mignolet is not his country’s number one. Thibaut Courtois, the young Chelsea keeper on loan at Atletico Madrid, has kept Mignolet out of the national team and that is another indication of the strength of the emerging Belgium team.

O’Neill hopes that Mignolet’s recent form can help him win more caps for his country. The Sunderland boss added: “He is in severe competition with the big Belgian lad to be the number one goalkeeper and with Belgium having such a fine side at the moment, that would be big for him.”

Mignolet started out as a midfielder, but was released by his home-town club Sint-Truiden at the age of 14. It was then that he made the decision to try his hand as a goalkeeper, and he was signed up by the same team just over a year later.

He went on to make over 100 appearances for the club and even managed to score a goal. Mignolet moved to England in 2010 at the age of 22 and he was very much an unknown quantity to many when he arrived at the Stadium of Light in a deal worth GBP2 million.

Mignolet replaced Craig Gordon in the Sunderland side and he has never looked back. A string of eye-catching performances for the Black Cats led to an international call-up and after making his debut in March 2011 he has gone on to win 12 caps so far.

Mignolet has become something of a folk hero with Sunderland fans, who have their own song for the highly-rated custodian and have taken him to their hearts. He was named the North-East Football Writers’ Association’s Player of the Year for 2012 and although Steven Fletcher dominates the headlines, there is no doubt the influence that Mignolet has in O’Neill’s side.

When you consider that Mignolet won that award despite Newcastle finishing fifth in the top flight last season then it is plain to see the level of performances he has produced. Mignolet’s stock continues to rise and he has a bright future both on and off the field. He lives with his long-term girlfriend, Jasmine, who is a law graduate and currently drives an Audi A4.

FACT FILE Name: Simon Mignolet Position: Goalkeeper Club: Sunderland DOB: 06/03/1988 Belgium caps: 12 Belgium goals: 0

Moment to remember: Keeping a clean sheet in his first start for Belgium in a EURO 2012 qualifying victory over Austria.

Moment to forget: Shattered an eye socket and nose after a collision with Emile Heskey during an EPL game against Aston Villa.

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