MASKED man Simon Mignolet today described himself as the “happiest man in the world” after returning ahead of schedule to help makeshift Sunderland slay the league leaders.
Belgian keeper Mignolet ensured the Black Cats registered just a second clean sheet in 10 games at the Stadium of Light yesterday as Ji Dong-won’s dramatic last-gasp winner earned a 1-0 victory over Manchester City.
The 23-year-old only, wearing a protective mask, returned to training last week following two months on the sidelines with a broken nose and fractured eye socket, but was pressed into action when Keiren Westwood was forced to pull out yesterday morning through illness.
But despite being limited to small-sided games at the Academy of Light, Mignolet played his part in inflicting only City’s second Premier League defeat of the campaign, to move Sunderland six points clear of the bottom three ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Wigan.
Mignolet told the Echo: “The place exploded after Ji’s goal and it was a great feeling for me after eight weeks on the sidelines.
“To win against Manchester City with a clean sheet makes you the happiest man in the world. I couldn’t have asked for anymore.
“I saw the surgeon two or three weeks ago and he gave me the go-ahead to train after eight weeks, whereas normally you wouldn’t be back until 12 weeks. So I’m still two weeks ahead of schedule now.
“I’ve been back training a week, but, unfortunately, Westy got ill on Saturday and they called me to ask if I could come because he was a doubt.
“Yesterday morning, I heard Westy was still ill and the only thing you want then is to do your best.
“I knew it was going to be difficult and I was a bit rusty in the first 15 minutes.
“People will say I’m a goalie and I don’t move, but my legs felt tired in the last 15 minutes because of the concentration.
“Normally, you get two or three reserve games before you come back, but I’m happy to have played with the first team again and we won which is the most important thing.”
Westwood’s withdrawal forced another change to Sunderland’s back-line after boss Martin O’Neill was already without injured trio Michael Turner, Titus Bramble and Phil Bardsley plus the ill Kieran Richardson.
A make-do Sunderland defence, which included midfielders Jack Colback and Craig Gardner at full-back, was further depleted when Wes Brown limped off in the 26th minute – Matt Kilgallon taking the place of the ex-Manchester United man and appearing for the first team for the first time since May 2010.
“When Wes got injured, it made it even harder,” added Mignolet. “But I think everyone who played was up for the task and did very well, working hard for each other against a tough side, who knew if they got three points would go clear at the top.
“Everybody deserves a pat on the back. Matt has always been positive on the sidelines and kept his head down, even when he was training and playing with the reserves.
“He did brilliantly when he came on, but it was more important as a team to get some points out of the game.”