SIMON Mignolet is bracing himself for a fierce battle to be Sunderland’s number one next season.
With highly-rated Keiren Westwood newly signed and £9m man Craig Gordon desperate to put his injury problems behind him, the Belgian will have it all to do.
But he hopes to build on an excellent first season in the Premier League which produced eight clean sheets in 23 outings.
The £1m bargain buy from lowly Belgian outfit St Truiden last summer was one of Sunderland’s successes of the 2010-11 campaign, featuring far more than he could have hoped because of established number one Gordon being so prone to injury.
But the 22-year-old faces a fight to feature as prominently for Sunderland next season.
All the 22-year-old’s appearances came when first-choice Craig Gordon was either injured, recovering from a lay-off or hampered by the knee problem which is likely to rule him out of the start of next season.
But with Westwood now introduced into the mix and the 26-year-old Irishman in pole position to start next season, Mignolet has a challenge on his hands.
It means a three-way battle to be Steve Bruce’s first-choice keeper and Mignolet says the competition for that spot will be intense.
“It won’t be easy for the gaffer to make that decision, but he’s going to have to do that,” the young keeper told the Echo.
“Hopefully, I will have made it tough for him with my performances last season.
“I was ready for a battle with Craig at the start of last season.
“If Craig is fit, it’s a tough decision for the manager.
“Obviously Craig is a good goalie, but I played the majority of games over the season.
“We work hard together in training but then the gaffer has to make a decision on a matchday and I’m sure that’s exactly how it will be next season.”
It is likely to be a two-way battle for the keeper’s jersey at the start of the season, with Gordon not expected to be fully fit until the Autumn.
Mignolet will hope he has done enough to justify remaining as the stopper on the opening day of the season but Westwood – though he was playing last season at Championship level with Coventry City – is the more experienced keeper and acknowledged as Shay Given’s long-term successor as Republic of Ireland goalkeeper.
Bruce has raved about the Belgian international’s development on Wearside and believes Mignolet can become one of the best keepers in the Premier League.
But Westwood will not be content to sit on the bench at the Stadium of Light.
The 26-year-old shunned interest to be number two to Joe Hart at Manchester City in favour of playing regular top-flight football and will hope to start Sunderland’s first game of the season between the posts against Liverpool.