Sunderland boss O’Neill wants keeper fight

Keiren Westwood

Keiren Westwood

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MARTIN O’NEILL wants Keiren Westwood to push Simon Mignolet hard for the number one spot, now there is a two-way fight to be Sunderland’s first-choice stopper.

Republic of Ireland stopper Westwood has not travelled with Sunderland’s squad to South Korea after being granted extra time off following his participation in the summer’s European Championships.

That means Mignolet, who started 29 of Sunderland’s 38 Premier League outings last season, will get an early opportunity to stake his claim to remain first-choice, in tomorrow’s opening Peace Cup encounter against Korean outfit Seongnam.

But after the summer departure of Craig Gordon, O’Neill is eager for his two remaining international keepers to scrap it out to start the opening Premier League encounter at Arsenal on August 18.

Westwood, who is due to return to pre-season training next week, was between the sticks for O’Neill’s opening four games in charge and only lost his place in the side through illness.

O’Neill told the Echo: “Simon Mignolet went in last season and did really well, but Westwood had done fine before that and was unlucky to lose his spot.

“Keiren did well when he played for the Republic during the summer too in the friendlies and he might have been disappointed not to have played the last game at the Euro’s.

“He’s coming back to pre-season looking to try to get back as the first-team goalkeeper and I want him to challenge for that.

“I’ve got really good competition in there.”

O’Neill opted not to renew Scotland international Gordon’s contract at the end of last season, due to both the £9million keeper’s wages and the presence of Mignolet and Westwood.

Gordon is yet to find a new club after turning down a decent offer to join SPL champions Celtic.

And despite rumours of interest from Premier League outfits Spurs, Arsenal and Wigan, Championship side Bristol City are understood to be the only English side to have shown a firm interest in the 29-year-old.

“In an ideal world, it would have been great to keep Craig,” said O’Neill. “But that means you’ve got three quality goalkeepers and that’s an impossibility at any stage.

“Players want to play and it’s hard enough keeping a second goalkeeper, never mind a third. And of course the financial restrictions are there, like with everything else.

“Both of those factors combined as the reason why I couldn’t keep him on.”