SUNDERLAND gave Keiren Westwood a belated birthday present on Saturday and the keeper took it with both gloves – much to the gratitude of watching manager Steve Bruce.
The Republic of Ireland international turned 27 last Sunday and it might not have been the most celebratory of occasions, with the former Coventry keeper still to feature in a Premier League game since his Bosman move in the summer.
But that changed on Saturday when injury to Simon Mignolet in the 50th minute against Aston Villa, saw Westwood come on to play well and make the key save of the game to deny Darren Bent midway through the second half.
It was a quietly assured performance from the Sunderland number two and afterwards, Bruce was quick to point out that Westwood’s absence from his starting line-ups so far has had nothing to do with the goalkeeper’s ability.
“If Keiren had been an outfield player, he might have had a chance by now,” said Bruce. “But there’s only ever room for one goalkeeper in the side and Simon was great for us last season and deserved the chance to start the current one.
“I’ve been really pleased with Keiren though, because he has been so impressive on the training ground and extremely professional when he wasn’t starting games.
“All that hard work he has done in training has paid off because he has pulled off a great save. He saved the day for us and made sure Darren Bent didn’t get the headlines.”
Bruce had always feared Sunderland’s record signing might come back to haunt him on his first return to the Stadium of Light since quitting the club to join Villa in January.
But Westwood’s athleticism denied the striker his one really clear-cut chance and Bruce could breathe a sigh of relief.
“The sort of player Bent is, he’s always going to get one chance in a game,” said Bruce. “I’m just glad he wasn’t able to take it on this occasion, thanks largely to my goalkeeper’s excellence.”
Westwood will get a chance to consolidate his place in the side with Simon Mignolet’s badly broken nose seemingly certain to rule him out of this Saturday’s trip to take on Manchester United at Old Trafford.
The Belgian keeper underwent an operation yesterday, with Bruce admitting: “It’s a bad one.
“Simon was brave enough to go up for it and there’s always a risk involved in doing that, but that’s what he’s all about, it’s the courage all top keepers need.”