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Sunderland poised to kick-start Mignolet contract talks
MARTIN O'Neill is hoping Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet signs a new contract before the end of the season to ensure mounting speculation over his future does not spill over into the summer.
Mignolet, whose current contract is due to expire in the summer of 2015, has been Sunderland's most consistent player by a distance this season, resulting in increased speculation linking him with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.
Earlier this week, the 24-year-old was forced to distance himself from the remarks of one of his representatives, who suggested he would have to leave the Black Cats to cement his place in the Belgian national team.
O'Neill accepts that Mignolet had nothing to do with the comments, however he is keen to progress contract talks as quickly as possible in order to guard against losing one of the brightest young goalkeepers in the country.
“We would really like to try and tie him down to a longer contract,” said the Sunderland manager, who was celebrating his 61st birthday yesterday. “We've talked about that for some time and I would like to firm that up as soon as we could, and I think he is receptive to it.
“I spoke to Nico Claesen – who incidentally is his agent, but was not the fella who made this week's comments – around about the January transfer window, when Nico mentioned a couple of players we might have an interest in.
“I said to him at the time – and he was pretty happy with it – fine, we'll deal with it when the transfer window ends.
“A month has gone on and while Simon has been very reassuring about the fact he wants to do something, it's better for all of us if we can get something sorted out. There's obviously goodwill from all parties to do that.”
The complicating factor could be interest from elsewhere, with Manchester United in particular expected to be in the market for a new goalkeeper this summer.
Chelsea could also be seeking another stop-stopper depending on who is appointed to replace Rafael Benitez at the end of the season, and given the quality of his performances over the last 12 months, Mignolet's name is sure to be linked with any goalkeeping vacancy that arises.
The inference from the quotes that emanated this week was that the Belgian, who was recently named North-East Football Writers' Association Player of the Year, would benefit from swapping Sunderland for a more high-profile employer.
However, O'Neill vehemently disagrees, claiming that at this stage of his career, Mignolet needs to be somewhere where he is pretty much guaranteed first-team football.
“A club like Manchester United have a number of very, very good goalkeepers and sometimes they alternate them,” he said. “At this minute, Simon wants to play every single game, and other than the (Capital One) Cup match against Middlesbrough, he has actually done that. That is important for his progression.
“It's not just that he is playing every single week because we're putting him in, he's playing every week because he deserves to play every week. He's done brilliantly for us.”
Mignolet's next chance to impress comes this afternoon when Sunderland entertain Fulham looking to complete a double over the London club after November's 3-1 win at Craven Cottage.
Last weekend's 2-1 defeat to West Brom sent Sunderland slipping to 15th position in the table, and while they remain five points clear of the relegation zone, their safety cushion has gradually been eroded over the last month or so.
With games against Manchester United and Chelsea looming at the end of the month, the Black Cats could do with picking up points quickly, and O'Neill must decide whether to stick with last weekend's switch to a two-man strike force.
If Danny Graham partners Steven Fletcher in attack, one of Adam Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean will have to miss out, and recent history suggests it is likely to be the latter.
McClean made headlines for the wrong reasons again this week when he professed his love for an Irish folk song with strong links to the IRA on Twitter, but O'Neill feels he has finally won the argument and persuaded the winger to leave the social networking site.
His next challenge is to restore McClean's form to the levels it was at last season, something he feels is attainable in time.
“I still believe that if he clears his head and starts to concentrate on the game, he can get back to where he was,” said O'Neill. “James will tell you in his defence that these things are separate issues, and I am not going to argue with that. But my main concern is getting him to concentrate the mind. On the playing side of things, I will continue to be patient.”