SIMON Mignolet has admitted he will be taking a step into the unknown if he starts Sunderland’s opening game of the season against Birmingham, but the untried 22-yearold insists he is ready to rise to the challenge.

Black Cats boss Steve Bruce has pursued David James and Joe Hart in an attempt to secure a short-term replacement for the injured Craig Gordon, who is expected to miss the first six games of the new campaign.

James has joined Bristol City, while Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini is not expected to make a decision on Hart’s future until the final stages of the transfer window, so Mignolet is currently the only fit senior goalkeeper on Sunderland’s books.

Given that the 22-year-old’s previous experience is with Belgian side Sint-Truidense, a Premier League start in nine days time would represent a huge leap in class. But while he admits he cannot be certain about how he will handle the pressure, the youngster remains confident in his own ability.

“Nobody knows if I am ready – it will only show when I play games,” said Mignolet, who will start Sunderland’s final pre-season game at Hoffenheim on Sunday. “If you ask me, ‘Are you ready for the Premier League’, even I do not know yet.

“There is no way you can know until you have tried it, and I have obviously not played a single game in England yet.

“We will only know if the chance comes along, but I am confident in my ability and looking forward to the challenge.”

When Gordon broke his arm on the training ground last month, Bruce clearly harboured reservations about Mignolet’s ability to start the season as Sunderland’s number one.

Bruce held talks with James’ agent in Portugal and spoke to Mancini to discuss the possibility of recruiting Hart on a six-month loan.

That could still happen – “We’ve asked the question of City and we now just have to wait and see what they say,”

said Bruce yesterday – but it looks increasingly likely that Mignolet will start against Birmingham.

Other goalkeepers might have been offended at their manager’s public pursuit of a more experienced replacement, but the Belgian is unperturbed.

“You need to understand the situation,” said Mignolet.

“I am only 22 years old and I have never played a single game in the Premier League.

“I’ve come from Belgium and no one really knows who I am, so it was always going to be difficult for the club when Craig got injured. It’s hard for a manager to say, ‘Look, we will go on with him’.

“I understand why the club are looking for another goalkeeper.

They are trying to protect me as well. It’s not my job to talk about what they are doing though – the only thing I can do is work hard and try to prove I am ready for the Premier League.”

Mignolet’s preparations have included outings against Hull City and Benfica in Albufeira and last weekend’s display at the Walker’s Stadium, and while he admits he is still coming to terms with the increased physicality of the English game, he feels he is improving with every week that passes.

“The first few weeks of training have gone well,” he said. “It’s been very different to what I was used to in Belgium, but it’s been good. It’s been getting better and better, and when we were over in Portugal, it got even better still.

“I have talked with the goalkeeping coach (Nigel Spink) about a few things and we’ve been working on getting me used to English football. I thought I did all right last weekend (at Leicester), but there are still more improvements I can make.”

■ League One side Oldham Athletic are close to confirming season-long loan deals for Sunderland duo Jean-Yves M’Voto and Oumare Tounkara.