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Premier League

Survival was not just down to Paolo Di Canio, says former Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet

Liverpool keeper returns to old club and says ‘new manager’ syndrome led to last season’s escape

He was a student of politics. His manager was a self-confessed fascist with a fascination for Benito Mussolini. Did Simon Mignolet and Paolo Di Canio ever reach out to each other in the Sunderland canteen, whose tables had by order of the manager been swept clean of tomato ketchup?

“No, no, no! We never talked politics,” Mignolet says. “I am interested in history and that sort of thing but I am never going to be a politician once I finish with football.”

In fact, the goalkeeper and Sunderland’s now-departed manager rarely spoke and never fell out. Mostly, it was because Mignolet left for Liverpool before Di Canio was awarded the full-time contract that gave him the freedom to behave like Caligula in a tracksuit.

It was also partly because goalkeepers are different. Mignolet says he spent 95 per cent of his time with the club’s various goalkeeping coaches, one of whom, Jim McDonagh – who was removed by Di Canio – he still speaks to.

Without Mignolet’s reflexes and Steven Fletcher’s goals, Sunderland, who Mignolet’s new side meet tomorrow, would probably have been relegated last season. In the final, rudderless months under Martin O’Neill, they were sleepwalking towards the abyss. Di Canio, who was initially given the final seven games of the season to salvage the club, could claim that his two victories, over Everton and a stunning derby triumph at St James’ Park, did just that.

“When Di Canio first came, he  observed a lot in the first two weeks,” says Mignolet. “Like every new  manager, he changed little things here and there and in the first weeks we  had these massive results against Newcastle and Everton.

“Those results kept us safe and, after that, he brought in his own style and his own way of doing things which he found important. If you are a professional footballer, the manager points you in one direction and you have to follow it as well as you can.” Even if it means not making eye contact with mere members of staff at the  Stadium of Light.

But would the squad have upped its game no matter who had succeeded O’Neill? “I know what you are saying,” Mignolet replies. “If a new manager comes in, then every player in that dressing room wants to show what they are capable of and that is mostly what happened. When a Premier League team decides to sack its manager, it is for that kind of response.”

There are many more in the home dressing room at the Stadium of Light who would “do it” for Kevin Ball, Sunderland’s down-to-earth caretaker, who has been associated with the club for more than 20 years, than would have risked everything for Di Canio. Ball would not be the sort who imagines tomorrow’s result depends on whether his players had ketchup with their meals.

Mignolet knows the kind of backing Sunderland supporters will give their players against Liverpool. “Against West Brom, I made a mistake in the first 10 minutes of the game and that ended up costing us three points,” he recalls. “It was the sort of error that every goalkeeper makes in his career but the  moment it happened the Sunderland fans started clapping and singing my name. I won’t forget that and I can’t thank them enough for it.”

Mignolet began his politics degree when he was second choice for his hometown club, Sint-Truidense in Belgium, and finished it last season when Liverpool deemed him worth £9m. He may have left at the right time but he has resisted the temptation to look back with ghoulish fascination. Should the club not recover, the people who will pay the price will not be the millionaire footballers but the ordinary support staff at the Stadium of Light, the men whom Di Canio told his players to have nothing to do with.

“You never think: ‘Thank God I got out of there’. You think about the people who are still there,” he said. “You know what it is when you are struggling. If you are a masseur or a physio it is not a nice environment to be in because everything now depends on the results.”

Simon Mignolet was speaking on behalf of sellsgoalkeeperproducts.com the leading specialist brand for goalkeepers