Simon Mignolet returns to his old club on Sunday barely knowing what to expect from the post-Paolo Di Canio wreckage. In addition to selling the goalkeeper to Liverpool over the summer, Sunderland brought in a dozen new players, and now find themselves at the foot of the table, minus a manager and still awaiting their first win.
"You never like to see one of your old teams in trouble, but I think Sunderland have enough quality to turn things around," Mignolet says. "What you must remember is that Sunderland were in trouble towards the end of last season when Paolo Di Canio arrived. They responded with two massive results in the first two weeks, beating Newcastle and Everton, and in the end that was the key to survival."
Sunderland should always be grateful to Di Canio for that, though Mignolet can confirm the new manager had not actually started to change anything when those victories were achieved, he was still just observing and assessing the situation. When he did begin to make changes Sunderland became less impressive, and Mignolet feels what everyone outside the club suspects might be true. Di Canio was always unlikely to be a long-term solution, but Sunderland needed to do something, and simply bringing in a new manager at the right time was what saved them.
"I had a good relationship with [Di Canio's predecessor] Martin O'Neill, when he left it was a blow, but things happen for a reason," he says. "In the two games after they changed manager we produced the performances that kept us up. It's only natural that players will want to show a new manager what he can do."
Mignolet has been described as Liverpool's best signing of the summer, and while that may be faint praise depending on your opinion of the other acquisitions Brendan Rodgers has made, there is no denying that his saves and clean sheets in the opening games were instrumental in propelling his new club to the top of the league.
Selling the goalkeeper for £9m represented decent business for Sunderland, who paid Sint-Truiden of Belgium just £2m to bring him to England three years ago in the face of interest from PSV Eindhoven and Twente. Steve Bruce, the then Sunderland manager, had been tipped off by the former Birmingham goalkeeper and fellow Belgian Nico Vaesen. There is a whole team of Belgians playing for Premier League clubs and, while Mignolet has no ready answer to the frequently posed question about how such a small nation can produce so many excellent players, he is glad to see his country firmly on the football map after years of being overlooked.
"The main reason there are so many Belgians in the Premier League at the moment is that once the first ones arrived, the likes of Kompany, Vermaelen and Fellaini, I think English football suddenly realised what Belgium was capable of and what sort of quality was being produced," he says. "Before that big clubs never seemed to rate players who were only playing in the Belgian league. There seemed to be a feeling that switching from the Belgian league to the Premier League was too big a step and therefore too big a risk. It needed a few players to prove otherwise then it paved the way for others."
Such has been the impact of players such as Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Jan Vertonghen in the Premier league, in addition to the pioneering trio already mentioned, people are already installing Belgium among the favourites for the next World Cup. Mignolet smiles. He has heard this one before too. "We aren't even qualified yet," he says. "And we didn't qualify for the last one either, so if there has been an explosion in the quality of Belgian football it is a fairly recent phenomenon.
"What we want to do is first get to Brazil – we still have games to play against Croatia and Wales and they are both good teams – then concentrate on putting up a good show in the tournament. We don't want to do any talking in advance of results, because at international level we haven't achieved anything yet. But now we have so many players playing for big teams in big competitions the overall experience of the squad has increased. Our confidence has improved. At the moment we have a very strong national squad, and it is quite a young one."
At 25, Mignolet himself is still relatively young for a goalkeeper, and he has yet to establish himself as a fixture in the national side having been displaced by Chelsea's even younger Thibaut Courtois, at present on loan at Atlético Madrid. "You want to play, you don't want to be on the bench, I'm no different to anyone else in that regard," he says.
"I want to get back into the team but there is competition throughout the whole squad, it is not just the goalkeeping position. I just have to keep working and keep hoping, but overall it is a healthy situation to be in."
Mignolet's outlook is certainly healthier than it appeared two years ago, when a collision with Emile Heskey left him with a smashed nose and fractured eye socket. Bruce described it as the worst broken nose even he had seen, and Mignolet's girlfriend, Jasmine, was almost too scared to look. "The first couple of weeks after it happened, it looked pretty bad," he says. "I had been knocked out, so I didn't really feel how painful it was.
"My missus saw my nose before I did and though it was still a mess she was quite relieved. She told me she had been worried there wasn't going to be a nose any more. The surgeons did a really good job but it meant I had to wear a mask when I began playing again.
"When I first came back to training I even wore a cricket helmet for a while, they found one hanging around somewhere at the training ground and it came in handy while the mask was being made. The danger wasn't so much breaking my nose again, it was more my eye socket that I was worried about. The mask was much better, but I was glad of the cricket helmet at the time. Being from Belgium I of course had no idea what it was used for. I'm more familiar with cricket now, my coach explained all the rules to me, and I even watch it from time to time. I'm not sure how much I like it, but I know what's going on."
Simon Mignolet was speaking at the launch of sellsgoalkeeperproducts.com