In an exclusive interview with Goal, the Italian goalkeeper recalls how he received a tough introduction to life at the highest level
“They say sometimes that a goalkeeper is unbeatable and tonight he looked like that.”
Those were the words of Arsene Wenger immediately after Vito Mannone had announced himself to the world with a magnificent display to help Arsenal to a 1-0 win at Fulham on September 26, 2009.
It’s been nearly 10 years since that warm evening on the banks of the Thames in west London but, for the Italian shot-stopper, it still feels like yesterday.
“It was an incredible game, an incredible atmosphere,” Mannone told Goal . “I will never forget it. I got to show my talent and what I was able to do as a very young man.”
Few outside of Arsenal had heard of Mannone before that game.
He had arrived as a teenager four years earlier after signing from Atalanta and in that time he had made just three senior appearances, as well as having one short loan spell at Barnsley during the 2006-07 season.
But injuries to Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski gave him his chance against Fulham and it was an opportunity he seized in breath-taking style.
A series of stunning saves kept the home side at bay and ensured Arsenal made the trip back across the capital with maximum points thanks to Robin van Persie’s second-half winner.
The Arsenal fans who were packed into the Putney End that night hailed their new hero after the game, with chants of “Vito, Vito, Vito” ringing through the west London streets long after the full-time whistle had been blown.
It was the sort of night that Mannone had dreamt about while growing up back in Italy and it’s why – nearly a decade later – he still cherishes it as one of the best moments of his career.
“That was a special game for me,” he said. “It was a dream of mine as a youngster to have a man-of-the-match performance for such a big club as Arsenal.
“So, to do that and to get the team through for a 1-0 win was amazing. It was a special night and a special reaction from the manager and the fans.
“That night will stick in my heart forever.”
Mannone first popped up on Arsenal’s radar in the summer of 2004 after being spotted by club scout Tony Banfield, who was actually in Italy to keep tabs on Parma’s promising teenage striker Arturo Lupoli.
Lupoli would also go on to join the Gunners, but it was Mannone who really caught Banfield’s eye.
“I was playing in quite an important youth tournament against Parma,” recalled Mannone.
“And in that Parma team was Giuseppe Rossi, who went to United and Arturo Lupoli, who was being scouted for Arsenal.
“I did really well in that game, we won 2-0 and I saved everything. That’s where everything started for me.”
Banfield approached Mannone in October to invite him over to London for a trial. It was a big moment, not just for Mannone but for his entire family, because his father had passed away just a month earlier.
A potential move to one of Europe’s elite clubs was the chance to start afresh, to bring some light to a dark time, so it was an opportunity that the Desio-born youngster was not going to pass up.
He travelled to London over Christmas and spent five days working with the first team as Arsene Wenger and goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton watched him closely.
“It was a difficult time for me because I had lost my Dad,” said Mannone. “This was a chance for a change of life for me and my family. It was a new opportunity in life as much as in football.
“I went for five days and had these training sessions with the first team, which was incredible.
“There was Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires. The best of the best of football. It was the sort of thing you dream of as a kid.
“I remember I was shaking at the beginning of the first session, my legs were shaking and it was very emotional for me. But when the football rolled, I just got on with it.”
And Mannone did what he needed to. Arsenal offered him a contract and he signed in the summer of 2005, immediately moving into a dressing room full of international stars.
For a teenager who had never tasted senior football before it was an exciting – but daunting – experience.
Jens Lehmann was Arsenal’s first-choice keeper at the time, while Manuel Almunia had been brought in a year earlier to provide back-up to the experienced German.
“Jens was tough as usual,” said Mannone. “I didn’t know him and he started really aggressively in training, despite the fact I was 16 or 17.
“I remember I miss-kicked a ball, so it didn’t go straight to him and it went in the net instead. He just turned around and smashed the ball against me and said ‘Don’t do that again.’
“That was my start to life with Arsenal. That told me that the standard was really high.”
Mannone made his debut for Arsenal in a pre-season friendly at Barnet soon after arriving but had to wait until May, 2009 to make his first senior appearance, when he started against Stoke on the final day of the Premier League season.
He went on to make his second appearance against Standard Liege in the Champions League the following season and also featured against Wigan in the Premier League, before enjoying his breakthrough night at Fulham in that 1-0.
“Vito played a fantastic game and the consistency is the first sign of quality,” Wenger said after the win at Craven Cottage. “He kept us in the game in some unbelievable situations.
“You would give him 10 out of 10 because everything he did was right. He has shown he has the potential to be a very good goalkeeper.”
But despite those comments, Mannone could never quite convince the Frenchman to give him an extended run in the team.
In fact, he went on to make just 19 more appearances for the first team over the next four years, despite some good performances both with the Gunners and while away on loan with Hull during the 2011-12 campaign.
So, when Sunderland came calling in the summer of 2012, Mannone decided the time was right to move on.
“It was really difficult,” he admitted. “Arsene Wenger was really special with me, he brought me over as a youngster to a new country. He gave me the chance to play for Arsenal, but he never stuck with me as much as I wanted.
“He saw my potential and the people saw my potential, but he never gave me a real chance, as he did with Wojciech [Szczesny] or Lukas. That was painful for me.
“Wojciech had all the time in the world to make his mistakes and still be able to make 200 appearances. But this is the life of a keeper.
“After the loan at Hull I did get another run, I got another 13 games, I played in the Champions League. I was good, I had a good day at Manchester United, I kept a clean sheet at Anfield and I thought, ‘Come on, now is the time to give me a chance.’
“But again, Wenger came to me before an important game and said ‘I’m sorry, I’ve decided to stick with Wojciech.’ I thought then, that was it. It was time to move on. I wanted to play Premier League football.”
Mannone went on to have some good times at Sunderland, helping them to the League Cup final in 2013-14 – saving two penalties in the Black Cats’ shoot-out victory at Manchester United in the semi-final.
He was named Sunderland’s player of the season at the end of that campaign while also picking up the supporters’ player of the year award.
And the keeper – now on loan in the United States at Minnesota United from Championship side Reading – enjoyed a special moment with Wenger when he returned to the Emirates for the first time since deciding to move on.
“He invited me into his office after the game,” said the 31-year-old. “He came to me and shook my hand and said he was really happy about my career and that he was really happy that I was showing everyone in the Premier League how good I was.
“It was a nice touch and shows why I have the respect I do for him.”
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