FANCIFUL transfer story of the week – and I know there’s a few around – has to be the line that Manchester United were ready to take Vito Mannone from Sunderland in the current transfer window.
Even if there was a germ of truth in the claim, the idea that Gus Poyet would be tempted to sell the only senior keeper on his books was laughable.
Sure enough, the Black Cats’ boss was quick to put the record straight when the Echo caught up with him this week – pointing out with a smile that he’s in the market to bring a goalkeeper IN to the Academy of Light this month, not ship his main one out.
And yet if Manchester United’s David Moyes was impressed after witnessing first-hand the Italian in action in the club’s Capital One semi-final first leg against Sunderland, no-one would be surprised.
The tracking work of Moyes and his scouts is the stuff of legend in football, and if he has been tracking Mannone he cannot have failed to see the potential.
For Mannone has been the largely unsung hero of Sunderland’s revival under Gus Poyet.
The Uruguayan has done so much right at the Stadium of Light since his arrival at the Stadium of Light, but, in the case of his keepers, he has fallen lucky; or rather Keiren Westwood has fallen unluckily.
Not that Westwood too might not have prospered as Sunderland’s defensive solidity was restored by the new head coach.
But the reality is, that Mannone’s displays have played a major part in keeping Sunderland in games or helping them win them over the last few months.
Mannone has conceded 12 goals in the 12 Premier League games he has been involved, at an average of a goal a game; Westwood’s 12 Premier League games saw him concede 24 times, an average of two per game.
Even those statistics are slightly misleading on Mannone’s behalf because four of those goals were conceded in just one game – the 4-3 defeat by Chelsea – which masks the fact that he has kept four clean sheets; the first league shut-outs of Sunderland’s season.
Incidentally, Simon Mignolet, the outstanding young keeper that Mannone hopes to prove a long-term replacement for at the Stadium of Light, is currently conceding at a rate of more than a goal a game at fourth-placed Liverpool, where the rearguard should be expected to be under less pressure.
Last season, when Mignolet was a league ever-present for Sunderland and rightly and deservedly won the Player of the Season awards for a magnificent contribution, he conceded 54 goals in 38 games at an average of 1.42 goals per game.
OK, “comparisons are odious,”, as the poet said.
But they’re also handy, necessary and inevitable and, by whatever yardstick you care to employ, Mannone has made a superb start to his Sunderland career.
He deserves the Friday Spotlight on him because although his efforts have been acknowledged, they have not been particularly lauded.
Why should this be?
Mannone has all the attributes of a top-class goalkeeper – at 6ft 2in and powerfully built, he’s a great shape for a keeper, he’s brave, he’s agile, has excellent reflexes, distributes well and looks to cut out danger quickly.
Other areas, such as his communication with his team-mates and his decision-making, will improve.
He came in for rare criticism in the Fulham game last week for not coming out for the corner across his six-yard box from which Steve Sidwell scored.
But a bit like a Wes Brown error, mistakes have been so few from the Italian that they tend to be amplified when they happen.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Mannone does not get the credit he deserves – that and the fact that, after Mignolet last season, Sunderland fans have got used to seeing regular shot-stopping heroics.
Mignolet is regarded as one of the best young keepers in Europe. He is 25. But Mannone is exactly the same age, although granted he looks older than his years.
The perception of the Italian when he arrived at the Stadium of Light last summer was that when he was good he was very good, when he was bad, he was horrid.
He had been thought of that way during his loan spell at Hull and at parent club Arsenal, the reason why it was thought he had not made the grade after eight years at the club was that he had made one or two too many high-profile costly errors in games.
He’s still only 25 though – young by goalkeeping standards – but already with seven seasons of Premier League experience under his belt and the scope to get better.
For the moment, though, he is doing very well, thank you very much.
And although there are positions that Poyet is looking to improve at Sunderland, it says everything that his first-choice goalkeeper is not one of them.
Maybe this is Mannone’s purple patch and a blip or two is just around the corner – isn’t that true of every keeper?
But what cannot be beyond dispute is that Mannone’s displays have provided the base from which Sunderland have built a platform for the Great Escape.
He’s the strong silent type, rather than the flashy pop star but on the quiet, the Quiet Man has worked wonders.