VITO MANNONE and Sunderland’s commitment to one another has been cemented over the last week.
The reigning Player of the Year has gone out of his way to rubbish talk that he has asked to leave the Stadium of Light, while Sunderland have activated the two-year extension clause in the Italian’s contract.
But as CHRIS YOUNG reports, the battle between Mannone and new signing Costel Pantilimon to start the Premier League curtain-raiser at West Brom will prove to be one of the most intriguing developing narratives of pre-season.
SUNDERLAND’S squad will have that back-to-school feeling on Saturday when they report to the Academy of Light to undergo the rigourous rounds of post-summer testing.
Pre-season training will then begin in earnest 48 hours later, as Gus Poyet oversees six weeks of preparation before the opening day trip to West Brom.
But the options at Poyet’s disposal on the first day of pre-season will be a far cry from the squad list on the back of the Baggies programme on August 16.
Only half of the first-team squad from the Great Escape remains, although three seemingly astute Bosman signings have filled in some of the holes.
But there are still huge gulfs to be addressed over the next couple of months – a full-back or two, another centre-half or two, a central midfielder or two, a winger or two and maybe another striker.
Realistically, Sunderland require another seven or eight signings before they can be comfortable with their summer business after the departures of seven out-of-contract players and five loanees at the end of last season.
Arguably, the only two positions where Poyet can currently boast any serious competition are at either end of the pitch.
Regardless of their diverse stock among supporters and starkly contrasting fortunes last season, Connor Wickham, Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore will all hope to be leading Sunderland’s line in the campaign’s curtain-raiser (presuming the club are not tempted by any offers for the latter pair).
Fitness and pre-season form will play a part in Poyet’s thinking, but, given Wickham’s contribution to Sunderland’s continued existence in the Premier League, the 21-year-old former Ipswich starlet has to be firm favourite to remain first-choice.
But the identity of Sunderland’s goalkeeper is far more uncertain.
The selection battle has the potential to be THE major sub-plot of pre-season. It promises to be a decision that plagues Poyet throughout those sleepless early hours of the morning as he ponders his starting XI.
By rights, there should be little question of Vito Mannone starting at The Hawthorns.
There were few – if any – quibbles over Mannone being crowned Sunderland’s Player of the Year in May after harnessing his inner Ghostbuster to banish the haunting loss of Simon Mignolet.
Aside from that agonising “kitten with a ball of wool” moment at Manchester City, Mannone was nigh-on impeccable in his contribution towards both top-flight survival and the passage to Wembley.
Understandably, it made the Italian a favourite on the terraces, and, without a trace of being sycophantic, the feeling is genuinely mutual.
Mannone has relished his role and responsibilities at being a Sunderland player after being second fiddle at Arsenal, and takes his status among supporters very seriously.
If any proof were needed, the 26-year-old’s decision to instruct his camp to contact the Echo in order to rubbish the reports from Italy that he had handed in a transfer request, spoke volumes of his feelings towards Sunderland fans.
Sunderland clearly realise Mannone’s value too after activating the two-year extension on his contract, as the Echo revealed last week.
The logical conclusion drawn, after the release of fellow keepers Keiren Westwood and Oscar Ustari at the end of last season, was that the Black Cats would simply land another back-up to Mannone.
But long before the capture of Costel Pantilimon, there were whispers in footballing circles that Sunderland were targeting a new number one, with Mannone relegated to second choice.
It scarcely seemed believable.
Considering the scale of the incomings needed at the Stadium of Light, why would Sunderland use precious resources by investing in the sizeable wages required for another front-line stopper?
Yet the murmurs have proved to have substance, with Sunderland sources suggesting that Pantilimon has indeed been signed with a view to being first-choice in Poyet’s first full season in charge.
The logic for Poyet and sporting director Lee Congerton is that competition breeds success.
If Sunderland had signed a keeper who was happy to bench-warm, it would have set a dangerous precedent of complacency in the squad.
Even if it was only subconsciously, Mannone would have known there was no-one behind him to genuinely push him to maintain his level of performances.
As it is now, Mannone has been surprised by Pantilimon’s capture, but is already eyeing the challenge of remaining a first-team regular.
That will be a tall order though – no pun intended – against the 6ft 8in Pantilimon.
Arsenal were mentioned as possible suitors for Pantilimon, and Sunderland genuinely feel they have secured a coup in landing him on a Bosman. Handing the stopper a four-year deal is testament to their intentions.
The Romanian international, like Mannone during his Arsenal days, had grown weary of being restricted to a bit-part role behind Joe Hart at Manchester City.
Manuel Pellegrini clearly recognised Pantilimon’s ability by showing no hesitation in throwing the 27-year-old into the fold when Hart’s form came under severe scrutiny last Autumn.
But Hart was always going to regain his first-choice spot and, for all Manchester City’s intentions of tying Pantilimon down to a new deal, it was never on the cards for him.
He was too eager to play regularly.
Pantilimon is not a player arriving on Wearside with the intention of getting cramp in his backside from constant bench-warming.
The next month-and-a-half will genuinely test the clarity of Poyet’s thinking.
Does he keep faith with the goalkeeper who has done little wrong and can hardly be accused of deserving to be dropped?
Or does he opt for the new boy with the reputation, stature and pure physical presence?
The commencement of this battle will be one worth watching.