VITO MANNONE was crowned Sunderland Supporters’ Player of the Year at the Stadium of Light last night, succeeding fellow keeper Simon Mignolet to the accolade.
The Echo’s Chris Young reflects on Mannone’s maiden campaign at Sunderland and why he has become such a favourite among Black Cats fans.
AFTER completing the formalities of his £2million move from Arsenal last summer, Vito Mannone and his girlfriend went apartment hunting.
First on the list was the property just vacated by Mannone’s predecessor as Sunderland goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, after the Belgian’s departure to Liverpool.
On show there was a picture of Mignolet being crowned as Sunderland Player of the Year from last April.
Mannone declared to his other half that he wanted to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps in nine months time.
It has proved to be a crystal ball moment.
After the travails of yet another campaign at the wrong end of the table, patience is thin on the terraces with the current set of players at Gus Poyet’s disposal.
But Mannone is a notable exception.
Since establishing himself as Sunderland number one, barely a match has gone by without Mannone’s name being chanted to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.
Being crowned Sunderland’s Player of the Year merely rubber-stamps Mannone’s place in the the affections of supporters. He was an understandable and overwhelming winner, albeit Fabio Borini, Wes Brown, Ki Sung-Yueng and Phil Bardsley could make decent claims.
The great thing about Mannone is that the feeling is mutual.
In an era where there is huge cynicism about the motivation of Premier League footballers and their commitment to the cause, no derogatory accusations can be levelled at Mannone.
He is one of the most engaging, honest and appreciative figures Sunderland have boasted on their books for years.
While moans and groans invariably emerge from the lips of players at any club at the list of off-the-field demands - sponsors hand-shakes, press interviews etc - Mannone has welcomed them all.
After being almost an after-thought as third-choice stopper at Arsenal, Mannone has seen the other side of football. He knows not to take anything for granted.
Even after first arriving at the Stadium of Light, Mannone was something of an overlooked figure.
While Paolo Di Canio had flirted with using his fellow Italian during pre-season, it always looked to be merely a tactic to keep Westwood on his toes. The Republic of Ireland international was always pencilled in to take Mignolet’s spot as Sunderland number one.
But the likeable Westwood was almost too eager to impress in Sunderland’s sorry start to the season, albeit he was clearly a victim of the circumstances.
From the moment Mannone entered the fray for the nine-man Black Cats at Hull City and acrobatically palmed away a couple of long-range efforts, he looked a natural fit.
Inevitably, the 26-year-old benefited from the upturn in Sunderland’s fortunes under Poyet.
But as Sunderland’s results improved and the clean sheets began to add up, Mannone’s confidence soared.
He has been the one permanent signing among last summer’s questionable shopping spree to have paid off.
There were spectacular saves on a par with Mignolet’s highlights reel from last season, while he was also sufficiently comfortable with his distribution that he was an easy fit for Poyet’s possession-based philosophy.
And then there was Mannone’s crowning moment at Old Trafford.
That penalty shoot-out success in the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg was one for the ages.
The 9,000 Sunderland fans crammed inside Old Trafford hailed Mannone and then his team-mates similarly burst into song, chanting his name, when the players returned to the dressing room.
Even having to wait a couple of hours after the game to complete a mandatory drugs test, didn’t dampen Mannone’s mood.
Ironically, it was Manchester United who had been linked as one possible suitor for Mannone, albeit the former Hull loanee surely would have snubbed the prospect of resuming life as a bench-warmer for one of the Premier League’s heavyweights.
But Mannone’s form for Sunderland hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Should Sunderland’s potentially remarkable reprieve in the relegation battle fall flat and the Black Cats do indeed plummet into the Championship, then there will be a fear that the vultures will circle the carcass for Mannone, who only has a year remaining on his contract.
That howler at Manchester City last week may just put off some of them. If there was a blessing to come from such an agonising moment, then that could be it.
But Mannone won’t be in any hurry to leave the Stadium of Light.
He has formed a genuine bond with these supporters, particularly after the way they continued to chant his name after the mistake at the Etihad Stadium.
It was no surprise that the love-in was reciprocated last night.