ItalyAdam DigbyComment

Hull Aint a Bad Place to be

ItalyAdam DigbyComment

Italy's current crop of goalkeepers is the envy of many rivals. Adam Digby adds another name to the list, one who has chosen a very different path to success.

During last summers World Cup, following the injury to the talismanic Gigi Buffon, attention turned to the alleged dearth of talent behind the former Parma goalkeeper. Now however - perhaps more than at any time since the Juventus legend became Italy's undisputed number one - for once this widely help belief proved to be unfounded,

Experienced campaigners such as his current colleague Marco Storari and Napoli's ultra-consistent Morgan De Sanctis have probably missed their chance, frustratingly enjoying their best years while Buffon is at his peak, a fate that has also befallen Francesco Toldo, Christian Abbiati and Flavio Roma.

But with Palermo's fabulously talented Salvatore Sirigu leading the charge there is a plethora of young shot-stoppers eagerly awaiting the day that the player dubbed 'Superman' hangs up his gloves. Bologna's Emiliano Viviano (co-owned by Inter) is certainly part of that group as is the man who replaced Buffon in South Africa, Federico Marchetti (now that he has resolved his issues with Cagliari). Even further down the Azzurri pecking order are young talents such as Carlo Pinsoglio, Mattia Perin and Andrea Seculin coming through.

One man caught between these two groups however has taken a different path. Never aligned with one of Serie A's big clubs, Vito Mannone of Arsenal left the peninsula at a young age, Lured by a combination of prestige, the quality development program in place at the North London club and of course the vast wealth of English football, he followed the trail previously blazed by Giuseppe Rossi, Arturo Lupoli and - most recently - Manchester United's Federico Macheda.

Born - as his name would suggest - to a Sicilian family now living in Desio in the province of Monza, he entered the ranks of nearby Atalanta, and a youth system that is rightly regarded as among the best in Europe, having produced such fabulous talents as Alessio Tacchinardi, Giampaolo Pazzini and Roberto Donadoni. As with so many members of his current squad, Arsene Wenger took advantage of the favourable EPL rules to sign the then 17-year-old 'keeper to a permanent contract on July 1 2005, paying the Bergamo club €350,000 in compensation.

A loan move to Barnsley at what was really such a delicate stage in his development lasted little over a month, and the Italian returned to be schooled in the Gunner's youth and reserve teams, while receiving occasional call ups to the full side. He was named substitute in every round of the League Cup - habitually used as a proving ground by Arsenal under the Frenchman - during the 2007/08 campaign. At the end of the same season his name also began to appear among the substitutes in the Premier League but he failed to make a single appearance in either competition.

The following term would see him become part of the first team squad on a regular basis, although firmly third choice behind Manuel Almunia and Łukasz Fabiański. Indeed it would take until the very last game of the season and a routine victory over Stoke City for him to finally make his first start for a club he had by then been at for four years.

A far from meteoric rise, and really his problems were only just beginning. An unexpected Champions League bow came early last season in a Group Stage encounter with Belgian outfit Standard Liege on what must have been a massive occasion to make only his second career appearance. Conceding two early goals, albeit one via the penalty spot, would do little to alleviate those feelings, but the eventual 3-2 win would improve the hugely nerve-wracking experience.

From there his confidence grew, and a number of good displays followed, peppered with an impressive number of clean sheets, particularly a notable man-of-the-match performance away at Fulham. A total of eight appearances, during which Arsenal were unbeaten, was evidence enough for Wenger to offer him a new contract which the player happily signed.

Yet from there he seemingly fallen out of favour with the former Monaco boss, and found himself on the outside looking in as the club turned instead to a constantly rotating choice between Fabiański, Manuel Almunia and a man following a very similar career path to Mannone in 20-year-old Polish starlet Wojciech Szczęsny. Jamie Sanderson, creator of the marvelous Young Guns Blog is one observer who has enjoyed seeing the Italian's improvement and development, telling me;

"Arsenal fans wrote him off when he went to Hull, but he relished the opportunity and got stuck in. They were facing relegation when he went there, now they've transformed their season. His mentality seems to be improving and that was the only thing holding. Some thing he's rash and temperamental, but I think he's a very good prospects with all the raw qualities needed. I suspect he won't eventually make the grade at Arsenal, just because of Szczesny's development, but I wouldn't be surprised if he went on to be a fine goalie when he's 25-27"

All of which brings us to the current situation. Forced to leave the club he has called home for a huge portion of his life as he searched for regular first-team football, Mannone chose to drop down a division and join Championship side Hull on an initial six month loan deal. The Tiger's, managed by Nigel Pearson, are looking for an instant return to the Premier League following last seasons relegation to the second tier of English football.

It was a brave decision for the stopper, who could have more than likely found a Serie A club willing to take a chance on the former Under-21 International such is his reputation within Italy. He enjoyed an excellent start to the season at the KC Stadium, keeping four clean sheets in seven appearances before a thigh injury caused his spell to be cut short. After returning to Arsenal for treatment, the clubs agreed an extension until the end of the season despite him being at least a month away from full fitness.

As can clearly be seen, it has hardly been a conventional path to first team action and regular appearances, but it is difficult to argue that he has been proven right thus far. Leaving Italy at just seventeen could not have been easy, and unlike Lupoli or Rossi the goalkeeper is seemingly thriving under difficult circumstances. Still perhaps five years short of his peak Vito Mannone has already played on the biggest stage and few would bet against a swift return.

Follow Adam on Twitter @Adz77, for more insight into the Italian game, past and present.