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Interview: Ex-Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone speaks honestly about playing for Gus Poyet

In part two of our interview with former Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone we talk all about his time playing under Gus Poyet, the 2014 League Cup final and the ‘great escape’ which followed it.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

RR: One thing I’m curious about is this: Phil Bardsley scores in the 120th minute, I go six rows in front, 9000 Sunderland fans are going crazy, the celebrations are wild - but by the time we lift our heads up, Javier Hernandez has equalised... One minute, as a fan, you think “I’m going to Wembley!” and surely as a goalkeeper you feel the same, then suddenly, within a minute you’re thrust into a penalty shoot out and tasked with being the hero. How do you prepare for that mentally?

VM: I’m always completely honest. I had the feeling before the game started that I could be important for my team.

It’s strange enough saying this because I can’t predict things, but the way my season was going, the way the cup run was going - I had played well against Chelsea in the quarter final in a tough game that went to extra-time - so I always felt this could be the same.

That’s why I didn’t get too excited (when Bardsley scored) - this game was crazy enough during the 90 minutes. They had few chances, we kept them at bay. Even when we scored though, I felt they’d still throw something at us - which they did.

They had one more chance before the penalties from a free-kick and I had to make another save before the penalties.

It was a very tense game, it wasn’t good for the nerves of the fans! But when penalties came along I said to myself “this is the chance to make my mark and helps the club, the team and the fans to have a good night”.

RR: Talking of tough games - you had an easy afternoon a few weeks later at St. James Park. Why did we perform so well that day and beat Newcastle so, so easily?

VM: Everything clicked from that moment. The confidence was so high. We knew exactly how to play. That day we were the team we were supposed to be and played exactly how the manager had always wanted.

Every single player performed at their best and I felt like going to St. James was fantastic. You get into the tiger’s cage, a place where you’re facing the enemy and the fans that want you to lose the most.

We went there and won, but we also imposed our game on them, our style was perfect. When you have your back against the wall, that’s where the best wins come.

We really wanted to win, but we wanted to win in that way. It looked easy, but it wasn’t because you had 50k fans against you.

The away fans were far away up in the top tier, really high, you can’t even see them! Every time we scored Fabio would jump on the hoardings to celebrate because he wanted to be closer to you guys!

A great day and one of the special moments of that miracle year.

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Barclays Premier League Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images

RR: The big, big day came shortly afterwards - Wembley. I’ve spoken to Seb Larsson about this recently. What a fabulous day full of huge positives and great memories BUT ultimately we lost. What are your memories of that day, both positive and negative?

VM: It was unbelievable. Unbelievable memories. The fans were there all the way on the trip down to London. The closer we got to the stadium I tried to focus on the game and keep the emotion to one side, but you can’t hold it (the emotion) really.

It was a sea of red and white colours everywhere across the city. We knew everyone was coming from Sunderland for this game and we really wanted to win this cup after Old Trafford and beating Chelsea. It wasn’t easy, the club had not been in a final for so long.

The run up to the game... well, that was amazing. I went out of the tunnel for the warm up and I had goosebumps, and I have played big games before - I’ve played for Arsenal in the Champions League, but I think that game for Sunderland at Wembley, seeing all the Sunderland fans and them singing my name in the warm up - it’s a great memory to have and something I can show my kids in the future and be proud of it.

RR: Does the disappointment of losing still hurt? Was it hard to take? It’s not like we didn’t play well - it took some wonder goals to beat us.

VM: (sighs) It was so painful, so, so painful. I can’t describe it because it’s one of the most painful ones in my career. We were so close to winning the cup and performing a miracle.

For 65 mins, we were in control and were leading the game, against Manchester City - one of the best sides in the whole of Europe. We were the underdogs, but we played with heart and fight - we played with full intention to win that game.

I thought we were magnificent that day. It was painful, but we could hold our heads high.

I thought it was going to be us, for the run we had - we deserved that cup, but we were beating my some magic from some top quality players. Two special moments for them in two minutes.

I have to admit, I think we played better than Manchester City, despite them coming out with the win.

I have it in my stomach all the time, it’s hard to remember sometimes because if I could go back and play the game again, maybe try even harder - we’d have done anything to lift that cup for Sunderland.

RR: So was Yaya Toure’s goal a shot or a cross?

VM: (Laughs) Oh - unfortunately it was a shot. I have no idea how he thought about shooting in his head.

I have watched it time and time again, but I think even if I stood in the top corner I wouldn’t have saved it - the way the ball dipped and swerved. Sometimes you have to hold your hands up and say well done. Yaya has that in his locker, but unfortunately he decided to do it when it was most important for his team.

It changed the game didn’t it? ‘Cause Man. City couldn’t get past us at all till then, we were so solid and counter attacking them - we had other chances - Fabio had one, Fletcher had one at the end.

They needed that to change the game and the goal hit us hard - it felt like if we couldn’t win that day, when could we? We played so well and he did something like that.

I know we lost, but that run, the day at Old Trafford and the memories we had - it felt like we won something.

RR: You think after that run, you think the crazy games must be over, and our form dipped a little bit but it didn’t take long before the great escape - which was such a bizarre run!

VM: That defeat did effect us, I have to admit it effected me. The whole team needed a month to get over it - we couldn’t seem to play or react like we had done. We were so close to touching the sky, and we didn’t...

RR: There was a moment though - ironically against Man. City - when we were seven points adrift and we went to the Etihad, the same Manchester City who could pull the magic out like they did at Wembley, yet we battered them. It happened out of nowhere. Sadly for you, despite the performance, you did make a heartbreaking mistake for the second goal. However, everyone got behind you and supported you because you’d had such a good season, we knew mistakes can happen. As we know though, the whole team went on an unbeatable run to secure safety after that. How did you recover from that mistake and who helped?

VM: That was moment that taught me a lot, much like the final.

It took us a month to react to the final defeat and we probably didn’t react till that night. As you said, we battered them but I made a mistake in the final minutes. It wasn’t a strong shot and I should have had my hands in a different way.

Straight after the team and the manager helped me out, we had Chelsea to play on the Sunday, we were seven points adrift but ultimately we had almost beaten Man. City again and this time on their own turf.

Basically it was a moment where you think there’s no time to dwell on this and if you want to show who you are as a player and person like I had done all season, now was the time. I had a good season and had done that, but I needed to show it one more time for the club, my team-mates and my family. I wanted to show I was good goalkeeper in the Prem.

Moments like the mistake at Man. City can happen to anyone. It happened to De Gea at Old Trafford, I’ve seen it happen to Petr Cech - for a goalkeeper it’s about the next game, not dwelling on it and feeling sorry for yourself. If I do that (dwell on it) then not only do I destroy myself, but I destroy the team’s chance of performing a miracle.

We didn’t win the League Cup, so we had to win this miracle relegation battle. We thought why not us, why not Sunderland.

FBL-ENG-PR-MAN CITY-SUNDERLAND Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

RR: Talking of team spirit, with the way things have gone at Sunderland, sometimes fingers are pointed at the the longer serving players like Lee Cattermole and John O’Shea and fans can think “are they they problem?” - what do you think of that theory?

VM: The frustration of fans is understandable when you have negative times. Such passion fans like Sunderland, it does hit you, but you can’t forget that it hits the players too when things don’t go right on the pitch. The players don’t want these negatives times.

I can talk for myself and people like Lee, for example, as he is a great example. I can talk for John O’Shea too, who I know very well - they are both leaders, they lead every player in the dressing room to do the best for themselves, the fans and the club.

The frustration is completely understandable, they are difficult moments and the fans are sometimes against you because they are frustrated but I can say that Lee Cattermole and John O’Shea are great servants of the club who always wanted the best for the club and the fans.

If you want me to be completely honest, the mistakes at Sunderland are not always to do with the players, they were many mistakes made behind the curtain.

For attitude and the want to be successful, John and Lee were at the top. The mistakes were made off the field but when we went on the pitch, we gave everything we could.

RR: Typical Sunderland, we have an amazing end of the season and everything is positive, but things go sour - and sour fast. You had a personally difficult period where we lost 8-0 at Southampton and 2-0 at home to Arsenal. Gus then dropped you and played Costel Pantilimon - how was that period for you and did Gus explain his decision?

VM: The problems were, unfortunately, at the beginning of the season for me - it wasn’t the Southampton game or being dropped. It was before. People don’t know this, but it’s many years since I have left and I want to be honest.

I played my heart out the season before, the club promised me many things and I felt a little like the club didn’t treat me right. They changed Director of Football in the summer and he (Lee Congerton) was after me from day one, so I always felt like what happened was going to happen.

Basically my contract was extended as they had that option, but it was the same contract with nothing new, although I had been offered a new and improved contract from the March before based on how I had performed. It didn’t happen, so as a player I was hurt because I played with my heart for the club.

That summer I received a call from him (Congerton) and he told me he was going to bring another goalkeeper in and he wanted to challenge me. I had many offers from other Premier League clubs and also clubs in the Serie A and Gus didn’t want me to go anywhere, despite Congerton bringing in another goalkeeper. I said to him “I love this club, I love these fans and I am going to fight to be the number one for them” - I needed to fight against this (the feeling Congerton didn’t want him) and I thought with my heart - if I had thought with my head, I’d have probably left for the treatment I had from this guy, despite the season I had.

He didn’t want me there, he wanted a new goalkeeper. I wasn’t in the right mind from the beginning of the season ‘cause of this and you can’t play to your best when you aren’t in the right mind, but Gus convinced me to stay, but he had to make a choice because Congerton had brought in certain players and he had to play them.

Manchester City v Sunderland - Capital One Final Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

RR: Did Gus agree with Lee Congerton’s decision to try and move you on? I only ask as you don’t speak with any disdain towards Gus.

VM: No, no, he was a manager who really loved me for what we went through. When you go through a season like we both did the season before, everyone had a good relationship with him.

He was really great and had achieved what many managers didn’t at Sunderland so you have to respect him. Unfortunately it didn’t work out as he wanted certain players and he didn’t get them as someone else was deciding which players to bring in - not him.

Those mistakes I spoke about earlier, this is the type of thing I mean. It effects the club on the pitch, unfortunately.

RR: He wasn’t here long and you didn’t play much under him, but how was your relationship with Dick Advocaat?

VM: Ah... a strange one. He wasn’t like Gus.

Gus chose the players based on training and what they were showing during the week. Dick kind of didn’t do that - he didn’t have much time to decide so he just went with whatever side got the result on the weekend.

I think we were lucky that year, to be completely honest. We grinded results - two penalties at home to Southampton, a deflected goal at Everton, the draw at Arsenal. It didn’t feel like the previous season where we had to do so much to stay up.

I respect the job Dick did though, he gave the team some great character and gave the team a really tough mentally to grind our the results and the points that we needed.

Look out for part three of our interview here on the site tomorrow!

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