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Interview: Ex-Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone reveals all about playing under Paolo Di Canio

In part one of our interview with former Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone we talk all about his time playing under controversial former manager Paolo Di Canio.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Manchester City - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: Hi Vito, thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to discuss your time at SAFC. How is life in America?

VM: Yeah, it’s great - a good experience so far.

RR: How does it compare to Sunderland?

VM: Two different worlds. I can’t really compare them. Sunderland is a unique place and a unique experience.

RR: Nice easy one to begin with. Who was the best player you played alongside during your time at the club and why?

VM: There’s been a few, it’s difficult to say.

We had some real veterans who had won everything - John O’Shea and Wes (Brown). Good fighters like Lee Cattermole, but I have to go for one of my good friends Jermain Defoe.

I think Jermain has been one of the best strikers in the Prem and when I was there (at Sunderland) I could understand why.

Sunderland v Everton - Premier League
Jermain was one of “the best strikers in the Prem”.
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

RR: So let’s rewind back to the time you joined the club. Looking back it was a weird summer for the club and you were one of the few successes that came from it. You were signed by Roberto De Fanti and Paolo Di Canio. How did the move come about and what convinced you to move?

VM: It was a moment that both Sunderland and my path met perfectly.

I was needing game time and I needed to have a good go at the Premier League. I had played a few games with Arsenal but I didn’t have as many chances as I wanted to. Sunderland had lost their player of the year in Simon Mignolet and needed a goalkeeper and we all know the story.

It was a good challenge to replace Mignolet and that’s why I decided to jump on board. I wanted to replicate his success. Thank fully I managed to do that, I think.

RR: What was your initial impressions of Paolo Di Canio?

VM: It was a strange one. Everything is strange with him. He was a man who wanted to win and would do everything to win.

I think his behaviour were a little overboard, but I can say he was a good coach and a very straight forward person. He was someone who did it all as a player and wanted to do the same as a coach - that’s the feeling I had.

RR: I’ve heard that pre-season training camp was the most difficult and most draining of many players careers. How was it for you?

VM: The hardest of my life. It was a very interesting one - everyone was running, even the goalkeepers who normally manage to avoid running!

Sometimes we woke up at 6:30am and it would be a gym session, some running, then the second session came straight after and then another session in the afternoon. Three sessions a day in Italy in 30 degree heat - I’m Italian and it wasn’t the best place to be in Italy either (laughs). Draining, very draining.

RR: Did you miss tomato sauce?

VM: Not really (laughs)! We had a strict diet set by him, pasta every single day to help with the running! If you didn’t finish the runs, you weren’t allowed to train with the team though.

RR: You didn’t spend too long working under Paolo, but how was your relationship with him? Did you enjoy working under him?

VM: Erm... I started well and I thought it was going to be okay, but...well, I had my problems with him too.

I was number one throughout the pre-season and I was told I was his choice for number one. He thinks he can really you mentally.

Anyway, a day or two before the season started he called me into his office and he said I wasn’t going to be starting the season because you “don’t smile enough. You don’t smile in training. You don’t want to lose games” - I thought it was a good thing, wanting to win even in training matches, but he didn’t agree.

Very strange. I’m a positive guy but when it comes down to work, my game face changes and I’m very focused on the job and I become a little animal. He didn’t take it that way though and we fell out from that really.

His demands... I’m not too sure. A good coach though.

Sunderland v Everton - Premier League
“You don’t smile enough” Di Canio told Vito.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

RR: Was there a players revolt in the aftermath of that West Brom game, which was Paolo’s last?

VM: Pffft... the next morning we got to the training ground at 7am and we had a meeting.

I can’t go into details of the meeting but let’s just say it wasn’t an easy one and the club decided to part with Paolo and get a new manager in so we could start to improve, which we did.

RR: Of course, and shortly afterwards Gus Poyet came in and it all changed for SAFC and you. What did he change to improve the atmosphere so much?

VM: He was a very positive manager and he demanded a reaction from us. He changed the mood.

Certain rules that were set by Di Canio were lifted off from us, Gus had his own rules. We needed a man like Gus to come in and change the environment. You needed someone like Gus especially when you were losing games.

I think slowly we changed our style, our way of training and we built up our season, got points and got the confidence back.

Personally he was somebody who finally came in and had no issues with me not smiling! He just wanted to see my quality in training and he let me push for a chance, and when I got one, I never got left out.

RR: I remember you importance really came to prominence after an outstanding game at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, where are your memories of that day?

VM: It was a massive game and one of the moments where we turned a corner.

In the first few months Gus was trying to change our style and get us to play from the back and maybe we didn’t have the right players for that at the time and it took us a while to get used to it and find the right balance.

We would pick up points at home to City, but then we’d lose the next week and I think we all knew it would take time to get used to this style Gus wanted us to play. It was a difficult start and we needed to adapt and get the confidence back.

As for the Everton game, I remember we had some real injury problems in defence and Roberge and Diakite played for the first time in months.

It was a difficult game but thankfully I could help the team with some important saves. Coming out with a clean sheet and a shock win as it was at the time gave us a boost to say “we can beat anyone in this league if we want to”.

RR: I think that was where you chant came to life to, wasn’t it?

VM: Yeah! I think. It was unbelievable. We always had such good away fans, always in the pack.

I heard my chant after the full time whistle, so I went over to them and it was a great moment. I really wanted to put my stamp on Sunderland and that was one of the first moments I managed to do it.

“One of the best nights” said Vito on the semi-final win at Old Trafford.
Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

RR: Your connection with the fans was good almost immediately. Why did you think Sunderland and Vito Mannone loved each other so much?

VM: I don’t know really. I think in general I am a hardworking guy, I really put everything into football. Football is my life and I think the fans saw that.

The Sunderland fans are probably the best in the country. It’s a hard working city full of people who loved Sunderland AFC till the death and they work hard for the whole week to be able to get to the Stadium on the weekend - that mindset bonds with my philosophy on life.

I always gave 100% and that’s all they wanted to see. I think that’s where the bond came from.

I wanted to do well for myself, for the club and for these special fans who travelled everywhere in England just to support the club. They gave me goosebumps every time - I have love for them, and I think they gave me love back.

RR: Talking of pivotal moments, around this time there was a little cup run and with it came your most famous moment. Old Trafford, just what are your memories?

VM: One of the best nights I ever had.

I still have a lot of Sunderland fans who remember it like yesterday and talk to me about it.

It’s the kind of night you work all your life for. I started when I was 5 or 6, I gave many sacrifices, my parents gave sacrifices with me, my family, my wife - they all supported me in my career so I could have these sort of special nights. Sometimes you don’t expect them but when they come, you need to embrace them and take your opportunity to show your quality and do something for the club.

I realised one of my dreams. Playing at Old Trafford, one of the best stadiums that I used to always watch on TV as a kid, Man. Utd being one of the best teams to play against, a semi-final for Sunderland who hadn’t been to a final in twenty plus years at the time.

Such a big club like Sunderland deserve to go to finals, Sunderland deserve to go to Wembley. Those away fans at Old Trafford, I can not forget the sound, the noise and my chant after the penalty.

It was something special to hear. I have it in my heart and I hold it tight.

Look out for part two of our interview here on in the coming days. You can listen to the interview in full on the Roker Rapport Podcast - free on Acast, iTunes, Youtube and Spotify.

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