It’s strange to think back to the pre-season of 2013, because there was some serious optimism around the Stadium of Light after Paolo Di Canio steered us to survival. True, his appointment had caused a bit of division among the fan base, however on a pure football side of things, his hardline approach was welcomed with open arms.
Too long, we thought, had the players taken the piss. We could see it with our own eyes that there were a few who weren’t taking playing for Sunderland as seriously as they should: ‘Di Canio will sort ‘em out!’.
Accompanying Di Canio was agent-turned-sporting director Roberto Di Fanti, supported by a new recruitment team of former Inter Milan chief scout Valentino Angeloni – he of the famed ‘Udinese model’ and Massimiliano Mirabelli, who’d also spent time at Inter.
Given the Italian influence running through the management and recruitment side of the club, it was no surprise that a few Italian players were brought in that summer.
One, however, had spent the vast majority of his career in England – and Vito Mannone, who’d spent the past eight years at Arsenal.
Mannone had joined the Gunners from Atalanta as a youngster, but had made just a handful of appearances in the subsequent years – finding his path blocked by the likes of Jens Lehmann, Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski.
The 25-year-old was keen to get more first-team experience, and joined Sunderland for a fee of £2m.
We needed a new keeper – Simon Mignolet, the first-choice the season before, had joined Liverpool for £9m – while his understudy, Keiren Westwood, had never really convinced in the admittedly limited opportunities he’d been given.
Mannone was determined to be first choice:
Every player knows they have competition. We live in a world of competition. I will work and do my best to be in the first 11 and then the manager will decide. All I can do is try to show what I am capable of.
The potential of the club is incredible. I have come from a big club like Arsenal but to be honest I don’t see any difference in the facilities. From what I can see on my first day they are brilliant.
To have good facilities where you can work and improve is something every club wants to achieve. The base is there and I am really happy to be here.
I waited a long time for an opportunity like Sunderland and for me it is a great one. I’m very excited. I am here to work hard to show what I can do.
Westwood had joined Sunderland from Coventry two years earlier, and hadn’t been able to challenge Mignolet in any serious manner; the Belgian famously earning Martin O’Neill’s favour after playing against Manchester City with a broken cheekbone when Westwood had phone in sick. O’Neill cast doubts on Westwood’s desire to really give his all for the team after the game, and the Republic of Ireland international’s career under O’Neill never recovered.
Westwood had hoped to step into Mignolet’s position, and said:
I love it at Sunderland and I do think I have improved there. But it is going to be very difficult for me if I am not playing. We’ll see what happens in the close season.
The simple thing about me though is I just want to play football. I need to be stimulated. Some players are happy whatever happens, but it’s not for me.
Westwood did start the season as first-choice, however, starting the first ten games of the season. He was unfortunate to lose his place – he was injured at Hull, in the game that saw Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena sent off before half time, and replaced by Vito, who kept his place from thereon in.
Mannone was Sunderland’s sixth pre-season signing, following Cabral, Valentin Roberge, Modibo Diakite, David Moburg Karlsson and Duncan Watmore to the Academy of Light, while four other players – El Hadji Ba, Bernard Mendy, Gino Peruzzi and Charis Mavrias – we expected to join in the coming days.
Two did, of course, and like the majority of the signings that summer, failed to make any noticeable impact.
Mannone was the pick of the bunch – and went on to have a good career at Sunderland, with the cup run under Poyet probably the highlight.
As a side note, the two new scouts, Angeloni and Mirabelli, lasted only a year before returning to Italy. Angeloni spent time at Fiorentina as chief scout and technical director before spells at Atalanta and Venezia. He’s now back at Fiorentina as academy director.
Mirabelli, meanwhile, became Inter Milan’s chief scout after leaving Sunderland and is now Padova’s sporting director, having held the same position at AC Milan.