Unsung Heroes #4: Alex Manninger
Hello, and welcome to the fourth part of the who-knows-how-many-parts-it’ll-be-because-we’re-relying-on-guest-contributions-of-which-we’re-already-running-out-and-are-beginning-to-have-to-beg-for part series Unsung Heroes. After two Arsenal-themed pieces to start the series off, we return to another Arsenal player – you’d think none of the players get any praise with the amount of Arsenal unsung heroes there seem to be – as Michael Keshani makes it 3 out of 4. Be sure to check out his blog, Roaming Libero, where excellent pieces on football past and present can be found.
When memories of the double winning Arsenal side of 1997/98 are recalled, the mind often jumps to the obvious heroes: the famous back five (or six, even) of David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Lee Dixon, with Martin Keown in the supporting cast; the brilliant midfield pairing of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars’s extraordinary pace down the wings and, of course, the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year, God himself, Dennis Bergkamp.
Though a particular component of the back five spent a significant proportion of the season on the sidelines. An injury to a goalkeeper is unlike an injury in any other position. I wrote about the difficulty of the role of substitute keeper in this, coming to the judgement that the best types of player suited to the job were younger players, eager to prove themselves (wherein there is a prominent risk) or older, more experienced ‘keepers, who are experienced enough to be assured when thrown into games with little warning. At this point in the 97/98 season, Arsenal were in the running for the league title (or more accurately, were ‘in the chasing’), despite being significantly behind league leaders Manchester United when Seaman got injured. Enter 20-year old Alex Manninger. To step in for the goalkeeper who is arguably Arsenal’s greatest would have been a terrifying task for most ‘keepers. Manninger, however, saw it as his chance to build a reputation; it was a chance he seized.
The Austrian’s first league game would be against Southampton at the end of January 1998, while the team had not kept a clean sheet since the start of December. As is customary for a second choice ‘keeper, he had a heart-in-mouth moment as he miscontrolled a Steven Hughes backpass, almost allowing David Hirst to give the visitors an early lead, but the tight angle left the Saints’ forward unable to finish. He was far more assured when next called upon, producing an excellent save to block a Matt Oakley volley and later strongly saving an attempted chip by Matt Le Tissier. Three second half goals from Bergkamp, Adams and Nicolas Anelka saw Arsenal to a comfortable 3-0 win. A promising début for him, but by no means a particularly notable one.
His next game was a 2-0 win over Chelsea, in which he had little to do. The next, another largely uneventful win, this time a 1-0 against Crystal Palace, was illuminated by another acrobatic save from Mannninger, from a long distance shot by Simon Rodger. Next up, a trip to the Boleyn Ground; a place where Arsenal have long had a tendency to, let’s say, ‘Arsenal’ things up a bit. With no Bergkamp or Ian Wright, attacking force was lacking. Arsenal’s own lack of goals could have seen them leave East London with no points, rather than the one with which they emerged, were it not for Manninger’s efforts. He made two more outstanding saves, one from a long range Eyal Berkovic strike, the other a fantastic recovery stop from John Hartson after the Welshman had managed to round him. Four league games; four league clean sheets.
He conceded his first Arsenal goal in the FA Cup, a week later, to West Ham, as the game ended 1-1, forcing a replay at the Boleyn Ground, which would come 9 days later. But in that period were two games that would arguably amplify or destroy any chance Arsenal had to win their first league title since 1989. First up were Wimbledon, a game which had been rearranged due to floodlight failure in the first sitting in December. Again Manninger played the role of hero, as Arsenal withstood a second half onslaught to hold on for a classic ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’-style win. Next was the big one. The one that were Sky Sports in existence in their current format back then, would receive similar hype to the recent (disappointing as anything) Manchester derby did. A win would put Arsenal only six points behind United, but crucially, with three games in hand. A win, for the first time all season, would put Arsenal in control of their fate.
The game was to be Arsene Wenger’s Waterloo. Manninger himself needed pain-killing injections to be able to play, but performed incredibly well. His game was typified by, among numerous caught crosses, his two one-on-one saves from Terry Sheddingham (or ‘Teddy Sherringham’ to those unfamiliar with the Football Ramble) and Andy Cole. For his own effort, Sheringham picked up the loose ball after Cole had been tackled by Keown. With space, although admittedly on his weaker left foot, he struck his shot towards Manninger’s near post; he did well to save it, but the real merit of the stop was that he forced it out to the barren right-hand side of the box, nullifying the threat of a potential rebound. The save from Cole was far more difficult and impressive. After catching the ball from an Arsenal corner, Peter Schmeichel launched a long ball towards Cole. The United centre forward stood behind the centre circle and was hence offside, but this was missed by the linesman. He sped towards the Arsenal goal, with Adams sprinting behind him. The presence of the Arsenal captain forced him wide and, like Sheringham, onto his weaker left foot. His offering was a low, hard drive at Manninger, which was brilliantly turned over the crossbar. The score remained at 0-0, and would continue to do so until Adams’ long ball was flicked on by the head of Bergkamp, and then the head of Anelka, releasing Marc Overmars to score the goal that would win it. A monumental win and a sixth straight clean sheet for Alex Manninger.
Quite aside from the league, there was now the matter of that FA Cup quarter final replay against West Ham. Dennis Bergkamp’s early red card meant that Arsenal would be with missing their best player and primary creator for not only the rest of this game, but the next three ahead. In spite of this, Anelka managed to grab a goal just before half time, giving the leaders an important lead. This, like the wins that preceded it, would have to be one of the ‘ground out’ variety. Manninger made two quite marvellous saves from John Hartson efforts and a wonderful reaction stop from a Stan Lazaridis header. The breakthrough eventually came from the Hartson, following a mistake by Dixon, and the game would now go to extra time. Here, Manninger made more fine saves Lee Hodges, Berkovic and John Moncur. Arsenal failed to re-establish a lead. Arsenal’s second penalty shootout of the season was awaiting them (the first coming in the third round against Port Vale). In the second round of attempts, Christopher Wreh started by missing completely, but was spared any great ignominy by Manniger managing to get the slightest of touches on West Ham’s next taker Hartson’s penalty, forcing it against the post. The third set of takers both scored. Rémi Garde blasted his own high over the bar. Arsenal needed Berkovic not to score if they were to remain level. And Manninger saved them again. He flew to his right and pushed it away, keeping Arsenal level. Now it was sudden death. The fifth set of takers scored. Tony Adams then scored his own scuffed effort. All the pressure lay on Samassi Abou, who struck his penalty against the post. Manninger’s heroics had sent Arsenal to the semi finals.
This was to be Manninger’s last notable contribution of the season. He featured in the two final, meaningless league losses against Liverpool and Aston Villa, at which point the league title had already been secured. Manninger never got another real run in the Arsenal team again and left on loan for Fiorentina at the start of the next double winning campaign of 2001/02, leaving permanently for Espanol the next summer. Since then he has lived the life of a substitute goalkeeper. Where so many other unsung heroes’ contributions have been noticed and subsequently sung, Manninger remains generally forgotten by most. 97/98 – quite rightly – is remembered as Dennis Bergkamp’s year – or as the great swansong of the famous back five, but with that in mind, it is easy to forget what that season could have become without that extraordinary set of performances from Alex Manninger.