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Still saving penalties at 39 and watching Italy's Euro 2020 hero up close

Alan Mannus on learning from Gianluigi Donnarumma and what motivates him to keep going at an age when many players have retired.

Alan Mannus (file pic).
Alan Mannus (file pic).
Image: Slobodan Sandic/INPHO

ALAN MANNUS has had a better career than most League of Ireland footballers enjoy.

At 39, he has three Premier Division titles and an FAI Cup to his name.

Before joining Shamrock Rovers, he made over 200 appearances with Linfield and won five league titles and four Irish Cups with them.

He also spent seven years at St Johnstone in between two spells at Rovers, helping the club win their first-ever Scottish Cup during his time there.

Born in Canada, Mannus moved back home with his family at the age of seven and has represented Northern Ireland on nine occasions, featuring in their squad for Euro 2016.

He remains a key player after seven years in total on the books with the Hoops — last week, he made a potentially crucial last-minute penalty save in the 2-0 first leg Champions League qualifying loss to Slovan Bratislava.

“He’s vital to what we do,” Stephen Bradley says of Mannus. “He’s the best in the country and has been for a number of years. He’s kept us in games at times throughout the years and we have won games because of Alan, picked up important points because of him, he has kept us in the tie [against Slovan], the save at the end keeps us in the tie.”

On stopping Vladimir Weiss’ last-gasp spot-kick last week, Mannus says: “You pick a side and you go. I was obviously happy to make the penalty save, it’s been a while since I saved one. 

“It’s 50-50 almost unless they go down the middle. But it was nice to save it, especially, hopefully, it gives us a chance to get into the next round.”

In contrast with Bradley though, Mannus plays down the significance of the moment slightly.

“It wasn’t about keeping us in the tie, it was just about saving the penalty. When he put the ball down, I know who that player is, Weiss. I’ve been aware of him from a long time ago when he played against Northern Ireland. I just remember that game because he was at Man City at the time and everyone was talking about him.

“We weren’t really expecting him to play [last week], but we still watched clips of him and stuff like that. When he put the ball down I just thought to myself, I’m going to save it and I did. But you say that a lot of the time and you don’t save it. Although I don’t believe in luck necessarily, sometimes you just guess and you go the right way. I was more pleased with the one-on-one before that and the follow-up to the penalty, that block save than the actual penalty save.”

It was not the first time Mannus had made an important contribution to a vital European tie. In 2011, he made another penalty save as the Hoops beat Flora Tallinn 1-0 on aggregate during the second round of Champions League qualifying.

And does he spend time studying future opponents’ penalty techniques, particularly ahead of big games such as the one this evening?

“I’d say most goalkeepers do that nowadays. But the players know that the goalkeepers watch, so it’s not as easy as watching what they do and expecting them to do the same thing because they know that you watch them. It becomes a mind game then, at the end of the day, it still comes back to picking a side and going and that’s it.”

One player Mannus unsurprisingly has great admiration for is Gianluigi Donnarumma.

The 22-year-old finished his season shedding tears of joy on Sunday, after inspiring Italy to a penalty shootout win over England in the Euro 2020 final, having begun the campaign leading AC Milan out in a 2-0 Europa League qualifying victory over Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght last September.

gianluigi-donnarumma Gianluigi Donnarumma pictured at Tallaght Stadium last September. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Mannus got Donnarumma’s jersey after the game, adding it to a personal collection that also includes shirts worn by Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon.

“I thought he was brilliant against us, the saves he made against Aaron Greene.

“We actually spoke about it afterwards, we talked a lot about when Aaron got in during the first half, he saved it down to his left. Aaron said afterwards that he made it so hard for him because he stayed back. If he’d come out towards him, it would have allowed him to pick somewhere past him. He stayed back and got a big strong left hand to it.

“In general, he’s been one of the top goalkeepers in the world. I was messaging a friend last night as it went to penalties. He asked: ‘What do you think?’ and I said ‘They’ll save two penalties each.’ Just because of Donnarumma for who he is and Pickford, for all the criticism some of the English people and media put on him, he’s got a mentality of wanting to prove to everyone he can play at the highest level. He’s done really well for England.

“I still thought he’d save at least two of the five. I thought the save onto the post was brilliant. The two of them were excellent all tournament.

“I do watch [penalty shootouts] and try and think what side they are going but it still becomes a guess really at the end of the day. There is no way of knowing for sure. Sometimes you look at the run-up and think they’re going one side and they can pull the other way. Now a lot of the players do the stutter and stop and try and see which way you’re going to go, which makes it harder. Some of them almost come to a complete stop before they hit it, which isn’t allowed I don’t think but it makes it more and more difficult for the goalkeeper then.

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“[On Sunday] Didn’t Rashford watch the goalkeeper the whole way and if they do that, they risk not hitting the ball cleanly because they are not looking at the ball and then they can miss as he did. Still, you either stay in the middle or you pick a side and go and if you pick the right way, you put pressure on yourself to save it.”

Mannus is reluctant to explicitly state whether he has been practising for penalties ahead of tonight’s game, with the scrapping of away goals making that outcome more likely, but he insists Rovers will be “ready” should spot-kicks arise.

Regardless overturning a two-goal deficit will be a stiff task, but the experienced goalkeeper believes his side can take encouragement from the last time they played at home in Europe.

“[Milan] beat us 2-0 and were always expected to beat us. But what pleased me more than anything after the game was that we tried to play, as opposed to being safe. From goal-kicks, we tried to play out from the back, we tried to play rather than everybody going up the pitch and we’d go long.

“That was the pleasing thing for me. That’s what we need to try to do tomorrow, to be brave. If we can do it against AC Milan, we can do it against anybody. When we did it against AC, there were times when we got into the final third to create chances. It shows you that we can be good at it.”

And ultimately, such special occasions make the taxing daily hour-and-40-minute drive to Dublin from his home up north worth it.

“For me, it comes down to motivation,” he adds. “And if I lose the motivation to want to do it, then that’s when I’ll call it [a day]. I’m still motivated to play and I still want to play for the club and I want to not just play, I want to contribute to the club having success. If I think that I can’t contribute to the team being successful, then maybe that’ll be the time to call it — retire or else move on.

“It’s not the easiest thing, doing the travel. But at the same time, it’s how I look after my family and I’ll do whatever I have to to do that as well. So as much as I maybe don’t want to do that drive sometimes, it’s my job, that’s how I look after my family, it still means a lot for me to play for the club and that’s why I do it.”

Tonight’s match kicks off at 8pm. Details on how to view a live stream of the game can be found here.

Originally published at 0600

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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