Where are they now? The Search for Forgotten Gooners – Week 7: Alex Manninger

As
it comes to the seventh edition of the Search for the Forgotten Gooners, I’ve
been forced to really scratch my brain to rediscover certain misfits, or
flashes in the pan whom have since seemingly been removed from the face of the
Arsenalsphere.

I’ve brought a variety of talents back under the
spotlight, from Premier League winners, to Cup final hoodoos to absolute
randomers. This week, we have kind of a mix of all three, but one who has proved
critically important in recent(ish) times for Gunners success.

My first recollection of watching this player in
the flesh was to turn to my father and say “Hey dad, that Manninger runs like a
right gerby.”

While I will still defend to this day that his
running style, that was certainly not helped by his painfully tight tracksuit
bottoms, was a bit soft and girly, there is no denying that he was a vital cog
in the Arsenal machine that stormed to the Premier League title and FA Cup
trophy in 1997-98.

The 6 ft 2 Austrian, like many, began his career
in his home country, and rose up through the ranks of SV Salzburg. Despite a
brief loan stint at Vowarts Steyr in order to get some much-need game time,
Manninger failed to make any significant impact at Salzburg and was sold to
Grazer AK.

Alex’s debut for his new club came in rather
testing circumstances. Having been signed as a backup keeper, you can imagine
his surprise when injury to the first-choice stopper forced Manninger to make
his debut against Inter Milan in the second round of the UEFA Cup in the San
Siro. He did make an impression on his new employers though, as he pulled off a
number of top-draw saves before Grazer lost the return leg via a penalty
shootout.

That summer was the big one for Manninger though,
and after taking a backseat at the Austrian outfit, he was snapped up by Arsene
Wenger in a high-profile transfer.

Despite his excitement at the move, Wenger made it
very clear that he would be the understudy to great David Seaman, who was an
immovable object from the Arsenal lineup. So for a number of months, Manninger
sat patiently on the Gunners bench, among the likes of Christopher Wreh and
Stephen Hughes just waiting for his chance to show the Gooner faithful what he
was made of.

Sure enough, when Seaman was plighted with a
long-term back injury, Manninger’s chance arose in early 1998.  The tall stopper had been given various
opportunities in the cup competitions in the first half of the campaign, but
had yet to grace the Premier League with his presence.

He made his league debut in a 3-0 win over
Southampton in January and continued to keep goal in the Premier League for the
next five games in which he kept clean sheets in all of them. His finest
display between the sticks came in the final match of that run; away to
champions Manchester United at Old Trafford.

In what was without a doubt the most important
fixture of Arsenal’s season, Manninger was absolutely superb. He made a number
of wonderful saves as Marc Overmars delivered the goods at the other end to
help the Gunners leave Manchester with a 1-0 victory and all three points that
went a long way towards securing Arsenal the title.

Manninger’s heroic performances were duly
recognised as he was named as the Premier League’s Player of the Month for March.

Before the start of April, he also starred in Arsenal’s
run to the FA Cup final as he was the man of the moment in a penalty shootout
that helped us advance at the expense of West Ham United after a 1-1 draw.

Manninger would make one final appearance for the
Arsenal that season, in the 4-0 defeat at Anfield, although the title had
already been wrapped up by then.

Despite not having the required appearances to
earn a Premier League winners’ medal at the trophy presentation, the league
made an exception and presented the Austrian with the accolade after realising
his important contribution to Wenger’s side’s campaign.

Sadly, Manninger failed to crack on after this
triumphant year and continued to play second fiddle to Seaman for the next
three years. He was bumped further down the pecking order in 2001, when Wenger
went out and signed young English stopper Richard Wright which subsequently led
to Manninger being flown out on loan to Serie A outfit Fiorentina for the
season.

He played 24 times for La Viola before he returned
to North London, only to be put on the transfer list by Arsenal before he was
jetted out to Spain to join Espanyol on a four-year-deal for a reported
£960,000. Bizarrely, this move lasted just seven weeks before he was released
by the club without making a single first-team appearance. Some questioned as
to whether the transfer was ever fully completed, but the man himself claims
that the Catalonian outfit were too strapped for cash to pay his fee.

A couple of months later, Manninger returned to
Italy once again when he signed for Torino in January 2003. However, he didn’t
fare much better there either, playing just three times in six months until he
switched to Bologna that summer.

He enjoyed two years at the club but could never
hold down a permanent spot in the starting XI, even after short tenures at
Serie B’s Brescia Calcio and Siena before leaving for good in 2005.

It was home sweet home for Manninger that summer
when he rejoined Salzburg. However, it wasn’t that way for long as he again
struggled to become a regular feature before leaving the following summer for
Italy, and more specifically Sienna, once more.

He made nearly 70 appearances in a two-year stint
at Sienna, where he frequently wrestled Dimitrios Eleftheropolous, and Anssi Jaakkola. His time at the club came to an end in
2008, after his contract expired and he was placed on the free agents list.

As a
result, he once again tried his luck with Salzburg, almost desperate to try to
prove a point to them, but stayed a matter of weeks before signing for Udinese in
July 2008 to battle Samir Handanovic for a starting berth. This period was his
shortest yet though and just a fortnight later, he somehow secured a move to
Italian giants Juventus.

He was
always going to be number two to Gianluigi Buffon, who some maintain is still
the best goalkeeper in the world, but he also faced a difficult task of
battling Antonio Chimenti, who also left Udine at the same time as the
Austrian, to be that backup.

Alex
took that role though and managed to play in Buffon’s absence from October to
February. That’s as good as it got for Manninger though, who was demoted to
third choice upon the arrival of Marco Storari, and ended up being released
last summer.

After
four months of unemployment, Manninger was signed by Augsburg, who were in dire
need of another keeper. He made his debut against Bayern Munich in the
DFB-Pokal in December, and still operates at the club today.

During
his career, Manninger retired after 10 years of international football in 2009
which saw his total up 33 caps for Austria.

Who
knows what could have been for Manninger had he been given more of a chance at
Highbury, but he will certainly be remembered fondly by the Gooner faithful.

And now you know.

Matt Cotton

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