Football: Manninger celebrates coming of age

Glenn Moore talks to the young Arsenal goalkeeper who has excelled in David Seaman's absence

THE first time Arsenal tried to sign an Austrian goalkeeper he was turned away at Dover and had to forge a career in France. Sixty-five years later, the Gunners are grateful that Alex Manninger had no such problems when he came to Highbury last summer.

The 20-year-old goalkeeper produced the latest in a series of impressive performances in Arsenal's FA Cup quarter-final replay victory over West Ham at Upton Park on Tuesday. Manninger, deputising for the injured David Seaman, topped a string of brilliant saves in open play by crucially denying Eyal Berkovic in the penalty shoot-out.

Manninger has kept six successive clean sheets in the Premiership, yet Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, has already made it clear that as soon as Seaman is fit, Manninger will be dropped. "I do not believe in competition between goalkeepers," he said.

Manninger, it would seem, has no problem with that. "I came to Arsenal because David Seaman is the best goalkeeper in the world," he said yesterday, adding: "I know I still have to learn, to do so from him is the best education anybody can have. There can't be a better situation for a young keeper than being behind David Seaman.

"I am the first Austrian goalkeeper to play in England and it was a big, big deal to come but I knew I had to take it because these chances don't come along every day. I never thought I would be playing as regularly though, this is valuable experience for later in my career."

Manninger has succeeded where Rudi Hiden, who Herbert Chapman tried to sign from Austria in the 1930s, failed. Hiden was refused entry by immigration officials and instead played for Racing Club in Paris. Manninger could also be headed across the Channel, but only temporarily. Already capped at Under-21 level, he is pushing for a place in Austria's World Cup squad.

Manninger said he had never been so nervous as he was before the penalty shoot-out though he had - unsuccessfully - faced one before in Europe against Internazionale. "Pat Rice [the Arsenal coach] came to me with information beforehand, but you never know whether things like that are going to work out. You are by yourself really.

"David Seaman had shown me something in training and you have to take his advice as he is a penalty killer. I tried it in training and it worked and I tried it tonight and it worked. The save from Berkovic was the key, I managed to get my hand to it and it was a wonderful feeling. We did so well with 10 men, it was clear to see we are a good and experienced team."

It has been rumoured that, in these post-Bosman days, Arsenal may look to cash in on Seaman - maybe even this summer - if Manninger continues to progress. The latter seems certain given his attitude.

"I have given up a lot in my life just to concentrate on my football, perhaps a lot more than other people. That's how I am, I can't change now. I'm a very straight guy. I do special training all the time and I am very self-critical.

"If I let a goal in, either in training or a match, I always look for my own mistakes and I beat myself up mentally to try and sort them out. It makes me work harder.

"I'm strong-willed and nothing really gets me down. I just want to work and work and work until there is nothing I can learn. That is still a long way off, but now everyone knows I can play." Especially West Ham.

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