Alex Manninger’s crucial role in Arsenal's 1997-98 double

Alex Manninger celebrates making a save for Arsenal against West Ham in 1998

In March 1998, Alex Manninger was named the Premier League player of the month, an award rarely handed out to goalkeepers - David Seaman played 344 Premier League games for Arsenal and was named player of the month just once, Jens Lehmann played 148 matches and never received the award.

Generally, Arsenal’s double winning side of 1997/98 benefited from being settled, with serious injuries largely avoided. Christopher Wreh came into the side in March and had a huge impact, scoring crucial goals in 1-0 wins against Wimbledon and Bolton in the league, and against Wolves in the FA Cup. Less well remembered is the impact Alex Manninger had on sealing Arsene Wenger’s first double.
David Seaman broke his finger making a save from Darren Huckerby in a frenetic 2-2 draw with Coventry, at Highfield Road, on 17 January. Manninger, just 20 years old, came in to replace Seaman for an FA Cup fourth round tie away at Middlesbrough the following weekend. Goals from Marc Overmars and Ray Parlour put Arsenal 2-0 up after just 20 minutes, but Boro pulled one back in the second half through ex-Gunner Paul Merson of all people, with Manninger over committing himself and at least partly at fault for the goal.

Arsenal held on for a hard fought win, and it was to be the Austrian’s last notable mistake in a quite astonishing run. Manninger took Seaman’s place in goal for the next six Premier League games, and Arsenal would not concede a single goal. The sixth of these games was the crucial visit to Old Trafford, on 14th March, where a 1-0 win courtesy of a Marc Overmars goal put Arsenal six points behind United, but with three games in hand.

After the match Alex Ferguson told the BBC: "If they win their games in hand they will go ahead of us, but they will find out they start dropping points towards the end of the season, there's no question about that." In fact, Arsenal only dropped points once they had the title sewn up, and won their next eight matches.

Further heroics from Manninger came in the FA Cup just a few days after the win against United. After the sides played out a 1-1 draw at Highbury in the quarter final, West Ham and Arsenal played out the same score in the replay at Upton Park, with ex Arsenal man John Hartson equalising Nicolas Anelka’s goal. The match went into extra time, with Manninger making a series of good saves as ten man Arsenal (Dennis Bergkamp was sent off during the first half for elbowing Steve Lomas) came under increasing pressure.

There were no goals in extra time, and the game went to a penalty shoot-out. Gunners fans may not have had high hopes after a glance at the list of Arsenal’s first five penalty takers (Stephen Hughes, Christopher Wreh, Luis Boa Morte, Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira). Wreh and Garde duly missed with their efforts and fortunately, West Ham fared no better with a couple of misses of their own. Manninger superbly saved Eyal Berkovic’s penalty to seal Arsenal’s semi-final place.

Despite Manninger’s heroics, Seaman was always going to return to the team when fit. Seaman recovered in time for the FA Cup Semi-final and the title run in, and quickly returned to fine form. Tony Adams said in his autobiography: “Before Christmas, I thought David Seaman had been unusually wobbly just a couple of times and Alex coming in and doing so well for this period acted as motivation for him, I'm sure. I think David's pride was stung.”
Manninger played less than the ten Premier League games required for a winners medal at that time, but a special case was made, and the Austrian was deservedly awarded a medal due to his huge contribution. A bright future was predicted for Manninger at Arsenal, but his career never really moved on from this impressive start. He was always unlikely to knock Seaman off his perch, and stayed as second choice until he was overtaken as Arsenal’s second keeper by Richard Wright in 2001. Manninger left the club in 2002.

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