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Alan Mannus: ‘We have a style of play where we want to keep possession’

Published in Hoops Scene Issue 3/2021 (Shamrock Rovers v Longford Town – 17 April 2021)

Looking back on last season’s title winning campaign for Shamrock Rovers, the defensive statistics for the Hoops are worth highlighting. Across the 18 league campaign, the team kept 13 clean sheets and conceded just seven goals – the fewest in the history of the League of Ireland (which includes 22 seasons which were 18 game campaigns or less). In the final 11 matches of the 2020 Premier Division, the Hoops conceded just the one goal.

“It was remarkable,” said Shamrock Rovers goalkeeper Alan Mannus reflecting on the title success built on that defensive strength. “Normally when it is a team like Shamrock Rovers who are competing to win the league, you set yourself a target of 20 clean sheets over a 36 game campaign. 

“It was different last year with the season cut in half (due to COVID-19) but we had 13 clean sheets so if we had played double the games we would have had over 20. I wasn’t that busy in terms of making saves and that shows how good the team was especially the defenders but we defend from the front. Everyone contributes towards that.” 

While Mannus mentions that defending that starts with the strikers, the way the Hoops play it also works the other way – with the attacks starting from the goalkeeper. In Rovers’ recent 2-1 win over Dundalk in the last game played here in Tallaght, it was noticeable how involved Mannus was in beating the press that Lilywhites exerted on Rovers in that game.

Possession and beating the press

“We have a style of play where we want to keep possession. We have worked hard on distribution, particularly in the last few weeks. We are trying to progress with that in training as a goalkeeping team. We are working on not just hitting it to the player but to their chest or feet over an opponent rather than just close to them. I’m trying to learn to do that as a goalkeeper. 

“Previous to being at Rovers, it was usually about hitting it as far as you could into an area where you strikers can challenge for the header. It is very different now where you are trying to pick people out and maintain possession.

“The way Dundalk set up their press, I couldn’t really go to the centre half a lot of the time but that meant there was someone else who was free. We should always have an option if I can’t get to the centre half. They players need to be in certain positions to create space and then I need to recognise that and be good enough to try and get it to that player.

“I think that football is changing and evolving. You can see the way the best teams in the world play. Teams like Man City and Barcelona are playing that way for years and, while we are not comparing ourselves with them, it is about seeing can we progress with what we are doing. 

“We all know the role we have and we have a purpose to either receive the ball or create space for someone else to receive it. That puts a certain responsibility on me for where I need to be after I make a pass.” 

Rovers were made work for the win against Dundalk with Mannus pulling off a number of saves that helped the Hoops to all three points.

“In the second half I was quite busy and you’d expect that against a team like Dundalk. Any team that has players up front like Pat Hoban and Michael Duffy, they are going to cause you problems. I thought Liam (Scales), Sean (Hoare) and Lee (Grace) were excellent in front of me as a back three – they defended really well. 

“I was pleased with that save when I pushed in onto the bar even if it was offside. We were working on that thing in training during the week with Jose [Ferrer – Rovers’ goalkeeping coach] with a header that bounces around you. The main thing against Dundalk was we won and I was pleased that I was able to contribute.”

Behind closed doors

The atmosphere in Tallaght Stadium for that behind-closed-doors win over the Lilywhites was very different from a little over 12 months ago when over 7,500 fans packed into the same venue to see a Rovers 3-2 win. “You do miss the crowd especially when you walk towards the goal and the supporters are behind the goal, you hear your name being sung and we clap one another. It is different but I’m quite used to having no supporters now.

“Some players can get an edge off the adrenaline of a big crowd. I’ve always tried to be quite relaxed on the pitch. I don’t want to be pumping adrenaline too much. I want to be calm. That’s the way I want to try and play.”

The Hoops haven’t been able to have their usual gym regime with COVID-19 regulations meaning only outdoor facilities can be used. Mannus has built up his own home gym over the years and it has come into its own during lockdown. The goalkeeper feels the strength and conditioning work he has done over his career has been massively beneficial to him.

“We have an outdoor set up at Roadstone which we call ‘the rig’ and Darren Dillon does a great job organising that work for us. I also have a set up at home that I’ve had for a while. Outside of goalkeeping training, that has been the most important thing for me. There is a saying that the best ability is availability. If I look back over my time, one of the biggest things for me is that I’ve been available to play where as other goalkeepers have picked up knocks. I’ve had a few injuries along the way but I’ve missed less time over 20 years than most goalkeepers and for me it is has been through that strength training and the gym work.

“Other goalkeepers might have been better than me but they got injured and allowed me get by them in the pecking order and that is down to the training I was doing. I’ve put the time in over the years and that has helped me.” 

Gavin Bazunu

When Mannus re-joined Rovers during the 2018 season he worked closely with Gavin Bazunu who last month made his senior international debut for the Republic of Ireland. “Me and Gavin still text each other and I congratulated him when he was called up to the squad. I was delighted to see how well he has gone on to do and nothing has happened by chance for Gavin.

“The very first training session when I came back to the club, he came over to me and said ‘if you see anything that can help me, please tell me’. He was only 16 then and hadn’t played for the first team and that was really impressive to me. With a younger ‘keeper,  there are two parts as to how good they are. There is the technicality of their game and then the mental side – not just on the pitch but attitude and desire and determination to be the best. 

“Gavin had good levels of both but his desire and determination was the main thing for me. He has been excellent. He should be in the senior squad in future and not the under-21.”