AS happy and content as Vito Mannone was with life on loan at Hull City a year ago, the prospect of going back to Arsenal ahead of pre-season training was an enticing one.
The Italian Under-21 goalkeeper hoped returning to the Emirates Stadium with Championship experience under his belt would be enough to make Arsene Wenger sit up and take note.
Unfortunately for Mannone, the hoped for step up to first-team regular did not materialise with his only appearance for the Gunners this season being in a Champions League defeat at Olympiakos.
A return to Hull followed in January and since then Mannone has underlined his undoubted class by keeping eight clean sheets in 12 Championship appearances, in the process helping equal a long-standing club record for consecutive shut-outs.
So impressive has he been, in fact, that manager Nick Barmby has already confirmed that trying to sign Mannone on a permanent basis come the summer is already a priority. Unlike this time last year, the Italian is likely to be much more open to a move away from a club he joined as a teenager in 2005.
“Something has changed,” said the 24-year-old when asked about this time last year and the clear excitement he felt at returning to Arsenal and making a concerted challenge for a starting place.
“I am still an Arsenal player with another three years on my contract but they know what is happening and what I want.
“I don’t want to be a second or third choice. There is not a chance of that after all the games I have played here. After you enjoy something so much, you don’t want to go backwards.
“I would accept it if my level (of performance) was rubbish but I am challenging and working really hard to be a better ’keeper. To do that, you have to play and now I am seeing my confidence growing all the time.
“I would like to be settled before pre-season starts. Three years in a row, I have been on long pre-season trips. Last year it was China and I think Arsenal are going to Japan this year.
“On a trip like that, you want to be challenging for the number one spot. If you are not going to do that, there is no point in being there.”
Asked if talks had taken place over possibly making a permanent move to Hull, Mannone replied: “We began a small chat with Hull and Nick really wants me here. There is a lot of pressure now on the games so there is not really any chance to talk about anything. The focus in on the big challenge of the play-offs and promotion.
“There is no chance to talk now but at the end of the season we will sit down.
“The most important thing is that the clubs talk, too. It’s not about me, it is for the clubs to decide first.”
The six consecutive clean sheets Mannone recently kept to establish a new club record means he has already played a leading role in keeping the Tigers among the pack chasing a place in the play-offs.
Two points adrift of the top six, City have a game in hand – at rock bottom Portsmouth on Tuesday – on three of the five sides sitting directly above them in the Championship table.
Today, Hull travel to Leicester City for a fixture given extra spice by the presence of former manager Nigel Pearson in the home dugout.
Pearson, who walked out on the Tigers in November, signed Mannone last season and the Italian admits he owes the Foxes chief a debt of gratitude.
He said: “He gave me the chance to know this club. I have to be grateful for this because I wouldn’t be here without him. He gave me my chance to play at Hull last season and I enjoyed it.
“I am enjoying it even more this time and the team spirit is even better. It is a great bunch of lads with a great manager so we have gone forward since he moved.
“I was at Arsenal when it happened (Pearson quitting) so I wasn’t sure what went on. I was as surprised as everyone else.
“But he was good for my career. He really trusted me. He gave me my chance, even though I was young. He decided to stick next to me.
“As a man, he liked to speak with you and even in the negative moments he would put his arm on your shoulder. He is a big man, he looks like a big, scary man. But he was always okay with me.
“I am not in a position to say if he made a mistake by leaving or not. He took the decision so you need to see both sides. He must have had some reasons to go otherwise he would still be here.
“To me, last year he looked at home here and he was important to the club. He had brought players in as well and he wouldn’t have done that if he wasn’t thinking about staying longer.”
Tuesday’s defeat at home to leaders Southampton brought to an end Hull’s 11-game unbeaten run. In terms of the play-off race, however, the damage was limited due to all but Brighton & Hove Albion either losing or drawing in midweek.
Mannone said: “If we get five wins or six wins, the play-offs are still in our reach.”
Asked if the squad still believed a place in the top six was achievable, Mannone replied: “Well I am not even booking any holidays. Normally, I’m booking before now because I’m not busy but all my focus is here and the nine cup finals we have.”