Experience is a unique thing. As Alejandro Sabella gave his team talk to his Argentina side in the World Cup final of 2014, you wonder if he drew on the Yorkshire grit that can only be acquired from playing in the second tier of English football during the late 1970s.
Sabella began his career at his hometown club, River Plate, and was part of a successful youth set up that produced other excellent players such as Néstor Gorosito, Pedro Troglio, and Norberto “Beto” Alonso. Despite his quality, Sabella struggled to stake a claim for the club’s number 10 jersey during the Alonso era of the mid-1970s. In 1975, River won their first title in 18 years, and Alonso was crowned as the new king of Los Millonarios. Olympique de Marseille whisked him away to the South of France, and Sabella, long seen as the man who would be king, finally had his chance to prove that he could be River’s creative lynchpin.
...Only it didn’t quite work out like that. South American fans are notoriously fickle when it comes to new kids on the block with big reputations, and after an excellent season in 1977 which saw River win the league title, the team struggled, and the fans turned on him. Pace was never Sabella’s greatest attribute, and he was dubbed ‘pachorra’, meaning ‘sloth’. Under-pressure coach Ángel Labruna quickly brought Alonso back home to Buenos Aires after his brief spell with Marseille, and Sabella was sidelined again, being made available for transfer.
Sheffield United boss Harry Haslam was in Argentina hoping to secure the transfer of a 17-year old prodigy by the name of Diego Maradona. Living up to the thrifty reputation of Yorkshiremen, the Sheffield United board refused to pay the extra £40,000 needed to sanction the transfer, which would have been secured for £200,000. Haslam, determined not to return to the Steel City empty handed, came back with Sabella. Even the bemused security at Buenos Aires airport were reluctant to let him go.
“We get to the airport and the man who’s looking at the passports doesn’t want to let us out because we’ve got Sabella with us,” said Haslam to a waiting press pack at Bramall Lane. The fee was £160,000, but the question remained- how on earth did Haslam persuade one of the top prospects in South American football to come to play Second Division football in South Yorkshire? Jaws dropped at training when Sabella would perform dazzling ball tricks. It was like a Martian had landed.
As part of the deal to bring Sabella to Sheffield, a friendly was organised which saw River Plate head to Bramall Lane just weeks after Argentina triumphed in the 1978 World Cup final against Holland. Sabella faced off against Alonso that day, as well as other World Cup winners Daniel Passarella and Ubaldo Fillol. The game ended 2-1 to River Plate, and gave the Blades fans a tantalising first-hand glimpse of world-class football.
Team-mate Tony Kenworthy told the Sheffield Star in 2014 that Sabella was a model professional, and integrated himself well into life in South Yorkshire. “The players took to Alex straight away. He was humorous, intelligent, and quickly picked up the banter. But mainly he focused on his football. As a neighbour, he would knock on my door and I’d go with him to the supermarket, stuff like that. We’d spend evenings together watching football videos. He was very serious about the game.”
The gulf in quality between Sabella and his teammates and opposition was evident, however, and one United fan bluntly stated that he was like “a thoroughbred playing amongst donkeys”. In today’s era, he would have been snapped up by one of the top English sides, but back then, the larger British teams were not sending scouts to deepest, darkest Buenos Aires. Their loss was Sheffield United’s gain, and Sabella played 76 times for the Blades, chipping in with a useful eight league goals. He is still remembered fondly by their fans as an able technician in an age of rough and tough cloggers.
Sabella would leave to play First Division football with Leeds United in 1980, with Sheffield United more than doubling their outlay on him, with the fee believed to be £400,000. Unlike his last transfer, he didn’t have to travel far – just an hour up the M1 – and the merchandising geniuses at the club came up with ‘Samba with Sabella’ t-shirts to be sold in the club shop, perhaps hoping that nobody would notice that he wasn’t actually Brazilian.
Of course, he wasn’t the only Argentinian playing in English football, and when Tottenham Hotspur came to Elland Road play out a 0-0 draw, they brought with them Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa. The game was billed in the press as ‘The Battle of River Plate’, as Sabella lined up against his compatriots.
Despite the optimism after Sabella’s move, however, Leeds won just one of their first 11 games, and manager Jimmy Adamson was promptly shown the door. Allan Clarke, a former legendary striker at the club, replaced him, and looked to shore up a leaky defence with a heavily defensive line-up. It was still very much the post-Don Revie era, and a silky ball player like Sabella was deemed a luxury they could ill-afford as the club battled to stay in the First Division.
He mustered up just 23 appearances for the Whites before he returned to Argentina with a move to Estudiantes. It’s fair to say fans of Sheffield United have fonder memories of Sabella than Leeds supporters, and his career at Elland Road can probably best be described as ‘wrong place at the wrong time’.
The Buenos Aires boy would go on to become Daniel Passarella’s assistant at River Plate, and after a successful spell managing Estudiantes, where he won the league title and the Copa Libertadores, Sabella took the national team job in 2011.
Of course, three years later in that World Cup final, Mario Götze broke Argentine hearts with his goal in extra time; Sabella would stand down from his position as national team manager in the days that followed and hasn’t managed since. But as with any long and storied career, it’s often the road less travelled that creates the character that makes a manager.
We’ll probably never know if Lionel Messi could do it on a wet Wednesday in Stoke, but his international manager in 2014 came close, playing for the Blades on a Saturday afternoon in October 1978 at Stoke’s old Victoria Ground.
By IBWM Editor Thomas Barrett.
Header image: footysphere