‘He wouldn’t come back out. He was too cold’

Alejandro Sabella will carry the hopes of a nation and a corner of South Yorkshire on his shoulders as he attempts to lead Argentina into the World Cup final.

The 59-year-old will send his troops into battle with the Netherlands in Sao Paulo tonight with the biggest prize in football firmly in his sights.

It is perhaps not something he might have envisaged the day he wrapped himself around a radiator at half-time at Hartlepool’s then Victoria Road home and refused to subject himself to the icy blast of a north-east winter.

But he will do so with a his former comrades in the red and white half of Sheffield firmly in his corner as he bids to complete a journey which has taken him from Buenos Aires via the Steel City to the pinnacle of the international game.

Sabella arrived at Sheffield United during the summer of 1978 as an unknown, at least on these shores, 23-year-old with manager Harry Haslam extending his search for fresh talent to South America.

The story goes that Haslam’s initial target was a 16-year-old Diego Maradona, who even then ultimately proved to be outside his price range.

Former Blades team-mate Tony Kenworthy recalled: “As far as the players were concerned — and he did tell us the story, Harry himself — he was going to go for Maradona.

“He had seen Maradona and he was interested in him, but it was Alex that he opted for because Maradona was just a little bit too much.”

The newcomer was thrust into the Blades dressing room as something of a novelty, but was soon assimilated, thanks in part to the presence of Uruguayan Danny Bergara.

Kenworthy said: “Football bridges a lot of gaps and it’s easy, it’s a universal place to come into — but it’s an unforgiving place if you’re not up to scratch.

“But Alex came in and he was such a nice guy that you couldn’t help but like the fella, and the icing on the cake was that he was fantastic technically as a footballer.”

Foreign imports have been credited with introducing greater professionalism into the English game in recent years.

However, Sabella’s contribution on that front was negligible to the point that he refused to train on Fridays and left his preparation for games until the very last minute.

Kenworthy said: “At 2:30pm, where we would have had our massages and our ankles were strapped and you go through your routine, you would look across and Alex would be looking at the pictures in the programme.

“You’d look again at 2.40pm and Alex would still be in his suit; you’d look back at 2.45pm and he’d be changed, he’d be ready, socks rolled down, boots on ready to go out. That was Alex.”

The English weather too proved something of a culture shock for a man who was quick to seek out the best source of heat in any dressing room.

Kenworthy said: “He hated the cold. At half-time, he would wrap himself around any radiator he could find in the dressing room.

“We played at Hartlepool and he didn’t come out for the second half. He wouldn’t come back out. He was too cold. We had to make a substitution at half-time.”

But, whatever his idiosyncrasies, the Argentinian possessed a rich talent and, in his two seasons at Bramall Lane — he went on to have a third with derby rivals Leeds — proved to be a match-winner.

Kenworthy remembers a man who came to life when his side was on the ball, even in the white heat of an infamous Sheffield derby in December 26, 1979.

The full-back said: “When we were defending, he wasn’t any part of what we were trying to achieve because you couldn’t rely on him. But once we won the ball, we would try to get him on it as much as we could because of his talent.

“Many a time, he’d have to put up with a man-to-man marker, and it wasn’t like today. You could be heavy with your challenges and your first one was always free, so it was always the free one on Alex.

“We played Sheffield Wednesday on that Boxing Day and he came past me horizontal at eye level at one point.

“He was going to get it, but lads in the dressing room tried to look after him on the pitch because he was your little diamond. He could turn a game for you.”

Sabella made his mark on and off the pitch during his time in the Sheffield, and the bonds he forged there remain intact, ensuring support from afar tonight.

Kenworthy said: “What a fantastic lad. I can’t say enough about him. It can’t be England, so we are all hoping it will be Argentina. Once a Blade, always a Blade.”


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