On August 30, 1978, Bramall Lane paid host to one of the more curious fixtures in the venerable old stadium's 165-year history. Sheffield United, the local occupants hoping to break back into the old English First Division after two seasons in the second tier, welcomed mighty River Plate to their home for a pre-season friendly.
The Millonario, who accommodated the fixture into their schedule as part of a European tour, came prepared. In tow were the likes of Ubaldo Fillol, Daniel Passarella, Norberto Alonso, Leopoldo Luque and Oscar Ortiz, all of whom had helped Argentina to their first-ever World Cup on home soil; while veteran defender Roberto Perfumo, considered one of the greatest in the nation's history, also started in South Yorkshire.
Under the circumstances Sheffield United were probably content to go down in a narrow 2-1 defeat, even taking the lead through an early penalty from Blades legend Alan Woodward before Luque and Alonso turned the tables on the hosts.
River, however, were not the only side at Bramall Lane to include Argentine talent. On the other side of the pitch was 23-year-old playmaker Alejandro Sabella, who had been transferred just weeks earlier in a deal that included the arranging of a friendly between the two sides. The future Argentina World Cup finalist coach, who sadly passed away on December 8 aged 66, was a trailblazer in English football – but if United had had their way, his place could well have been filled by the greatest talent the Albiceleste has ever produced.
At the end of the 1970s the insular world of English football was beginning to change, and two men were at the forefront: Keith Burkinshaw, manager of Tottenham Hotspur; and Harry Haslam, who held the same position at Bramall Lane. The pair flew out together to Argentina to run the rule over the local talent after the end of the World Cup, with an eye to bringing them back to a league which at that point was still overwhelmingly British and Irish in composition – indeed, it was only in 1978 that the Football Association lifted its ban on foreign players in its league, which had been in place almost half a decade.
Tottenham immediately caused a stir with the signings of World Cup-winning midfield duo Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, which made front-page news back in England. The Blades, meanwhile, had set their sights on Sabella, who had taken advantage of Alonso's absence with the national team to enjoy a sustained, successful run in River's midfield over the year.
“When a player of that ability comes into the side, it gives the whole team a lift,” Gary Hamson, who played alongside Sabella at United, told Four Four Two. “It was a bit like sprinkling gold dust on your team, that extra bit of glamour. But when he first came, I realised he was left-footed like me. I thought, ‘Is he going to be playing in my position? Is Harry Haslam going to sell me?’”
The one that got away
The signing of such an exotic young star was a huge coup for the Blades, but they were not content. A 17-year-old phenomenon named Diego Armando Maradona had also caught Haslam's attention thanks to his exploits at Argentinos Juniors, and the manager immediately started negotiating over his arrival in Yorkshire. He also counted on an unexpected ally: Antonio Rattin, the ex-Argentina captain who in 1966 had become a hate figure for the English for his actions during that year's World Cup quarter-final.
“Rattin, a legend at Boca Juniors, was also involved. The United travelling party were taken to the outskirts of Buenos Aires to a training ground to watch this kid put through his paces. Haslam was mesmerised by him and straight away said ‘I’ll take him, how much?’” renowned United historian John Garrett recalled to Yorkshire Live.
“His club at the time wanted £150,000 for him, which was not the end of the world when you think we were just a year away from Nottingham Forest spending £1 million on Trevor Francis.”
What happened next is still disputed. Certain versions of the tale sustain that United were exasperated by the demands of Maradona's agents and hangers-on which caused the modest initial fee to spiral out of control. Other tellings assure that it was in fact the military dictatorship that demanded a bribe of £150,000 to allow the star to leave the country: "United weren’t baulking on the money, had the club said £300,000 they would have paid it, it was just the minute the junta got involved United ran a mile,” as Garrett explained.
Maradona subsequently stayed three more years at Argentinos before embarking at Boca in one of the most convoluted and ultimately financially ruinous transfers in the nation's football history. Sabella, meanwhile, quickly became a favourite at Bramall Lane, his exquisite technique on the ball compensating for the lack of urgency on the field which led to him being affectionately dubbed Pachorra (“sloth”) by team-mates. He spent two seasons at United before moving to Leeds United in 1980 when the Blades slipped down to the Third Division, an unhappy spell that ended in 1981 with his return to Argentina with Estudiantes, marking the start of a love affair that lasted almost four decades and right up to Sabella's final days.
“The first time I practiced with Diego was awful,” Sabella once joked. “I went home completely depressed, thinking I couldn't play football.” Indeed, his professional career played out in the shadow of first Alonso and then Maradona, two of Argentina's finest No. 10s of all time, with the latter's presence in the national team restricting Pachorra to just eight caps. The pair were never close, but appeared to hold the other in high esteem and admiration, with both belonging to the select group of men to have taken the Albiceleste to the World Cup final (Diego as a player in 1986 and 1990, Sabella on the bench in 2014).
For one team in South Yorkshire, though, the question will always remain: what might have been if the planets had aligned to bring the two playmakers to Bramall Lane, ready and willing to run riot in the Second Division?
What might have been: Sabella and Maradona for Sheffield United – what might