You know that phrase “useless as a chocolate fireguard.” Well, Alex Sabella would have gladly melted onto a dressing room radiator one freezing night at Hartlepool.
The late Danny Bergara once told me how Sabella refused to go out for the second half even when de-frosted.
Now, as Sabella glows as a World Cup manager, that story is confirmed by his then Sheffield United team-mate
Tony Kenworthy. “I was wondering when someone was going to get round to talking to me about Alex,” says Tony. “I was only the one detailed to look after him!”
Kenworthy found himself living two doors from Sabella when the most exotic signing in Blades history materialised from Harry Haslam’s legendary summer sortie to South America where he found an alternative to top target Diego Maradona. . . and whatever happened to him?
Suddenly Sabella is in global focus as he fronts Argentina’s strong World Cup hopes. Tony is delighted for him:
“You see some blokes do well and think ‘how’s he done that, he’s a right so-and-so’ but Alex was always such a lovely man.”
TK’s memories of the teenage Sabella stretch far beyond his mesmerising skills as a midfielder who would join Leeds in 1980 after two years with the Blades in an otherwise downbeat era. “The dressing room is a daunting place. . . it can take to you, especially if you have ability. . . but it can go the other way,” adds Tony. “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.
“But he wouldn’t train on a Friday. That would cause a few arguments between him and Danny (Bergara, Haslam’s Uruguayan coach). It was to do with Alex’s culture. They were always light looseners on a Friday but Alex didn’t want to run the slightest risk of injury.
“On a good day he could be unplayable, just so quick and clever. Yet Alex never warmed up much. He’d still be sitting in his suit, totally relaxed and reading the match programme until quarter to three. Then suddenly he’d be ready.”
One time he wasn’t ready was at Hillsborough on December 26th, 1979. “They call it the Boxing Day massacre – I don’t know what we call it,” says Kenworthy of the famous Owls v Blades 4-0 drubbing.
“It kicked off in a bit in the tunnel before the game with pushing and shoving.
“Alex had eyes as wide as saucers. We took the field with ten that day – we were a man down.
“But what a nice guy. Wish him nothing but the best.”