Sheffield United: From Buenos Aires to Bramall Lane

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The season of 1978/79 was generally a forgettable one for Sheffield United fans, as Harry Haslam’s expensively-assembled squad slipped into the third division.

But little did the Bramall Lane faithful realise that Haslam had helped change this country’s footballing landscape in 1978 - with the signing of one Alejandro Sabella.

Alex Sabella

Alex Sabella

“Alex, as everyone knew him, was an unbelievable player,” Steve Charles, a former team-mate of the Argentine at Bramall Lane, told The Star.

Sabella was 24 when he swapped Buenos Aires for Bramall Lane, just months after Argentina had lifted the World Cup in their own country. And Sabella, now the manager of his country, will aim to repeat that feat this summer in Brazil.

The £160,000 transfer fee, to River Plate, was a Bramall Lane record - at a time when United were still struggling, financially - and, together with the arrival of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa at Tottenham, it sent shockwaves through the footballing world.

It was a time when, as club historial Denis Clarebrough remembers, “British football was known for its insularity” and lightweight, skilful players from foreign stars were virtually unheard of.

Steve Charles

Steve Charles

United, though, had previous. Sabella was greeted at United by Uruguayan assistant manager Danny Bergara, who had a detailed coaching brief at the club.

There was a familiar face - and language - in fellow Argentine Oscar Arce, who was tasked with looking after the club’s apprentices and youth team. Even Former Argentinian captain Antonio Rattín, who leapt to infamy in 1966 when he caused a near-riot after being sent off in the World Cup quarter-final against England, got involved.

He once, unexpectedly, turned up to a Bramall Lane AGM, and he was briefly employed to represent United in his homeland.

At a time when league regulations only allowed two foreign-born players per team, per match, United’s continental manifesto turned heads and set tongues wagging.

United went down to Division Three in Sabella’s first season at Bramall Lane, with some supporters growing frustrated at the lack of end product from their star man’s grace and guile.

But manager Haslam was convinced, and he responded to relegation by looking abroad once more.

Len de Goey, an attacking midfielder from Rotterdam’s Sparta Club, arrived for £125,000, and Argentinian striker Pedro Verde joined him. But Sabella continued to be the main attraction, even in Division Three; the star juggler which the circus relied upon.

“He was above our level, in all honesty,” Charles, who turned down Sheffield Wednesday for a scholarship at Columbia University in America before making 156 appearances for United, added.

“I think he was tempted by Harry, and in some ways he was a pioneer in terms of foreign players coming to England.

“There weren’t many before him, and a lot have come through since. In fact, there are probably more foreigners than English players in the game now, at the top level at least.

“But Alex was never flash, or ‘big time’, or anything like that. He kept himself mostly to himself, and he was a smart, gentle bloke with a good sense of humour.”

United, burdened by the crippling costs of their newly-built South Stand, sold Sabella to Leeds United for £400k in June 1980 - a month after he had signed off with the winning goal in a 2-1 County Cup win over Wednesday.

He returned to his homeland after his spell at Elland Road, winning eight caps for his country. He later managed Estudiantes before being named Argentina manager.

“He’s done really well for himself,” Charles continued, “but I’m not surprised because he’s a top bloke, from a good footballing background.

“To be honest, at United I never had him down as a manager but it was a long time ago now. He was a quiet and reserved person, but he knows what he’s talking about as he’s been in the game such a long time.

“It would be nice to see England win the World Cup, but we’re probably all dreaming a bit there, so it would be nice to see Alex do well with Argentina.

“Maybe some of the things he learned at United will stand him in good stead in Brazil!”