Sheffield United: From Nether Edge to the Maracana

Alex Sabella (right) in action for Sheffield United against the club he would later join, Leeds.
Alex Sabella (right) in action for Sheffield United against the club he would later join, Leeds.
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Thirty-six years ago, they shared digs and bus journeys to training, writes James Shield.

Tomorrow, from the comfort of his living room, Imre Varadi will watch former Sheffield United team mate Alejandro Sabella attempt to reach the very pinnacle of the game.

Sabella, who is preparing to lead Argentina into the World Cup final against Germany, has certainly come a long way since the days he used to lodge in a club house at Nether Edge.

“Looking back you’d have never guessed that Alex, as we used to call him, would go on to manage his country in the greatest football tournament there is,” Varadi told The Star. “Because, if you’d have asked any of us, I don’t think we’d have picked him out as a coach.

“The reason I say that is because he was such a nice guy. Probably too nice, you’d have thought, to go into that job.

“Perhaps, though, that’s one of his biggest strengths now. Because Alex had this lovely knack of making everyone in his company feel really good about themselves. All of us absolutely loved him.”

Sabella and Varadi, who started his career with United before representing clubs including Everton, Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday, got to know the former midfielder well soon after he swapped Buenos Aires for Bramall Lane.

“When Alex first came over here, he stayed in the club house on Moncrieffe Road,” Varadi continued. “His wife was still in South America and so he mucked in with the rest of us.

“Because my name sounded foreign and I had long shaggy hair at the time like him, he used to get the bus to the ground with me and a few others.”

Sabella made 88 appearances for United following his transfer from River Plate in 1978. He returned to Argentina with Estudiantes following a brief spell at Leeds before taking charge of the national team in 2011 after leading El León to their fourth Copa Libertadores triumph.

“What a player Alex was,” Varadi said. “He used to make everything look so easy and you could tell he had a real love and flair for the game.

“You’d see him do all of these back heels and little flicks in areas of the pitch where we’d never dream of trying something like that. And the same goes for footballers now.

“But, beneath all of that, he was a really tough customer. He had to be.

“Back then, defenders could get away with much more when it came to marking the more attacking players. In fact, their first tackle would often constitute GBH.

“Alex, though, just got on with it and kept on playing the game he wanted it to be played. And, make no mistake, when it came to that he was very demanding of those around him.”

Argentina will need to demonstrate the same ruthless streak when they face Germany in the Maracanã. La Albiceleste, who were last crowned champions of the world in 1986, required a penalty shoot-out to beat Holland at the semi-final stage while Joachim Löw’s side demolished hosts Brazil 7-1.

Sabella revealed yesterday the World Cup final will be his last game in charge of his country.

Argentina, who were yesterday fined £200,000 by FIFA for failing to undertake their media obligations, last night insisted the Europeans will start to strong favourites.

But, having observed how Sabella has galvanised the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero, Varadi believes the 59-year-old could prove the ace in the South American’s pack.

“As a former player, you can tell that the whole Argentina squad has so much respect for their manager,” Varadi said. “Just by the body language, the way he is with them on the touchline and how they behave around him during breaks in the game.

“And you always perform better for a manager that you respect. That bond can be a really powerful thing.”

*Twitter: @JamesShield1