When Diego Maradona Almost Signed For Sheffield United

When Diego Maradona Almost Signed For Sheffield United
15:46, 12 Jun 2019

In 1987, Maradona took Napoli to their first ever Serie A title just a year after he’d almost single-handedly won the World Cup in Mexico with Argentina; but if things had worked out a little differently one of the greatest talents the world has ever seen could have been playing for Sheffield United.

The stories of clubs the world over are often defined by fateful, occasionally chance, transfers, from big money ‘marquees signings,’ to bargain buys which turn out to be a masterstroke when their potential is eventually realised.

But then there are the tales of what might have been. The ones that got away; leaving supporters frustrated and players taking a different path in life, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

And no greater example of this occurred during the summer of 1978 when one of the most promising young talents the game had ever seen almost signed for a second-tier English club which hadn’t won a trophy since 1925 and often played their games in front of gates of less than 20,000.

Diego Armando Maradona caught the eye of talent scouts at the age of just eight while he was playing in his neighbourhood club Estrella Roja and would quickly establish himself in the junior team of Buenos Aires's Argentinos, known as Los Cebollitas.

Not short of confidence, as a 12-year-old ball boy he would keep spectators entertained by showing his wizardry with the ball during the halftime interval of games, little surprise then that he would name Brazilian playmaker Rivelino and Manchester United star George Best among his heroes growing up.

He would make his professional debut 10 days before his 17th birthday in 1976 and after the match claimed: “That day I felt I had held the sky in my hands” just a few weeks later he would score the first of his 115 goals in 167 appearances for the club.

But Maradona wasn’t the only player from South America setting the world alight at that time with their extraordinary abilities, something that was brought to the attention of millions during the 1978 World Cup which was held in Argentina and is still regarded as one of the most colourful and exciting in the competition’s long history.

It wasn’t just the vast crowds and ticker tape celebrations which made the tournament such a spectacle as many of the Argentina players who helped the host to lift the famous trophy that year would go on to become the most eye-catching of their era.

The goals of Mario Kempes, who would finish as the top scorer of that World Cup, the dribbling prowess and sultry skills of Ricardo Villa, and the vision and intelligence of Osvaldo Ardiles would make them all household names on both sides of the Atlantic.

As a result, a number of English managers turned their attentions to South America in an effort to unearth the next big talent, one of which was the pioneering Sheffield United boss Harry Haslam, who was prepared to ignore the difficult international relations which existed with Argentina at the time to pioneer the signing of foreign players for his side.

The 1978 World Cup had been one of the most controversial as host nation Argentina had undergone a military coup just two years earlier; but that didn’t deter Haslam who negotiated first refusal on World Cup winners Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa.

Though with the United board reluctant to stump-up the cash required to get their men, he ended up brokering a deal that saw the pair move to Tottenham instead, generating one of the biggest football stories of the decade and paving the way for a generation of overseas stars to shine on the English stage.

Alex Sabella joined Sheffield United from River Plate and thoughe he did well in South Yorkshire, he was no Maradona
Alex Sabella joined Sheffield United from River Plate and thoughe he did well in South Yorkshire, he was no Maradona

However, the trip was not in vain as the Blades boss came across a 17-year-old Maradona, who was not selected for the World Cup due to his age, and all but sealed a deal of around £200,000 to bring him back to Sheffield in what would have been the most audacious transfer in the history of the game.

“Diego was actually ready to go,” John Ludden, author of the best-selling book ‘Once Upon a Time in Naples,’ tells The Sportsman. “It was a real offer, around £400,000 in total for Maradona and another player called Carlos Fren, the air tickets were even booked.

“Then greed showed its head as agents and other figures demanded more money, with the transfer eventually collapsing. He was only 17, but already a genius. So you could say It was a huge opportunity missed.”

With the board vetoing the move due to the high cost, United instead turned their attention to the slightly more affordable Alex Sabella, bringing him to Bramall Lane from River Plate for £160,000 rather than Maradona, who eventually signed for Boca Juniors before moving to Barcelona for a record fee of £5 million following the 1982 World Cup.

Though Sabella was held in high esteem by the United faithful, and anyone attending Bramall Lane at that time will remember the thrill of having an Argentinian international in the team, he was no substitute for Maradona.

An exciting wide player who was able to beat a man and whip in a dangerous cross Sabella was a decent footballer in his own right as well as being a colourful character off the field due to his left-wing political beliefs; but was unable to prevent the Blades from being relegated to the Third Division in his first season before eventually leaving to join Leeds in 1980.

As for Maradona, he would join Napoli in 1985 where he would win two Serie A titles, the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup while lifting the World Cup for Argentina at Mexico ‘86 on the way to being widely regarded as the greatest player that ever lived.

There are “what if?” stories and there are “what if?” stories, but the tale of how a Second Division side in the north of England almost signed a player who would go on to be the most recognised and revered on the planet to this day takes some beating.   

The film - Diego Maradona - goes on general release on June 14

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