Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella’s former teammates in England are both surprised and delighted at his success at the World Cup.
Sabella, whose Argentina face the Netherlands in Wednesday’s semi-final, came to England in 1978 in the shadow of more celebrated Argentinian World Cup-winning heroes Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa.
While Ardiles and Villa joined fashionable Tottenham Hotspur the then 24-year-old Sabella – who was not a member of the World Cup winning squad – arrived at unglamorous Second Division side Sheffield United for £160,000 from historic Argentinian side River Plate.
The talented midfielder had fallen for the charm of visionary United manager Harry Haslam, though, it is unlikely many of his training routines have filtered through to the way Sabella has coached the national side and sees them preparing for their first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
One of his teammates from that time Steve Charles told Sheffield local paper The Star that it was a bit of a culture shock for both the Argentinian and the journeymen pros at the club when he rolled up.
“He was above our level, in all honesty,” said 54-year-old Charles, who made 156 appearances for United.
“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,” added Charles.
Sabella, who took over at the helm after Argentina failed to win the Copa America on home soil in 2011, wouldn’t have struck Charles as a natural coach because of his reserved character at the time.
“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.
Sabella, who won eight caps for Argentina, failed to ignite a revival in Sheffield United’s fortunes, indeed they were relegated to the Third Division and with a new stand to be paid for they had little option but to cash in on him.
Thus having rejected a move to Sunderland he agreed to go for the princely sum of £400,000 to another Yorkshire side, English heavyweights Leeds United, who were fighting to regain the heights they had enjoyed during the Don Revie era.
One of the Leeds players at the time, defender Paul Hart, said he was a pleasure to have around – he stayed till 1982 and made minimal impact with just two goals in 23 appearances.
But like Charles he also didn’t think of Sabella as management material at the time.
“It would be difficult to say any of us thought then we would go on to become managers,” Hart told the Daily Telegraph.
“It was not something you thought about as players. I would not have considered going into coaching myself at the time but it is credit to Alex he has made such excellent progress.
“I can remember in 1996 going to watch Argentina in a friendly against the Republic of Ireland and Alex was the assistant to the great centre-half Daniel Passarella, who was then in charge of the Argentina team.
“We had a great chat and he presented me with an Argentina jersey which I still treasure,” said the 61-year-old former Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers manager.
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