On this day in 1979, Sunderland boss’s Ken Knighton’s £625,000 bid for Sheffield United’s 23-year-old midfielder Alex Sabella was accepted, and the Argentinian headed to Roker Park for talks on personal terms.
Sheffield United had been relegated to Division Three, and Sunderland, in Division Two, hoped to take full advantage after missing out on promotion by a single point.
The Argentine had only arrived at Bramall Lane a year earlier, signed for £100,000, and with increasing competition from Leeds for Sabella’s signature, Knighton had met United’s asking price - which would have been a North East transfer record.
“Ken is talking to the player, and if everything goes smoothly Sabella could be a Sunderland player within days,” said assistant manager Frank Clark.
Oscar Arce, a scout and coach at Sheffield United, was instrumental in Sabella’s move to Bramall Lane, and Knighton had brought him to Sunderland with the hope of attracting some South American talent of our own – with Sabella heading that list.
Sabella, the future Argentina manager, didn’t entertain the move to Roker for long – holding out for a move to Division One.
It was a period of time in English football – following the 1978 World Cup – that South American talent was particularly in vogue. The appointment of Arce to scout the best talent was, however, short-lived.
After a deal to bring Brazilian international striker Alves Gil to the club fell through, with Gil somehow stranded in London, Knighton publicly sacked Arce after a mid-season friendly game at Roker Park against Paraguayan team Olimpia Asuncion, in which two Argentinans Hordon Palmier and Ruben Alcides Giordano (the latter Maradona’s midfield partner at Argentinos Juniors) played on trial for Sunderland.
Sabella ended up staying with Sheffield United for the 1979-80 season before finally getting his top flight move when former Sunderland boss Jimmy Adamson signed him for Leeds for £400,000 before the 80-81 season.
It was a season in which Sunderland were also in the top flight, after winning promotion from Division Two – without Sabella, of course, but with Claudio Marangoni, who Knighton turned to after Sabella’s rejection.
Marangoni, a club record £320,000 signing (which gives context to the enormity of the £625,000 bid we’d placed for Sabella) from San Lorenzo was brought in before Christmas, debuting in a home victory over Cardiff and scoring his first two games later in a home win over a Shrewsbury side featuring future Sunderland captain and assistant manager Ian Atkins.
Marangoni didn’t settle at Sunderland – departing for Buenos Aires club Huracan after only 22 games and three goals, while Sabella, ironically, played an identical number of games for Leeds before heading back to Argentina, too.
And Sunderland didn’t spend more than the proposed transfer fee for Sabella until more than a decade later, when Don Goodman arrived from West Brom for £900,000 in 1991, beating the previous record of £450,000 set by Tony Norman’s 1988 transfer, which had also included a couple of players – Billy Whitehurst and Steve Doyle – in part exchange.