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On This Day (16th Aug 1979): Sabella to be a Roker Fella?

There was no small amount of excitement and anticipation amongst Sunderland fans as they poured over the back page news in their regional papers on this day 16th August 1979.

Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

With Yugoslavian forward Bozo Bakota apparently signed and ripping it up on the Roker training paddock, the news broke that a deal had also been agreed between Sunderland and Sheffield United for the Argentinian sensation Alejandro (Alex) Sabella.

I thought my head was going to spin round three times and fly off as I read the story in the Journal of the £625,000 fee that would make him the most expensive player in the North East.

The thought of him and Bakota playing alongside our home-grown players, Arnott, Elliott, Chisholm, Brown, Bolton, Rostron, and Pop Robson was tantalising. Gary Rowell was hopefully over his knee ligament injury and was being heavily backed at 33-1 alongside Kenny Dalglish to score over thirty goals in a season. Throw in Jeff Clarke, Bob Lee, Steve Whitworth and Barry Siddall and I was sure as eggs are eggs, we would go up as champions!

Sabella had been at Roker Park with his wife (always a good sign) the Sheffield United Chairman and manager Harry Haslam the previous day. Ken Knighton and Sunderland chairman Keith Collings had apparently worked their socks off to bring this deal in and Sabella had left, promising an answer the next day.

I had seen Sabella up close and personal twice the previous season and was mightily impressed, not only with his ball skills, but his graft and stamina. Sabella made two of the Blades goals in their 3-2 victory at Bramall Lane and scored a very good goal and was easily the best player on the park, in the 6-2 hammering we dished out at Roker Park later that season.

In a tale of what might have been, Sabella said “Suena bien pero no”. He signed for Jimmy Adamson at Leeds in 1980 but left after twenty-three games, returning to Argentina and Estudiantes.

Further frustration was to emerge when it transpired that Bakota would not be granted international clearance/work permit despite the extensive press coverage and obligatory scarf photo with the manager, and training with his “teammates” for a few weeks.

Thank the Lord we did not have social media and keyboard warriors to contend with in those days!

Despite the setback, the £625,000 that should have been spent on Sabella was put to good use that season, with Stan Cummins and John Hawley signing in the autumn, along with an Argentinian maestro Claudio Marangoni in deals totalling £880,000. Chris Turner had also been signed for £100,00 from Sheffield Wednesday and he proved an inspired signing as we went on to have a cracking season, promoted and finishing runners up to a very good Leicester City team.

Maybe a lesson there for some of our fans, who appear to have already written off this season...


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