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Alex Sabella passes away at the age of 66
Tuesday, 8th Dec 2020 22:32 by Tim Whelan

For the fourth time this year Leeds United are mourning the death of one of our former players. Sabella had been suffering from heart problems for some time, and this evening the news broke that he had passed away.

Sabella began his career at River Plate in his native Argentina, before moving to England to join Sheffield United in the summer of 1978. This move didn’t capture the same headlines as Tottenham’s capture of his fellow countrymen Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa in the same close season, but he was a success at Bramall Lane, scoring eight goals in 76 league appearances.

But his efforts couldn’t prevent the Blades slipping into the third division and in the summer of 1980 they agreed a fee of £600,000 with Second Division Sunderland. However, Sabella understandably refused to join the Roker men, and he was bound for Elland Road instead. At the time I was delighted by this news, thinking he would provide the midfield flair we had sorely missed since Tony Currie had gone to QPR a year earlier.

But he had joined Leeds at the wrong time and after five games we were bottom of the table, having won 3-2 at Norwich, but lost all four of the other games. Jimmy Adamson was fired in the wake of demonstrations by the fans, and his replacement was Allan Clarke. Clarke decided that getting results to guide Leeds away from the bottom of the table would take precedence over style, which was never going to suit Sabella’s way of playing the game.

Leeds eventually finished 9th in 1980/1, but managed to do despite scoring the fewest goals of any team in the first division, only 39 in the 42 games. And when Clarke tried to play more attacking football in the following season it merely exposed the limitations in the defensive, and Leeds never really recovered from a 5-1 hammering at Swansea on the opening day.

With the club embroiled in a relegation battle Sabella was keen to return to Argentina, and in December 1981 he joined Estudiantes de La Plata. In total Sabella made 27 appearances for Leeds, scoring 2 goals. But he saved them for the most difficult games, as both earned 1-1 draws away to the clubs who finished first and second in 1980/1, Aston Villa and Ipswich.

In stark contrast to his time at Elland Road, at Estudiantes he was part of a side who won consecutive Championship titles. And when their manager Carlos Bilardo was called up to be national team boss Sabella won 8 caps for Argentina, four of them in the finals of the 1983 Copa America.

Once his playing career was over Sabella’s managerial career was to follow a similar path to Bilardo, starting out at Estudiantes, where he would win the 2009 Copa Libertadores and finish runners-up in the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup. He was then named Argentina manager in 2011, and took them all the way to the 2014 World Cup Final.

After that game he decided to step down from the role, but his failing health meant that he wasn’t destined to enjoy a long and happy retirement. His passing won’t lead to the same worldwide mourning as another former Argentina manager, but Sabella always conducted himself with dignity, and he will always be fondly remembered in two parts of Yorkshire.

Photo: Action Images

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