Maradona and me... the time I played alongside a genius

Diego Maradona, lining up alongside Alastair Campbell (r) and  Peter Schmeichel (l), greets Robbie Williams at the start...

Diego Maradona, lining up alongside Alastair Campbell (r) and Peter Schmeichel (l), greets Robbie Williams at the start of the Soccer Aid charity match at Old Trafford, in 2006 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

So Diego is dead, and that is really, really sad. Football is the greatest game on earth. And he was its greatest player. The world will be talking about him, writing about him, making films about him, for the rest of time. The good, the bad, the ugly. But my God, he was good. He was so, so good.

I will leave it to others to write about his footballing life, his background, his problems, challenges and misdemeanours. I just want to write about who and what I saw when I had the unbelievable privilege of playing with him, and training with him, ahead of the first Soccer Aid. The piece below is from a stream of consciousness I wrote 14 years ago, the day after. I said then, that I would mention playing with Maradona every day, at least once, for the rest of my life. And I have. It is just so sad that when I do it in future, as I will, from this day on, he will be in the past tense...........


I am 49, and have spent a whole week training with some of the greatest footballers of all time. Ruud Gullit is the ‘gaffer’ of the Rest of the World team for which, improbably, I have been asked to play in Soccer Aid. When he told me I was in the starting line-up, I thought I was going to faint. Gus Poyet is his assistant. Peter Schmeichel is our goalkeeper. We have Dunga from Brazil, Mattheus from Germany, Desailly from France, World Cup winners all. We have Zola, and Ginola, and a fair few stars against us too, and I could not quite believe I would be lining up against them – Seaman, Adams, Redknapp, Barnes, Ferdinand, Gazza. Gazza for God’s sake!

But all of them, every single one, would admit that there was one name above all that genuinely has legendary status in the eyes of everyone, and that is Diego Maradona. Soccer Aid saved the best till last. We didn’t know he was coming till the day before. The second coming of the Hand of God …

I shall start the story of my experience of the great man at the beginning of match day. I was so excited by the prospect of playing that for the fourth night running, I couldn’t sleep properly. I was the first into breakfast. There were no other players in sight. A man introduced himself as Richard Willmott, vice president of Boca Juniors, a friend of Diego Maradona and a political analyst who wanted to chew the fat on electoral strategy. It’s now 10am and there are still no other players around. I ask Richard what he has planned for the day. He says Diego is about to go for a training session at Old Trafford. “You wanna come?”


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Pardon?

"He can’t sleep. Hasn’t kicked a ball for a few days. Wants to check it all out."

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"And I can come?"

"Yeah, why not?" Palpitations again.

I go up to my room to get my boots. Maradona and his friends are waiting as I get back down. Then we’re into the cars and away. There are a few people milling around the stadium as we arrive. Cameras are being set up. Stewards are preparing. But the ground is near silent, the pitch deserted. Maradona walks down the tunnel in the corner of the ground, whistling. He gets to the pitchside barrier. He raises his arms, says a long “wow” and a huge smile lights up the stadium. “Show me the dressing room.” We go into the away dressing room where the kit man is laying out the strips for the match nine hours later.

He undresses, rummages through a kit bag and pulls out an undersized shirt and oversized shorts. He looks in pretty good shape. There are a few more pounds around the middle than in his heyday but gone are the rolls of fat that once made him so overweight that David Ginola said it “pained my heart to see him, the greatest player of all time, being stared at like a freak”. Now he is being stared at again, for the very simple reason that he is about to go out on a football field and kick a ball. There are maybe 50 people in the stadium in total. But they are an expectant crowd. The pitch has not yet been cut and the ground staff want to limit the damage to the pitch. So I hear the most extraordinary sentence imaginable coming out of the mouth of the guy in charge of the arrangements. “Only Maradona and Alastair allowed on the pitch. Everyone else stay here.”

Short, a bit stiff, and with a fair few scars on the legs, he walks on, and I follow. He walks slowly, looking around each stand in turn. He breathes in deeply, fills his lungs, and then let’s out a sound that is a mix between a war cry and a child’s exclamation of glee. “Whooooooaaaar-eeee-yaaaaa.” Then he laughs and he turns to me and says – at least I think he says – "I am imagining the game, visualising how it will be, imagining how I will play." Never have I so wished I spoke Spanish as he talks to me and I struggle to understand, as I talk to him, and he struggles to understand. For that reason, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these quotes, though I know I have the sentiment.

The main sentiment is that he loves football. Not just loves it like you or I love football, but loves it like a man loves a woman or a child loves a parent. It makes him happy. It fulfils him. It gives him joy because he knows he can give joy to others. 

Then he stops again, looks around again, breathes deep again, then grimaces a little. He seems worried about his knee. I ask if he is ok. He smiles and nods, says he is always ok on the football pitch. 

By now we are at the far end of the pitch. We still haven’t seen a ball, other than those he signed so patiently in the dressing room. So we walk a little more. He “realise” – I think that meant visualise – a little more, and he beams joy again. He asks how many people will be there later.

Some 70,000 tickets sold already, I say. He nods the nod that says he loves it here now, but he will love it even more when he runs out to a full crowd calling his name or booing him. "Full," he says, thumbs up. "Full, full. Big game."

That he likes hearing his name sung was evident the moment we got on the team bus the night before after he flew in from Argentina. I have been writing with Manchester United songsmith Pete Boyle a series of terrace chants to keep the Rest of the World players amused on long bus journeys. As Maradona sat down, David Ginola asked me to launch one of them. 

“Dee-ay-go, whoa – o,

Dee-ay-goo, whoa-o-o-o,

We’re all his greatest fans,

He’s Ar-gen-tin-i-an,

He’s quality, pure class,

He’ll put you on your ass,

Dee-ay-go …”

And as the chant got louder and louder, he and his family and friends at the front of the bus stood to clap and cheer and sing along. He grabbed a home video camera and asked his pal to film it. 

Ginola knows a thing or two about adulation. But now I see him swooning. “You see when I see him sitting there. I am no longer a former professional footballer. I am a child who wants to touch him, get his autograph, hear him speak. This was the player who inspired me to think football was a thing of beauty for the players, and joy for the fans. I love this man. I have played with many great players. If I play with him tomorrow, it is a dream for me.” Later, Maradona sees him and says “ah Ginola, how are you?” And David Ginola is like a kid, saying he can’t believe Maradona remembers his name.

It was the same when we all first met Maradona in the ITV studios on Friday night, when the teams were announced, and I had to look away in embarrassment when I saw my name on the same team-sheet as his! Marcel Desailly, a French World Cup winner,  said to me “if Maradona says ‘hi Marcel’ I will faint.” So here I am a day later, on the Old Trafford pitch, wondering how much even guys like that would give for the privilege I now have, of a one on one training session with the greatest footballer in history.

A couple of balls have arrived and we jog slowly towards them. I’m wondering whether to try to do some keepy uppy but then think no, that is a Soccer Aid TV camera over there. So I pass the ball to Maradona. I’ll repeat that. So I pass the ball to Maradona. 

He lets it hit the side of his boot. It rolls up his left leg, over the tattoo of Fidel Castro, his friend and political hero. He lets it go as high as the thigh, flicks it away from himself with his body, then hits a volley towards the net. I have the other ball now and I play it into him, too slowly. He runs towards it, gently, flicks it up with his left foot, then starts to head it in the air again and again. Eventually he let’s the ball settle on his head. It sits there as his neck moves a few millimetres this way and that to keep the balance. Then he is still.

Then he flicks his head forward and the ball lands on his neck before he lets it roll down his back and thigh and then flicks it towards me. I trap it, then pass it back. He runs a little, using only the outside of his boot to move the ball along, then crosses it back to me from 40 yards. It is in the air and I can see it is spinning. I think “don’t mess it up. Just bring it down and play it back”. I do, and breathe deeply. 

Now he wants to shoot. We have four balls. He hits the first one into the corner of the net, then runs off in celebration. I don’t just mean like a kid on the park who is pretending to score at Old Trafford. I mean like Diego Maradona when he was winning World Cup medals. He raises his eyes to the sky and screams his own name, his children’s names, and a few words I didn’t understand. I think he was simply saying “Diego has scored a goal”. He did it half a dozen times. He was visualising again.

There had been one or two worries he would just show up, showboat, inhale a bit of adulation, and go home. But he was the only player who wanted to train on the day of the match, and I was just there for company. He wants to win, he says. Ok, it is not all professionals, and it is a game for charity and kids not medals, but it is a big event. Big TV build up, big crowd, great stadium, great players. I want to help you win. Thanks, Diego. That was on a par with the moment when Ruud Gullit told me I would be playing in the space just behind you, and I should think mainly of getting the ball to you. 

He’s bored with just hitting the back of the net now. He wants something more challenging. He announces he will try to hit the crossbar from 25 yards. The first ball goes a little over, the next a little under. The next hits it, but only fleetingly on the underside. He’s not happy. But then he hits one bang in the middle, and he turns away, runs a few yards, raises his arms and screams at the sky “Diego, Diego, Diego”.

Then another one. Miss. Miss. Hit. Miss. Hit. Hit. Miss. 

Now he wants to hit the angle of the post and the bar. He curls it left to right. Bang. Bullseye. Celebration time. A couple of his friends have defied the groundsman and joined us and now they too are hitting the ball at the bar. I have a go.

Miss. Miss. Miss. Not embarrassingly so, but enough to make me watch rather than try again.

As we leave the pitch of course everyone is asking for pictures and signatures, as has happened to him every day of his adult life. He stops, does the pictures, signs the autographs, and then we head back to the dressing room. He enjoyed it. He feels good. He thinks tonight will be great. He gets undressed and sits there naked,  just thinking for a while as around him people lay out more kits and memorabilia that have to be signed. I have the Rest of the World shirt I am due to wear against England. He signs it. I have the Scotland shirt Colin Hendry gave me after our warm up game. He signs it. I have a 60s retro Burnley shirt. He signs it. Framed, it has been on our landing wall ever since. I worry I might be pushing it given all the other stuff he is signing. But he sees my boots, and signs them too. The smile never leaves his face. The boots have never left the ledge on the wall in our kitchen.

Shower time, and again I’m thinking that as this whole surreal week nears its end, things seem to get more surreal by the day. Don’t ask me why but I think of my deceased father and wonder what on earth he would think if he knew I was now in the showers at Old Trafford with Diego Maradona. He’d probably have said “I always knew you’d go places”. But I doubt the Old Trafford showers was what he had in mind. 

Diego gets dried, dressed, puts on the shades and then off we go, back into the cars, and back to the hotel in time for the team lunch. The other players cannot believe what I have been doing. The professionals every bit as much as the non pros are wide eyed. At first they think I am winding them up.  But then Maradona arrives and confirms the terrible truth. In a team full of greats, he took the oldest, least experienced, least skilful member and gave him the footballing experience of a lifetime. "What was he like? What did he do?" Or, as Jamie Redknapp put it: "You jammy bastard."

Soon we’re on the team bus. Maradona arrives last. He sits next to me, taps me on the leg and does a pumped up grimace that says “I am up for this”. Gianfranco Zola is over the way. He speaks Spanish and acts as translator. Diego really wants to win tonight. He has only played at Old Trafford once, for Barcelona and though they won the tie, they lost the leg. He doesn’t like grounds where he never won. A song goes up on the bus and though he doesn’t know the words, he picks up the tune and joins in. 

A big crowd greets the bus. Some boo, some cheer, but he goes over to both sets to shake a few hands, then into the dressing room. He sits quietly for a while, then undresses and slowly, methodically puts his kit on. It is clear there is a ritual to it. Finally, slowly, he laces his boots, never taking his eyes off them, oblivious to all the noise around him. 

Minutes from kick off, coach Ruud Gullit calls us into a circle, hands piled on each other, in an act of pre-match team bonding. Maradona hangs on every word, then let’s out a loud roar to get the dressing room going. Then a set of bagpipes is brought in. I blow them up and launch into Scotland the Brave. The entire squad clap along. We had kept the cameras out to make it a genuine moment for the team. But how I wish I had film to show my grandchildren of Maradona dancing around a physio table shouting “bravo” as I played the pipes. The only record I have ever seen was a blurry picture taken on Peter Schmeichel’s camera. Minutes later, we are in the tunnel. Desailly is in front of me. Maradona is behind me. Desailly tells him he should do his traditional thing, which is to be last onto the field. Maradona nods and files to the back. 

The match went by in a whirr of emotion, adrenalin, noise, and the occasional ok pass or tackle. But more than once I had to pinch myself.

I had Desailly directing me from defence, Lothar Matthaus from midfield, and Maradona coming back to get the ball from me, before I was substituted for Ginola at half time. 

When it is all over, and the shirts are being signed, Maradona is pleased he lasted 90 minutes, pleased he scored a goal, but unhappy he has yet to win at Old Trafford, as we lost 2-1. But he has something of his own that he wants. We’re surprised to learn he is a rugby fan. He asks Gareth Thomas, Welsh captain, if he can have one of his international jerseys, signed. 'Alfie' Thomas looked fit to faint. “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” he said, as he swapped addresses with Maradona. Join the club. 

I have had some great moments in my life. I have met some amazing people. I have visited some extraordinary places.  But what does it say about the wonders of a little round ball that I would now put a training session with Diego Maradona up there, close to the birth of children, the winning of elections, and even Paul Fletcher’s overhead kick for Burnley against Leeds in 1974?

It says, I think, that football at its best is a wonderful, artful, beautiful thing, and they do not come more wonderful or artful than Diego Maradona. My training partner. My team mate.  At the after-match party, where Maradona is mobbed wherever he goes, for autographs and selfies he willingly provides, my son Rory says to me, "Dad, you were so out of your depth out there, it was embarrassing," And I say, "I don’t care. Because for the rest of my life, I can say I played football with Diego Maradona, and life does not get better than that".

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