About a decade ago, I travelled across Europe to appear in a charity game…and the biggest reason I went so far, was to play alongside Diego Maradona.
It’s hard to explain what that name means to me, and to footballers of my generation. Almost impossible to put into words.
But when I was a kid growing up in Toxteth, he was an impossibly glamorous name, this incredible superstar I glimpsed occasionally on tv…and wanted to be, so much.
My first proper team was a side called the Singleton Arms, in the Dingle, near to where I lived. It seems like a tall story now, but we actually played in an Argentina kit, with the blue and white stripes. I had the number nine, but in my head, I was Maradona.
It wasn’t just that he was this incredible left footed player (though I always admired the way he stroked the ball so majestically). It was that he was the first superstar I ever saw on tv.
I’ve always said that when I was a kid I wanted to be Graeme Sharp or Trevor Steven, because I saw them all the time, they played for the team I supported, and I could dream of being them one day.
But back then – and my kids can hardly believe this these days with wall to wall football – you didn’t get much live football on the telly. It was highlights at the weekend, and either Midweek Sports Special or Sportsnight on a Wednesday evening.
Occasionally, they would broadcast highlights of a big European game, with Barcelona, or maybe Napoli, and you’d get a glimpse of Maradona. But it was really on the FA Cup final or the World Cup you saw live. And that was where Maradona grabbed the imagination.
He was the World Cup for me. I watched entranced in 1986 when he destroyed England with that incredible gliding run. I hated him and loved him at the same time. I watched him again in 1990, thinking that one day, I could do what he did.
So it’s such a sad feeling to realise he’s gone. He meant so much to me as a kid, and it feels like someone who is part of the family has died. You always think those people you idolised are invincible.
He was the best player in the world when I was a kid, no doubt. I heard Jurgen Klopp saying that the level he played at in Germany in the lower leagues, meeting Maradona was like meeting the Pope. Well, let me tell you, I played at a higher level, and when I met him, I felt the same.
I went across Europe to play alongside him. I could barely speak when I met him. As a footballer myself, I’m conscious of what it feels like to be asked for photos all the time. There are very few people I’d have a photo with – but I HAD to have the picture with him.
A few years later at White Hart Lane, I was doing some tv work down there, and Ossie Ardiles came across and said an old friend wanted to meet me. Diego came across and gave me a massive hug…and chatted like I really was an old friend!
That’s still a bit surreal, for someone who wanted to be like him when I was a little kid, kicking a ball around the rec down the road from me nan’s. I didn’t want to be him, but I really, really wanted to emulate him.
I wasn’t the biggest or the quickest. Neither was he. But his balance was just astonishing. He glided past people. He took ferocious stick, got kicked to death, but he kept going, his balance allowing him to dance past defenders.
I was delighted the first time I spoke to him, that he even knew who I was. It was unbelievable. For me, he was the greatest footballer of all time…because he was the greatest of MY time.
I’m sad he’s gone. And I’m sad that he had a troubled life, in part because he was the greatest to so, so many people, like me. We all wanted a piece of him, and yet had we cherished him properly, had saluted his incredible talent properly, maybe he wouldn’t have had quite the troubles he did.
But that was the price he paid for being the greatest. He was a showman, an entertainer. A star. And I don’t think he would have changed that part of the bargain.
Oh, and I ran on to a through ball to me in the charity game. Diego Maradona played me in. That will live with me forever.