IT was 1977, and Sunderland had just been relegated from the First Division. As they prepared for life in the second tier, so they pondered where to turn in search for reinforcements that might aid their attempts to reclaim their top-flight status. Somewhat incongruously, given the times, they set their sights on South America. And more specifically, they targeted a largely unknown 17-year-old plying his trade with Argentinos Juniors by the name of Diego Armando Maradona.

Perhaps, if Maradona had moved to Roker Park, life would have turned out different. Instead of inspiring Napoli, an unfashionable club from a rough, neglected working-class area of Italy, to their first Serie A title, maybe Maradona would have transformed Sunderland into the foremost club in England. Or perhaps, given North-East football’s remarkable track record for turning world-class potential into washed-up failure, a spell on Wearside would have blunted Maradona’s genius forever. After all, you don’t get many global sporting superstars that have played under Jimmy Adamson.

In the end, it was immaterial. Maradona did not join Sunderland, although it was not for the want of trying. As his biographer, Daniel Arcucci, explained: “Diego said, ‘If they don’t sell me to Sunderland, I’m retiring’. But at that time, we didn’t have a democratic government, and they declared him untransferable, one of a group of players were who untransferable.”

Sunderland’s loss was world football’s gain. Maradona remained in his homeland, under a form of footballing house arrest, honing his skills with Boca Juniors before eventually moving to Europe to join Barcelona in 1982 for a then world-record fee of £5m.

By that stage, after his appearance at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when he was kicked from pillar to post in an attempt to thwart his talent, Maradona was anything but an unknown quantity. Instead, he was at the start of a decade-long spell that elevated him to the very pinnacle of the footballing pantheon.

The greatest player ever? Clearly, that is a subjective assessment. But for people of a certain generation, my generation, he will be remembered as the best. He was our Pele, our George Best, our Lionel Messi. For anyone born in the late 1970s, he was the player that turned football from a hobby to an obsession.

Of course, there were flaws. I was eight when the ‘Hand of God’ did for England, and I vividly remember crying myself to sleep after I been allowed to stay up to watch the World Cup quarter-final. A week or so later, though, after Maradona had repeatedly slalomed his way through the Belgium defence in the semi-finals, he was still the player we all wanted to be in our primary-school playground matches. No offence to Ray Wilkins, Peter Reid or Steve Hodge, but they didn’t quite have the same allure.

Maradona was the epitome of the boyhood dream come true. There is a section of North-East writer Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book on Argentinian football, ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’, devoted to the ‘soul of the Argentinian game’. In it, he quotes Borocoto, editor of Argentinian periodical El Grafico, with his description from 1928: “a pibe (urchin) with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread.”

That was Maradona, the ‘pibe’ who rose from downtrodden beginnings – his father was a boatman from Argentina’s rural north who moved to Buenos Aires to join his wife, a domestic helper, in Villa Fiorito, one of the Argentinian capital’s most notorious slums – to become a global sensation.

So many iconic moments stand out. Obviously, there is the jinking run that ended with Argentina’s second goal in their World Cup win over England, and that has kept Peter Reid, who chased him so memorably and ineffectually, in after-dinner anecdotes for more than three decades. Watch the clip back now on YouTube, and even though you know every minutiae of what is about to happen, it still takes the breath away.

There are the virtuoso goals against Belgium, and the primeval outpouring of joy that followed Argentina’s success in the final against West Germany. One Argentinian commentator reflecting yesterday stated that his homeland changed forever the moment Maradona held the World Cup trophy above his head. In Argentina, Maradona remains a social and cultural phenomenon as well as a footballing star.

There are the golden years at Napoli, when Maradona was feted as a God and played football that seemed to be blessed by the hand of the sacred. The 1990 World Cup, when a persistent ankle injury blunted his magic somewhat, is often overlooked, but Argentina’s run to another final still plays an important part in Maradona’s story.

Then, of course, there are the dramas and scandals, which should not be airbrushed away in the wake of Maradona’s death. Unquestionably, he was a controversial figure. There were the drug scandals, one of which saw him sent home from the 1994 World Cup in disgrace. There were the persistent rumours of links to the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. There were tax scandals, weight problems and continued tales of outlandish drug taking, which saw him become bloated and increasingly out-of-control towards the end of his life.

Football tends to produce flawed geniuses though, and Maradona’s human failings off the pitch only heightened the impact of his ability to reach levels on the playing field that were beyond the compass of his peers. Blessed with the Hand of God; forever in the land of immortals. Diego Maradona. RIP.