September, 1986. There was no better time to be Diego Armando Maradona. He was fresh from leading Argentina to the World Cup after a series of virtuoso performances, including when he eliminated England with a mixture of fist and velvety touch.
Back in Naples, where he was not yet in the grip of a fierce cocaine addiction, Maradona had designs on guiding the city’s team to the Serie A title for the first time. There was a real anticipation that history could be made.
Napoli had finished third the previous season and had re-strengthened satisfactorily following the World Cup, with the recruitment of a trio of Italian internationals in Francesco Romano, Fernando De Napoli and Andrea Carnevale.
Becoming a father for the first time should have been another joyous moment for Maradona. But there was a complication. Claudia, his wife at the time, wasn’t so thrilled by the news. The new arrival was the product of an affair between Maradona and his Neapolitan paramour Cristiana Sinagra.
Maradona refused to acknowledge the existence of this son. It proved harder to ignore the boy’s provenance when the mother, asked by a TV news reporter for a name of the hours-old baby she was cradling in her hospital bed, defiantly revealed: “Diego Armando Maradona”.
As an observer at the time remarked, given the extent to which Maradona was idolised in the city – Napoli did win a first title in 1986-87, repeating the feat in 1989-90 – she might as well have named her son after Jesus Christ. The point was a valid one. But when it came to establishing a football career for oneself, having Diego Armando and particularly Maradona written on your business card was way more advantageous.
A long-running paternity suit was finally settled in 1993 when an Italian court ordered Maradona to start paying child support.
Fast forward another 11 years to July 2004 and the scenery has changed from the teeming streets of Naples to the Halbeath Road in Dunfermline. The local team had just finished a successful season in fourth place in the SPL. They also reached the final of the Scottish Cup, losing 3-1 to Celtic. David Hay, the manager, was looking to find ways to help the team push on.
Guido Barbato, an Italian agent friend of chairman John Yorkston, suggested they have a look at one of his young charges, who was already causing a stir in the Napoli youth teams having appeared for the Under 17s when just 14 years old.
Eyebrows shot up as soon as the name of this prodigy was mentioned. A few years after Dundee shocked the world of football by signing Claudio Caniggia, Diego Maradona was on the way to Dunfermline. The additional detail that this was actually the son of Maradona failed to douse interest.
All this is relevant once more because Diego Maradona junior is suddenly back in the public eye, along with his father – who has rarely strayed from it in the time since. A brilliant film from Asif Kapadia about the footballer, concentrating chiefly on the Napoli years, is currently showing in cinemas. Diego jnr makes an appearance just hours into his life in that aforementioned hospital ward before – spoiler alert – reappearing dramatically at the end. He hasn’t been able to walk in his father’s footsteps football-wise, possibly a blessing given how the protagonist’s life spirals out of control. But the film stirs memories of when he tried to do so, which is why he landed in Dunfermline of all places with an intention of securing a professional contract.
Jim Leishman, then general manager at East End Park, was dispatched to pick the young star up from the airport. The reflected glory from his father meant Maradona jnr had already attracted an entourage. It was chaos when the scion of a world football legend emerged through the arrivals door at Edinburgh airport to be greeted by… the bard of Lochgelly.
“We were walking along and I was in front of his agent,” recalled Leishman. “There were lots of press there. The agent was trying to protect the young boy. He shouted out to me: ‘Rapido, Rapido!’ As in ‘let’s get moving!’ I turned round: ‘Excuse me, you obviously never saw me play!’
“What I remember is, he had an agent for this, an agent for that, an agent for everything,” added Leishman.
The initial plan was a two-day trial. Maradona jnr and his team stayed in the Apex hotel in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket area. They dined out both nights with Yorkston. “Bar Roma and the following night – Bar Napoli, of course,” the former chairman recalled this week.
Sadly, there was little to toast. Maradona jnr, just 17 at the time, was not old enough to drink at any rate. “He was viewed more as a youth player than a first-team player,” said Yorkston. “Before he came over we spoke to the agent about what we could pay players and the details of the accommodation we were offering – he was going to be in line with some of the younger boys we had at the time.
“He would not be getting paid the same as the senior players. We had already said: ‘There’s no point coming over if you are expecting £5,000 a week. Let’s just knock it on the head now if that’s what’s wanted’. The agent seemed happy. The boy undoubtedly had a lot of skill. But when he sat down to negotiate a contract or even look at a contract, things changed.”
Demands started to creep in. “Rather than him staying with other boys in a place we had for the younger boys, he wanted his own flat in Edinburgh with his uncle,” recalled Yorkston. Then there were the multiple flights over for his mother – first class of course.
What Leishman mainly remembers about a surreal couple of days has, you imagine, since become a staple of his after-dinner speech routine. No matter the distinguished lineage, it’s difficult to compete with someone who’s taken Livingston from the Third Division to the top flight and into Europe. “Diego jnr and his friends were in the street in the Grassmarket,” Leishman, now the Provost of Fife, recalled. “I was outside having made sure they were all OK and settling in. A grandfather and his grandson made a beeline across the road with a pen and a book. They walked past Maradona and his entourage and the young boy said to me: ‘I’m a Livingston fan, can I have your autograph please?’ Young Maradona thought it was his autograph they wanted!”
Being custard-pied in such a manner was an inauspicious beginning to Maradona junior’s brief stay in Scotland. Nevertheless, Yorkston recalls having to open the enclosure of the main stand to accommodate journalists who had arrived at East End Park to report on the headband-wearing Maradona jnr’s first training session in Fife.
By this point, the son had met the father only once – at a golf tournament of all places the previous year. It’s unlikely he asked his advice about going for a trial at Dunfermline, whose 1960s golden period might have escaped the attention of Maradona snr, who was then growing up in Argentina. Predominantly right-footed as opposed to his left-footed father, Maradona jnr further set himself apart by playing in midfield as opposed to up front. But comparisons were unavoidable.
“I hope I am not being too cruel,” said Leishman. “Everyone was living off the reputation of his father. He was never near as good as his father. Of course he was not. How could he be?”
“We watched him in training. He was decent enough. But not good enough for what he wanted us to pay him by the time flights and accommodation for his entourage were factored in. He wanted us to sign his friend as well!
“But he was a nice enough boy.” Leishman is honest enough to admit how he ended up in Dunfermline. “It was all to do with his name. That’s what caused the fuss.”
Yorkston recalls it as being a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained. Despite assuring Dunfermline he would stay another week, he upped and left after two days. The Scottish club were not the only team lured into taking a chance on the young Maradona. It was certainly worth seeing if he had inherited even a portion of his father’s talent. He was also given a trial at by Blackburn Rovers, then managed by Graeme Souness.
Yorkston recalls the young Maradona striking up a relationship with striker Noel Hunt during his short stay. “They were quite pally – Noel was one of the younger players in the first team,” he said. “They kind of teamed up.”
Scottish football was never blessed with the sight of Maradona picking out Hunt with a pass or crossing for Craig Brewster to head in. Dunfermline lost to an Icelandic side in the second qualifying round of the Uefa Cup a few weeks later. Maradona, meanwhile, was back in Italy, where he created a name for himself in beach soccer.
He didn’t get far in the senior game – Serie C was as good as it got. But he finally got the recognition he craved above all else when his father announced he had officially accepted his son into the family following a reunion in Argentina three years ago.
Diego Maradona is out in cinemas
across the country now