IT was a sunny day but we stood in the shade of a kerry-oot that was so big it had its own weather system. The boys from St Ninians, an interesting hamlet on the fringes of Stirling town, had ventured to Hampden to watch the world champions and, most specifically, a young lad who had been anointed a great, but without our permission.

It was June 2, 1979. These were the days when drinking was mandatory on the terraces. These were the days, too, before YouTube, before that Interweb thingy and in a time when it was as easy to watch Argentinian football as it was to split two coats of paint or a passing atom.

But Diego Armando Maradona had been heralded in newspaper reports, with profiles suggesting he should have been in the team that won the World Cup the previous year. He was now 18. So how good was he?

The St Ninians judgment may have been thirsty work as cans disappeared with the facility of Tory MPs at a whip-round for the NHS. But the verdict was quickly made. Diego was a genius. He slalomed round defenders, bounced off challenges, slid through passes and then scored a goal, twitching that left foot before knocking the ball in at the near post, right in front of the uncovered terracing where we stood dazed by a mixture of booze and beauty.

There was a moment, I swear, earlier in the game when Diego realised that the belligerent crowd had suddenly become almost traitorously friendly. The Hampden Roar had become the Hampden Acclaim. After one piece of skill, there was an outbreak of a collective, joyous, vocal acclaim followed by applause. The young player had given the ball to a team-mate and he seemed to stop, look around and appreciate that not only was he the centre of attraction but he was the host of a wonderful party.

It all, of course, stopped yesterday for the best player I have ever seen. The debate on the greatest of all time is for the pub on rainy nights but I will never forget that day in the sun and what it portended.

There were more than hints then of what he would become. He was, indeed, already fabulous. History just gave him an unnecessary shine. There are two observations that testify to his peerless brilliance and, crucially, his drive to win. First, Napoli have been in existence for almost 100 years and have won Serie A twice. Maradona, of course, was the leader in both seasons.

Secondly, the Wee Man won the 1986 World Cup almost single-handedly (see what I did there). He had willing and able accomplices in such as Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga but if one had put Diego into the 1986 Scotland squad then we might still be demolishing the kerry-oot.

Hampden of 1979 also offered the first stanza of a heroic poem that had glory, failure, redemption, more failure, and weakening glory and redemption. It showed him to be not only extravagantly gifted but determinedly generous. When he laid on the pass for Leopold Luque to score, the boy from the barrio celebrated as if his lottery numbers had come up and mama can finally sell the chickens. This reaction testified to two core traits. Diego Maradona loved to win. Diego Maradona was a team player. He was loved by those who played with him. This is not a mandatory accessory to genius. Don Bradman, for example, the greatest batsman of his age, perhaps any age, was loathed by some of his Australia team-mates and disliked by others.

Maradona, in contrast, was adored in the dressing room for his generosity of spirit and for the belief that his individual performance only meant something if the collective prevailed. Valdano, an excellent player and perhaps the best to convey the experience of being an elite performer, was at Maradona’s side as he careered through the England defence for that goal. It was a goal, of course, in the same way that a glorious, life-affirming sunset is simply a trick of the light.

Valdano said: “Diego apologised to me. He could see me unmarked the whole way but he could not find a gap to get to the ball to me. I mean, even on a run like that he still has the time to look up and see me.”

Diego, too, had the time to party like Caligula on a stag night. He was too fond of cocaine and less enamoured of training sessions. He was always a poor boy, despite the riches he accumulated and lost. He was suspicious of some who wanted to help, welcoming to those, particularly the crime lords in Naples, who used, abused and then discarded him. There were the scandals of drug tests failed, paternity suits lost and journalists wounded by airgun pellets.

There was the ego that swelled in sympathy with his stomach. But there was always, at the core, the boy who loved football. It loved him back. In Buenos Aires and Naples, in particular, he has gone beyond sporting celebrity to the status of a quasi saint, a benign magician, whose powers drift towards the supernatural. There are not tributes to Diego in these cities, but shrines.

They are not alone in this veneration. Hampden ’79 was my baptism in the benign cult of Diego. I subsequently spent the next four decades jumping at his goals, wincing at his excesses, and, occasionally, praying for his well-being.

There is thus a personal desolation at the death of a 60-year-old man I never met outside a press conference. Why? The answer is simple.

He gave me joy.