In a two-part feature Julio Arca takes us through his career from South America to South Shields via Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Sunday League.
The smoke tumbled down from the upper reaches of the stadium, a hostile home crowd roared, adding flames of fury to the smoke that now surrounded the pitch.
Intimidating, fierce, passionate, this concrete cauldron of passion was where Julio Arca’s football education took place.
Boca Juniors’ famous La Bombonara home was one of the unique environments where the youngster would hone his skills as he started on a journey that, much like many of his soon-to-be Argentina U20 team mates, would take him to Europe and to the Premier League.
Arca, then with his first club Argentinos Juniors, broke into their first team at the age of eighteen.
His boyhood dreams were played out in front of some of the most intimidating atmospheres world football has to offer.
As far as football educations go, this was somewhat brutal but it would play its part in moulding an eventful career.
Progress was rapid, international recognition came and a call-up to the Argentina U20 squad saw Arca play alongside the likes of former Newcastle United captain Fabricio Coloccini and ex-Barcelona striker Javier Saviola.
His time in the Argentinos Juniors first team was brief but those twelve months with his first club saw him face players that would go on to make an impact at the highest level, and one that was in the winter of his own career, having been one of South America’s most celebrated players for a number of years.
By Arca’s own admission those early years of his career were tough, but he admitted they gave him a “great education”.
“I was young, eighteen or nineteen when I got the chance to play in the first team at Argentinos Juniors and I got to play in some big stadiums,” he recalled.
“Obviously there is La Bombonara, the Monumental at River Plate, which was my team. It was great, a dream come true.
“I was excited to play against those teams and learn the game against some great players.
“They are memories that I will never forget and I learnt lessons that have stayed with me. I didn’t stay there for long, just twelve months before I moved to Sunderland.
“I played against the likes of (Carlos) Tevez, (Juan Román) Riquelme (pictured right) and Enzo Francescoli – he was one of my heroes.
“They were exciting times and then I moved to play with the Argentina Under-20s and played with people like Coloccini, Caballero, Saviola, D’Allesandro, out of the twenty in the squad I think nineteen came to Europe, it was a great education for me.”
As his career in Argentina flourished speculation of a lucrative move to Europe began.
Firm interest came from the Premier League in the shape of Sunderland.
Rumoured interest also came from the Black Cats’ North East rivals Newcastle and Leeds United, although no bids were to follow.
A performance against England U21s was enough to convince then Black Cats manager Peter Reid to make a move for Arca, and in July 2000 he joined the Wearside club on a five year deal, with Argentinos Juniors receiving £3.5m for their talented left back.
It was Reid’s willingness to show a keen interest that persuaded Arca to swap South America for Sunderland, a move he admitted was “a gamble”.
“I probably could have stayed longer there [Argentinos Juniors], to move to a bigger club in Argentina but it was an opportunity, a gamble, to come to the Premier League.
“It was only Sunderland that offered me a deal. There were rumours about Leeds and Newcastle, the agents told me they might be interested, I don’t know if it was true, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t but Sunderland were definitely interested in signing me and offered me a contract.
“At that time they showed real interest, the others didn’t and that is why I chose to go to Sunderland.
“It is a working class area and I liked that. People are honest with you.
“When people talk about rough places over here, it is nothing compared to what some places were like in Argentina.
“Places here are like paradise compared to there. You see pictures of places in South America that are really bad and a lot of footballers come out of there.
“Aguero and Tevez came from bad places, they battled through and I believe they are better because of that.”
Arca spent time training with Sunderland and playing in their reserves before getting a call-up to the first team squad for their Premier League home game against West Ham United.
The young Argentinean, still with little grasp of the English language, took his place in a line-up containing the likes of Scotland international Don Hutchison and the Black Cats prolific strike duo Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips.
Life on Wearside couldn’t have got off to a better start for Arca, as he scored within twenty-five minutes, bursting into the box to head home a cross from the right from Republic of Ireland winger Kevin Kilbane.
The sell-out crowd at the Stadium of Light exploded with delight, Arca rushed towards them in a state of euphoria, the foundations of a bond that last to this day were clear to see.
“It wasn’t too cold even though it was a Monday night time game against West Ham.
“I had been in the Stadium of Light a couple of weeks before the West Ham game and I was really impressed. There were 48,000 there and I didn’t know it was going to be a full house, I didn’t really know anything about the fans at all.
“I didn’t know I was going to play. I came here for a week or two, I played in the reserves and then the manager came and said I was playing on the left wing, a position I had never played before.
“But as a young player you never say no, you just work your socks off. The game went well and I scored, it was a good start.”
Sunderland manager Peter Reid had put his trust in a teenage Arca and saw it repaid as he played his part in helping the Black Cats to a seventh place finish in the Premier League, still their highest placed finish since Bill Murray led them to third place in the 1954/55 season.
Reid, a tough battling midfielder in his playing days, provided Arca with an ideal introduction to the English game.
Those early months on Wearside were tough for a player not even in his twenties, but Reid’s honest attitude quickly helped him gain Arca’s respect. That respect still runs deep to this day.
“To be honest, Peter Reid looked like an aggressive manager when I first met him,” said Arca.
“Obviously I didn’t speak any English at all but I could tell he was someone who could be here or there but nowhere in between.
“That was true, there was no messing with him, but he was one of best things that happened to me. I had a proper English manager, he cared and he was passionate.
“He would defend you against anyone, he always had respect for his team but he wasn’t scared to tell our big players to play harder.
“We all respected him, he was one of the best managers in the club. We finished higher than the club had for a long time.
“He gave me my chance in the team, in the Premier League, and I will always be grateful to him for that.”
Sadly for the Black Cats, that 2000/01 season proved to be the pinnacle in Reid’s seven year stay at the club. The club narrowly avoided relegation in the following season, finishing just one place above the relegation zone.
Big money summer signings Marcus Stewart and Tore Andre Flo failed to pay off as Reid sought to right the wrongs of the season.
The dressing room dynamic changed, performances and confidence plummeted, so did the team.
In the aftermath of a 2-0 Tyne-Wear derby defeat against local rivals Newcastle, Reid had been fiercely critical of his players.
Three weeks later he was gone.
Reid’s tenure at the club was brought to an end in October 2002 after the club won just two of their opening ten games in the Premier League.
A 3-1 away defeat at Arsenal was the final straw for the Black Cats board.
The likes of David O’Leary and George Graham were linked with the vacant post, but the board chose to appoint former Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson and Burnley’s Steve Cotterill into their new management team.
That move, seen as a gamble by many, failed to pay off.
Sunderland finished bottom of the Premier League, ending the season with just nineteen points, a new record for the top flight.
That season was “the worst season” of Arca’s career.
“There was a bad atmosphere before Howard and Steve came in,” he admitted.
“I don’t know if players knew that a change was coming but you could tell it was totally different.
“When they arrived they changed a few things around, the way we trained, they tried to dictate quite quickly. They changed things that players had been dealing with for years with Peter Reid so it didn’t work out and we paid the consequences.
“For me it was the worst season in my career.”
A play-off semi-final defeat against Crystal Palace ended their hopes of bouncing back into the top flight at the first time of asking in, although new manager Mick McCarthy was putting together a new look Sunderland side.
Young, hungry players were brought in, that new policy paid off as the Black Cats made no mistake in the 2004/05 season.
They strolled their way to the Championship, finishing the season seven points ahead of second place Wigan Athletic. But preparations for their Premier League return were difficult.
The club’s financial situation meant that McCarthy had to be clever with his transfer dealings.
A number of free transfer signings were completed. Premier League experience came in the form of Everton defender Alan Stubbs, Premier League youngsters Justin Hoyte and Anthony Le Tallec joined from Arsenal and Liverpool respectively.
McCarthy spent just £4.25m in the transfer market, hardly an ideal situation to take a young side into an ultra-competitive Premier League.
Predictably the Black Cats couldn’t cope with life back in the Premier League.
A new low points record was set, this time they could only put fifteen points on the board in a difficult season.
But Arca admired the work that McCarthy did at the club and believes that the young side benefitted from his honest approach to the game.
He said: “I really enjoyed my two years at Sunderland under Mick McCarthy, he was open and honest with us.
“We knew our roles in the team, we knew what he wanted and he knew what the supporters wanted.
“We didn’t have the money; we didn’t have the quality to remain in the Premier League.
“Maybe with a bit more backing we could have stayed up, I don’t know.
“Mick had us all working our socks off to try and stay in the league but we couldn’t do that unfortunately.”
That was to be Arca’s final season on Wearside, as his five year stay was ended in the aftermath of the relegation.
Speculation of a move to LaLiga club Espanyol failed to materialise. When Arca did get a move it was to the Black Cats’ other North East rivals Middlesbrough.
Gareth Southgate had been named as the Teesside club’s new manager, after former boss Steve McClaren left to take the England job.
Arca was one of his first signings, with a £1.75m fee enough to take Arca from Wearside to Teesside.
The move excited Arca, as he joined Boro on the back of their Carling Cup final triumph and subsequent UEFA Cup campaign that took them to the final in Eindhoven.
Arca, still a Sunderland player at this point, watched on from home as Boro were convincingly beaten by a highly-talented Sevilla.
But he liked what he saw and the move was completed just a month after that final heartache, it was a move that left Arca with no regrets.
“Middlesbrough were doing really well at the time,” explained Arca.
“They were doing well in the Premier League, they had been in the UEFA Cup Final in the season before and had some great players.
“They had great players like Viduka, Rochemback, Mendieta, Yakubu, Boateng. I was excited to play with players like these.
“That was the reason why I went there and I know some Sunderland fans were upset and disappointed but I think they knew why it happened.
“We didn’t have a chairman, we didn’t have a manager, Niall Quinn was trying to do everything and he tried to convince me to stay but it was the right decision to leave and I would do it again if I went back in time.”
Southgate was still a novice as a manager, but his leadership qualities had been forged in his time as a captain of Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and then in his playing career with Middlesbrough.
His place in Boro history had already been confirmed when he became the first captain in the club’s history to lift a major trophy with their Carling Cup Final victory over Bolton in 2004.
Since that first managerial role, Southgate has gone a long way. A successful period as England U21s manager saw him help a number of players make the successful transition from England hopefuls to senior team mainstays.
He was handed the role of senior team manager on a temporary basis after the resignation of Sam Allardyce and after winning two and drawing two of his four games in charge he was named as new permanent England manager at the end of November.
Southgate’s cool, calm exterior is seen one of the major factors in his appointment
Arca believes that England’s players will enjoy working for Southgate, but he warned them that their new manager can be fiery when it is required.
“Gareth lost his temper a few times but so does every manager; he will do that when it is needed.
“He tried to speak to everyone the same way and he is a nice person. He was always there for his players and he will surround himself with good people.
“I enjoyed the time I spent with him at Middlesbrough and he gave me a good chance there.
“I got injured in my first game and he waited for me to get fit, he didn’t rush me.
“He moved me into midfield, which I enjoyed because it gave me a chance to be in the game more.
“He was another manager that I enjoyed working with and I think the England players will find that too.
“When I first signed it was difficult for him because he had just moved from player to manager and coaching his team mates. That is hard for him, one of the hardest things in football.
“Every decision had to be right, he didn’t please everyone but I am pleased for him.”
Arca’s first two seasons at the Riverside Stadium were largely uneventful.
The club secured twelfth and thirteenth place finishes, with Arca making the successful transition from full back to centre midfield, a position he still excels in today with ambitious EBAC Northern League club South Shields.
His love affair with former club Sunderland was rekindled in a Tees-Wear derby in 2007 as the two sides played out a 2-2 draw at the Riverside.
The Argentinean headed his new side ahead against his former employers, but was to go off injured later in the game. His exit was met by rapturous applause from all corners of the Riverside, including from his former supporters.
After two mid-table finishes Boro suffered relegation in 2009, along with North East rivals Newcastle.
Their time in the Championship saw them struggle with life in English football’s second tier. Arca was in and out of the side, his frustration was all-too-obvious.
He signed a new deal with the club in 2011, as former Boro hero Tony Mowbray looked to build a side capable of challenging for promotion back to the Premier League.
All seemed well for Arca as he regained form and fitness. However, an old knee problem flared up, one that would require an operation.
His rehabilitation began in his homeland in Argentina, until Boro asked him to come back to continue it on Teesside.
It was an unhappy end to a Boro career that could have delivered so much more, as Arca explained: “Middlesbrough renewed my contract under Tony Mowbray in 2011 thinking I was going to play all of the time.
“I didn’t play much that year and the year after I was in and out of the team. I was surprised because they asked me to renew my contract. I was disappointed, I was angry but these things happen in football.
“I had a knee problem that started in Sunderland and started to get worse, I decided to have an operation and told the club I was going to have one when I had three or four months left on my contract.
“I had the operation and we had discussions about my rehab. I think I should have stayed in Argentina for longer, but they wanted me back here so I came back.
“It didn’t go as well as I was expected and it was tough. I tried to get back but I couldn’t get back to the level I wanted, my contract ran out and that was when I chose to retire.”
And with that, Julio Arca’s professional football career was over.
In part two on Friday Arca discusses the aftermath of his retirement from the professional game, why he chose to stay in the North East and life with Northern League club South Shields.