A career that began amongst the smoke and flares with Argentinos Juniors came to a close on Tuesday 25th September 2012 at Deepdale, home of Preston North End.
Julio Arca, then with Middlesbrough, was substituted in the closing stages of Boro’s 3-1 Capital One Cup Third Round win against their hosts.
By the time the club took part in the Fourth Round, co-incidentally at Arca’s former club Sunderland, the Argentinian midfielder had retired from the professional game at the age of thirty two.
A foot injury, suffered during his time at Sunderland, had flared up again.
Arca had an operation to repair the damage but his rehabilitation had not gone to plan.
His professional career was over, he went home to Argentina, in his words “it felt like a new chapter in my life”.
But a bond had been formed over sixteen years, the North East, and Sunderland in particular, felt like home now.
He returned to the area and set about moving on to the next stage of his career at the place he admits makes him “happy”.
Arca explained “I went home for a few months because it felt like a new chapter in my life. It was hard to take when you stop playing completely, it was tough for me.
“I went home and I was missing it here.
“We decided to come back, with my wife and kids and I started to do my coaching badges, I got busy again.
“And yes, it is a place that is my home, I have been here nearly seventeen years now.
“People welcomed me here back in 2000, they have always been great and not because I am a footballer.
“I always say if you respect people, they respect you back, no matter who you are.
“I got that with Sunderland fans and I appreciate that. I wanted to start a new chapter in my career in the place where I was happy and that was in Sundelrand. It is home”
Arca would be seen on a football pitch again.
Two years after the Boro win at Deepdale, Arca took to the field with his new club.
A playing field on Hylton Road in Sunderland was the unlikely setting for his comeback – Hylton Road Carpets Elite – provided an even more unlikely opposition.
From his early days preparing for a match amongst the smoke from flares, Arca now got ready to walk out on to the pitch with the air filled with cigarette smoke from his team mates.
He took his place in the Willow Pond FC line-up for their Sunderland Sunday League game and made a goalscoring comeback, netting his side’s opener in a 2-2 draw.
Sunday League football wasn’t an all-together new experience for the former Argentina U-20 international after playing at the equivalent form of the game back in his homeland.
However, his experience of English Sunday League football did provide him with a unique experience, albeit one where he was happy to be “one of the lads”.
“I didn’t know anything about Sunday League here but I played in the equivalent in Argentina when I went back over there visiting family.
“It is different standards.
“But here you played some good teams and some not-so-good teams but it was different.
“Not just the game, everything was a new experience.
“Seeing the lads before the game, when they had been out the night before. Watching them at half time, how they prepare for the second half, smoking cigarettes, going back to the pub after the game and watching a match. It was a good experience alongside them.
“Maybe they thought I was going to be cocky and arrogant, people think that about footballers. They didn’t expect me to be one of them but I was there in the pub, spending time with them and I became one of them.
“I enjoyed their company, I enjoyed playing with them and we had success. We got promoted that year so it was good”
Arca’s quality stood out and a phone call came from Jon King, manager of EBAC Northern League Division Two club South Shields.
The Mariners had recently returned to their hometown following two years playing in Peterlee, twenty one miles away from South Shields.
Following a takeover by local businessman Geoff Thompson, the club were making ambitious plans to rise up the non-league pyramid.
One of their first moves was to try and entice Arca back into competitive football.
King was convinced the former Sunderland man could handle life in the Northern League and, after some gentle persuasion, Arca signed on non-contract terms with the South Tyneside club in September 2015.
The move was ideal for the Argentinian, allowing him to combine playing with his new role coaching within Sunderland’s academy and it was a move that has paid off.
Arca said “Everything was started by Jon King when he was here. We have a mutual friend and he called him asking for my number.
“He contacted me to see if I would be interested in playing in the Northern League because he knew I was playing Sunday League.
“He wanted to see how I was, if I was fit, if I was big or skinny, he wanted to test me.
“He asked me to come and train, which I did and he was happy with me.
“They offered me something to stay and play for South Shields and it was good because I was working at Sunderland during the week and I had Saturday afternoons and Tuesday nights off.
“They understand I have other responsibilities but I am enjoying it”
Success quickly followed.
In his first season with the Mariners he played his part in helping them secure promotion to the Northern League’s top tier.
Arca made thirty two appearances in his debut season, scoring twelve goals, as the Mariners won the league by thirteen points from nearest rivals Ryhope Colliery Welfare.
Promotion took them into the ultra-competitive Northern League Division One, where they now do battle alongside former FA Vase winners North Shields, Whitley Bay, Morpeth Town and reigning league champions Shildon.
The league is unforgiving, reputations are not taken into consideration, respect must be earned.
But Arca has been up to the challenge, helping the Mariners to put in a challenge for the league title.
At present they sit in second place, five points behind leaders North Shields.
An application for promotion to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League has been confirmed, meaning the club must finish in the top four of the Northern League, and finish above fellow applicants Bishop Auckland, to start next season in non-league’s fourth tier.
Arca believes that the Mariners’ ambitious plans have led to them becoming the team to beat but is relishing the challenges that the Northern League offers.
“Last year we did well and the standard is good. We have good players, we have players that have played in the Northern League for a long time.
“They know how to go to tough places and get a result.
“We play against some good teams, we play against some teams that want to battle with you, I don’t mind that.
“People want to beat South Shields, we all know that because we are being bigged up and the chairman is putting his money into the club.
“We are getting good players in and I am sure it will continue”
Promotion, if it is secured at the end of the season, would provide Arca with a new problem.
From half an hour journeys around the North East, the South Shields players will have to contend with games in Lancashire, Derbyshire and the Midlands.
The dynamics of a week in the game changes, travelling increasing, rest time decreases, a player has his work and personal life affected.
When asked about his future Arca admitted that he is taking it “season by season” but he accepts that promotion could have an impact on his decision at the end of the current campaign.
“I always say I will take it season by season and at the end of each season I judge myself on how fit I am.
“If I feel well at the end of the season, and I am contributing to the team, I will think about continuing next season.
“At the moment things are going well. I believe I am part of the team and I believe I can still contribute.
“When the time comes, when I feel I am not contributing to the team, I will decide.
“I need to see what happens if we get promotion, which will be hard.
“In the next league you have to start travelling away and I need to see what is happening with my work at Sunderland’s academy, if I continue working there”
Promotion to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League is the first step in an ambitious plan for South Shields.
There is a new management team in place, with former Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers midfielder Graham Fenton joining the club in September to work alongside current coach Lee Picton.
They have added to the coaching staff once again, with the addition of former Hartlepool United manager Martin Scott.
Their Mariners Park home is undergoing development, with crowds of in excess of 1,000 expected to become a regular feature in the coming months.
Momentum is building and Arca believes it is here to stay.
“The ambition is to go all of the way.
“Everything is prepared to keep climbing here. The chairman is giving good support, the facilities are excellent and the fans are incredible.
“We have new coaches and they are doing well here.
“We have a good team, playing good football and it is exciting for the fans to come and see us. They are having a good time, we are having a good time so
things are enjoyable at the moment.
“Hopefully that can continue for a long time to come”
Although the Mariners are seemingly here to stay, Arca is once again in the autumn of his playing career.
His role within Sunderland’s academy is clearly a position that he relishes, but he is undecided on whether a career in management is for him when his playing days come to a close, although he refused to completely rule out a move into the dugout.
“I don’t know. As a manager you have to have that personality, it is not as easy as just saying I will be a manager.
“I will see what happens, if I step up.
“I just finished my UEFA B Licence last year and I have a couple more qualifications that I want to do. I am working at the academy with the Under-15s.
“I am still only 35, so I could be a manager in a year or I could wait a few years. We will see what time brings but at the moment I am enjoying playing football and doing my coaching.
“Who knows what will happen in the future?”
For now Arca is happy to enjoy life in the Northern League with South Shields.
The experience has rejuvinated his love for the game.
He is, in his own words, like “a little kid again”.
“Last year it was something new, I was playing in different places that I haven’t been before. Places that were really only half an hour away.
“People think what is he doing here but it was exciting to go to places I never thought I would be going to in my career.
“I am like I was when I was a little kid again and I can’t wait for Saturday to come.
“When you lose that it is time to think about if you want to carry on playing.
“At the moment I have that feeling, I am competitive, I want to win, I want to carry on playing with the lads.
“I have that in me, when I stop having that I will think about not playing anymore.
“It brings back memories of when I was young, my legs aren’t that young now but everything is here and it is exciting”
Julio Arca made lifelong memories for supporters at the top end of the game in the North East, and seems set to continue doing so with South Shields.
Interview: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)
Images: Peter Talbot – South Shields FC