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 foot injury 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.
That career 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.
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.