Four years ago Julio Arca was angry, rudderless and struggling to come to terms with the end of his professional career. Torn between two continents and unsure what to do with the rest of his life, the future seemed daunting. “I felt a bit sad,” he says.
Little did Arca know that, just over the horizon, the fulfilment of a longstanding ambition awaited. “Wembley’s always been a dream,” says South Shields’ star midfielder as he prepares for Sunday’s FA Vase final against Cleethorpes Town. “So this is one of those wonderful things that sometimes happen in your life. These unexpected things you never see coming can happen.”
Once of Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Argentina Under-21s, Arca joined South Shields two years ago and his left-footed skills have since inspired the newly crowned Northern League champions to two promotions and this Wembley final.
“A foot injury meant I had to stop playing at Middlesbrough,” explains the uber-fit-looking 36-year-old as he relaxes at Mariners Park, his team’s well-appointed home, just round the corner from South Shields’ Barbour factory.
Fans frequently have need of the insulating weather-proofing provided by the company’s famous jackets but, for once, the ground is bathed in the sort of strong, warm sunshine thoroughly in keeping with Arca’s mood.
Back in 2013, though, things were very different. “I was really angry,” he admits. “I was angry I had to stop playing. I didn’t want to stop. That injury cost me big time, it made me go through surgery that took 18 months to heal. It was basically bother with my big toe. I’d been having cortisone injections in it for seven or eight years but it had got a lot worse and I stopped playing professionally because I wanted a life when I got older. I didn’t want the arthritis to be so bad I couldn’t play with my kids.”
During that hiatus Arca and Valeria, his Argentinian wife, returned to their native Quilmes, part of greater Buenos Aires, but, unexpectedly, failed to settle.
“I’d wanted to go back to Argentina,” he recalls. “But, funnily enough, I found I was missing the north-east. I’ve been here for nearly 17 years now and I’ve got used to the lifestyle, the culture, the people, so I decided to return, start my coaching badges and do a bit of coaching with Sunderland’s Under-15s.”
He has not looked back. “I’d made friends here,” says Arca, who has his own coaching academy. “I’d even got used to the weather. My wife and I have created a family life, our two young boys speak English, go to school here and have British passports. I have no regrets – we’re settled. Some players complain about the north-east, about the weather and stuff, but I find it hard to understand.”
Although deeply disappointed to see his two old clubs relegated from the Premier League Arca is adamant their decline has nothing to do with geography. “I hear crazy rumours about Sunderland maybe moving their training ground to London but that’s ridiculous,” he says. “I can’t understand why? I’m from the other side of the world and I love the north-east.”
On leaving Middlesbrough the outlook was initially somewhat less sunny. “I wouldn’t say I was depressed but I was angry, I felt a bit sad,” he says. “You go from playing professionally to stopping completely and knowing you’re not going to be back. It was hard to take. A big part of my life was over.”
Or so he believed. Everything changed when, to wholesale astonishment, Arca accepted an offer from Sunday League Willow Pond to test his toe over 90 minutes. After starring on his debut against Hylton Road Carpets Elite and acclimatising to the culture shock of having hungover team-mates who smoked cigarettes at half-time and repaired to the pub on the final whistle, there was no looking back.
“I wanted to keep fit and it was a fantastic experience,” he enthuses. “Then I got a call from South Shields. Last season was really good and this one even better. The older you get the more you enjoy playing football. They’re great lads, great fans here. I’m really excited to be part of this team.
“It’s different wages and a different level but the excitement, the nervousness, the banter are the same as at the top. Sunday’s final is what every player’s looking for in their career. It’s Wembley, a chance to win a trophy. It’s what every player’s living for, no matter what their level. The nearest I got to it as a professional was driving past the stadium a few times but, luckily, we have this one-off chance.”
Arca was part of a Sunderland side managed by his mentor and now friend Peter Reid who finished seventh in the Premier League. Even so, Arca regards winning the 2001 Under-20 World Cup with an Argentina team also featuring Javier Saviola and Maxi Rodríguez, and helping Sunderland secure the 2004-05 Championship title, as his two biggest achievements. Lifting the Vase would be comparable.
“If we do it, the moment will be shared with those other two, something remarkable, something ‘wow’,” he says. “Yes, the Vase is a lower level but to play at Wembley and have a chance to win a cup there … Not too many have done that; it’s special.”