Julio Arca

Cult Heroes: Julio Arca


Arca takes Cult Hero spotlight.

When players return to their former stomping grounds their presence is usually greeted with a warm, respectful ripple of applause or slight cheer. It's very rare supporters react as if they are witnessing the second – or third, or fourth – coming, but this is exactly what happens whenever this Cult Hero faces the Black Cats.

Back in 2000, Peter Reid pulled off a masterstroke when he beat off competition from a host of foreign and domestic clubs to secure the signing of unknown Argentinean wonderkid Julio Arca from Argentinos Juniors.

After the young left-back impressed during an under-21 game against England at Craven Cottage the previous season, Reid's persistence over the next few months paid off as Newcastle's hesitancy to push through the transfer allowed Arca to fulfil his 'destiny' of playing in red and white.

The deal, a reported £3.5m, certainly raised a few eyebrows being the most expensive signing the club's history at the time behind Stefan Schwarz. But the 19-year-old made an immediate impact on his debut, scoring against West Ham at the Stadium of Light.

Enjoying his time on Wearside – Arca once compared Sunderland to Buenos Aires because of the beach and friendliness of the locals – the South American settled in quickly despite not speaking any English.

Brazilian defender Emerson Thome was assigned as translator, but Arca says the only word he heard during his first season from his manager was 'play' as Reid gave the youngster a license to do as he wished on the pitch. This freedom allowed Arca to flourish, displaying a technique and flair that wowed the Stadium of Light crowd, and he ended his debut campaign in England with three goals from 30 appearances.

The following season was more of a learning curve as a series of niggling injuries disrupted his promising career, but he still amassed 24 appearances despite being ruled out of action from February onwards.

Things went from bad to worse in the 2002-03 season, as Sunderland plummeted down the Premier League table and Arca's mentor, Reid, was sacked. Things failed to improve under new boss Howard Wilkinson.

It was no surprise when Wilkinson himself left the club in March 2003, to be replaced by Mick McCarthy, but by then the damage had been done as Sunderland were relegated to First Division with 19 points.

With big-name players sold, Arca felt he owed it to the fans to commit his future to the club and help them regain their top-flight status.

In McCarthy's first full season, Arca featured regularly at left-back, as the Black Cats reached the FA Cup Semi-Finals but were defeated in the 2004 Play-Offs on penalties to Crystal Palace.

But Arca proved was clearly head and shoulders above his contemporaries in terms of ability, his performances earning rave reviews and predictions of an imminent call-up to the full Argentina squad, despite suffering an allergic reaction after he was bizarrely stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the North Sea.

He continued his sparkling form in the 2004-05 season, as McCarthy's men romped to the newly-dubbed Championship title with 105 points, with Arca making 42 appearances and scoring nine goals.

But the club struggled to adapt to life in the Premier League, as a lack of transfer funds severely hampered McCarthy's attempts to avoid the drop. With 10 games remaining, the Yorkshireman was sacked and replaced by former captain Kevin Ball who took charge until the end of the season, when Sunderland were relegated.

However, the future looked bright ahead of the 2006-07 campaign as Niall Quinn completed a takeover of the club from Sir Bob Murray. Despite the Irishman visiting Arca at home in an attempt to persuade the Argentinean to stay, Arca moved to Middlesbrough that summer.

Moved into a central attacking midfield position by Gareth Southgate, he won over the sceptical Boro fans with his whole-hearted, skilful displays.

Julio scored in North East derbies against Newcastle and then Sunderland in early 2007-08, but was applauded from the pitch after suffering a serious knee injury against the Black Cats by both sets of supporters at the Riverside.

He was afforded a hero's reception at the return fixture, choruses of his 'Julio' chant sweeping around the Stadium of Light to the tune of Spandau Ballet's 'Gold' as it does whenever Sunderland's adopted son returns to Wearside.