I’ve only ever had one favourite player, and it hasn’t changed since I was seven. Sometimes I wonder whether nostalgia has built him up in my head; after all, I’ve seen better players playing in more successful Sunderland teams. However, there is more to it than success and skill; the players that resonate with fans are the ones that understand what the club means to the people of the city and share their passion for it. This is partly why, despite his spell at the club including two record breaking relegations, my #1 is Julio Arca.
My fascination with him began as I caught the Sunderland bug during Mick McCarthy’s first full season at the club in 2003/04. Back in Division One, I began taking a serious interest in football in the second half of that campaign. Having been to my first game in the December, my interest in football snowballed as Sunderland rallied to from an indifferent start to finish third in the league and make the FA Cup semi-finals. I began watching Sunderland on TV more regularly, mesmerised by the number 33 playing with his socks halfway down his shins. The only problem was, the two games I actually went to that season, injury and suspension conspired against me and kept Julio side-lined. I had never seen my favourite player live, but only made him go up in my estimations, and saw him take on a sort of mythical quality. When we were beaten by Crystal Palace in the Play Off semi-final, I spent the summer ruing the fact that had Julio not been injured for both legs, we’d surely have been promoted.
The first year I had a season ticket coincided with arguably Julio’s best season at the club. Mick McCarthy had built up a team of hungry young players from the lower reaches of the football league and fringes of top-flight clubs. While the desire and commitment was plain to see, Julio shone through as an experienced head with the extra dash of quality capable of making the difference in tight games. Reading sections in the programme that season about squad members being called up for international duty, my eight-year-old brain unable to work out why Argentina weren’t paying more attention to him. That season was the most prolific season of his career with nine goals, the most memorable of which came against Leeds United at home on Boxing Day. Julio curled home an exquisite injury time free kick, nothing more as a consolation in a 3-2 defeat. It served no real purpose other than to remind everyone of his class. His quality once again showed at Upton Park, where he grabbed the equaliser in an eventual 2-1 victory which sealed the Championship title. The season ended with Julio being deservedly named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year, along with Gary Breen and George McCartney.
The high of promotion was followed by another record low relegation; underinvestment that summer meant that McCarthy’s team of workhorses lacked the levels of quality to compete in the higher division. Julio left the club following relegation to sign for Middlesbrough. It spoke volumes about the reputation he had built over the previous six years that Julio was able to make that sort of move and retain so much affection.
Off the pitch, Julio also set himself apart from the vast majority of players to turn out for the club in recent years. For someone as far away as Argentina to form a connection with an area as Julio has with Sunderland and the North East is a special achievement. Having remained living in the region post retirement and turning out for Willow Pond and South Shields, his passion for the game bucks the trend set by certain individuals since his departure.
Julio’s status as my favourite player of all time was cemented, bizarrely, just after he left Sunderland. I was nine, and out for a meal with my family, when he walked into the restaurant we were eating at. I was beside myself with amazement, which quickly evaporated as I realised that in order to meet my footballing hero, I would have to have the bottle to approach him. After weighing up the options and deciding that this was too big an opportunity to miss, I nervously approached his table. I sidled up to him and mumbled something about an autograph. He happily obliged and began chatting to me as he signed my napkin, making it out to me. Though it took very little, in hindsight knowing the lengths well-known faces can go to avoid being spotted makes the memory all the fonder. I still own the napkin, though it did acquire a chocolate stain a few minutes after I met Julio.
To conclude, never meet your heroes. Unless it’s Julio Arca, because he’s class.