In a hotbed of such passionate football supporters and rivalries like the North East, very few players can say they are considered favourably by supporters of not one, not two, but three clubs in the region.
Such an honour could only be reserved for the most special of people.
Julio Arca fits into that category.
Successful spells at Sunderland, Middlesbrough and then South Shields make him a hero in large portions of the North East.
Not bad for a kid who grew up over 7,000 miles away in Argentina.
His first move to England came in the summer of 2000, with Sunderland bringing in a then 19-year-old awestruck teenager full of youthful exuberance to the club.
He quickly impressed on Wearside and would spend six years at the Stadium of Light, becoming a favourite as he helped them win the Championship title on top of some strong seasons in the top flight.
It was in 2006 that Arca made his move south down the A19 to Teesside. Gareth Southgate’s first signing as Middlesbrough manager.
That summer Sunderland had been relegated and Southgate had been named the Boro manager after Steve McClaren was named England’s. Southgate’s last appearance as a player was that UEFA Cup final in Eindhoven. Arca admits the chance to stay in the region, as well as join a team full of such incredible talent proved very attractive.
“I could never have joined Newcastle,” he joked. “But Middlesbrough I could get away with. It meant I could continue playing in the Premier League and stay in the region where my family had settled.”
Arca would spend the next seven seasons at the Riverside. Such loyal, long-service is rarely seen in the modern game. He admits the best of that time was the first three-and-a-half years though, playing under now-England manager Southgate.
“Gareth was great.,” he recalls. “Very low profile, very nice and he showed trust in the young players.
“With me he was great. It was probably easier because I came in as his player, whereas a lot of the other lads were players he used to play with – they were his team-mates.
“It can’t have been easy. Benching players you used to travel with as players. Maybe if he’d started at a different club it would have been easier, but he had the chance and he did well until we got relegated [in 2008-09].
“We got relegated with such a good team, and we were really unlucky.
“I don’t know exactly what happened. We had so many good players but we just couldn’t connect. There were plenty of injuries which led to no consistency in the team. And once you find yourself in the bottom five or six, you suddenly start to feel the pressure.
“He’s gone on to have a great career since and is doing excellent with England, so I’m delighted for him. I like to see good people doing well.”
Despite the relegation, Steve Gibson initially put his faith in Southgate. Arca was happy with that and never felt compelled to leave the club after Southgate made it clear he was an important part of his plans.
But Southgate did not last much longer. By October 2009 Boro were fourth in the Championship but just one point behind league-leaders Newcastle. Gibson made the change – Gordon Strachan appointed.
“I think he needed more time,” Arca said of Southgate.
“As with anything, you get better with experience and to build the experience you need time.
“If you look now, you can see how much he’s grown. With the pressure, it’s not easy to be England manager!
“He always made me feel special. After relegation he made clear that he wanted me to stay and be an important part of his plans to get us back up. That was all I needed to hear.
“We were doing well when he left. We were fourth, but just one point off top spot. We managed to keep a lot of good players.
“It surprised everyone when he left, and in my opinion, it was too soon. He should have been given more time.
“Things changed after Gareth left. Gordon Strachan came in. It was a different style of football and he spent a lot in the transfer market and changed the squad.
“After that, we didn’t get anywhere near promotion or even the play-offs. Once you stay in the Championship for too long it gets harder and harder to get out of it.
“It’s always hard to say if Gareth stayed this would have happened, or this could have happened.
“But it was a surprise when he was sacked. We kept a good squad in the Championship and it was such a big shock when he left.”
Arca remained loyal to Middlesbrough despite opportunities to move on. He stops short of criticising the ‘intense’ Strachan, but it’s clear he wasn’t as fond of the Scot as he was Southgate, or his final Boro boss Tony Mowbray.
Injuries hampered him somewhat, and he didn’t play as often as he would have liked, but he says he enjoyed the way Mowbray tried to make Boro play. ‘It suited me,’ he said.
The Argentine was released by Middlesbrough in 2003 after just three appearances in his final season. Injuries had taken their toll and he announced his retirement.
What came next was the most surprising of fairytales. Having recovered from injury and back in the North East to work on his coaching badges at Sunderland, Arca initially started playing Sunday League football. That manifested to a move to ambitious non-league side South Shields in 2015. In three seasons he helped them to three promotions and three cup wins, including captaining the side at Wembley in the FA Cup Vase win in 2017.
And then came retirement for real. 17 seasons, three clubs, three passionate fanbases, one hero.
“I consider myself so fortunate,” he reflects. “Here I am, a man from Argentina, and I got play for not one, not two, but three great clubs and for three great fanbases in the North East where they are so passionate about football.
“Sunderland will always be a special club for me because they are the club that gave me my first opportunity in England. They saw me grow up as a player – a young man from Argentina who nobody knew.
“I was more experienced when I arrived at Middlesbrough. I will always be grateful to Middlesbrough because they gave the chance to prolong my career in the Premier League.
“It’s a great club with a great chairman who loves the club. The fans were great and always supported me. I just wish I could have played more games for the club. My last two years I didn’t play anywhere near as much as I would have liked, and that is my one regret.
“But to then go to South Shields after thinking my career was over, and to go to Wembley with a semi-professional team and have the chance to climb those stairs to collect the trophy… crazy stuff happens in football sometimes, and what an incredible career I’ve had thanks to the North East of England.
“It’s my second home now.”
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Arca is now back in Argentina. It’s unlikely to be permanent.
He retains an interest in staying in football. He would never say never, but the prospect of first-team management doesn’t currently pique his interests. Youth coaching though, is something he’s passionate about.
For now though, Arca has a new business adventure – something born out of his own experiences and lack of support when moving.
Premier Sports Division is a company that specialises in helping sporting athletes move from country to country when work permits.
He says: “It came about from our decision to move back to Argentina.
“Moving can be very stressful and complicated.
“It took me a while to find a company that would help us. When I did get back home I was speaking to a friend who works in that market, and he said to be doing a sport side of moving internationally is a really good idea.
“There’s plenty of companies that will help with moving internationally, but not many are specific to sportspeople.
“So we decided to create this idea of looking after athletes around the world when they’re looking to move from one country to another.
“We’ve already started working with some good players, and the big thing is we can work with anyone around the world. It isn’t just South America to Europe. If a player goes from the UK to China, we can do that. We can work anywhere.
“We’re working alongside a company Universal Cargo that have been involved in the market for 40 years, so know what they’re doing.
“It’s something new for me, but it keeps me involved in football because I’m helping footballers look after themselves – making sure they’re paying the right prices and not getting ripped off when moving countries and things like that.”
You can follow Premier Sports Division on Instagram @premier.sd where you’ll see an already impressive list of clients.
Arca can travel internationally as much as he pleases. One thing’s for certain, he’ll always be welcome in the North East of England.