Schrodinger’s Derby is upon again, the good guys are managed by a Boro legend and the smellies from North Yorkshire have a Geordie in charge, up is down and east is west.
Boro’s current squad features two ex-Sunderland players in their ranks, first with one of the very few to have come out of our Grayson/Coleman Championship Explosion Bonanza season of 17/18 with any pride, Paddy McNair, who moved to the Riverside for £5m following that relegation.
The other is academy product Sam Greenwood, one of the first in Stewart Donald’s firesale of any talent not locked in a cupboard, when he was sent to Arsenal for a bag of foam shrimps and a Chomp in 2018.
Greenwood went on to Leeds in 2020, broke into their first team in the Premier League and has now found himself on loan at Boro, despite reported interest from Sunderland in bringing him back this summer. Fully-fledged England international all the way through to U21 level, still only 21, and the Chomp was opened long, long ago.
In the Sunderland ranks, there’s just the one player who has previously worn a Boro shirt, before going through a strict quarantine process to get himself set for life on Wearside; that player being Patrick Roberts. Roberts had a loan spell at the Riverside in the 20/21 season, hitting a single goal in 19 appearances before heading back to Man City for another of his 201 loans across the continent.
But let’s turn our attention to a standout player who holds the distinction of being unconditionally loved on both sides of the sort-of-a-derby.
For Sunderland fans old enough to remember the latter Peter Reid years, Julio will undoubtedly hold a special place in your heart, he provided an injection of South American flair and bite at a time where the club was still just about getting used to the idea of signing a large number of foreign players.
Arca was brought to Wearside in 2000 for a then hefty £3.5m, as a 20 year old, the captain of the Argentina U20 side which would go on to win the U20 World Cup later that year.
Originally a left-back, the Argentine was converted to a left-winger by Peter Reid, and, despite not speaking a word of English, was thrown in for his debut in the first month of the 00/01 season. It only took 25 minutes for the fans to fall in love with Arca though, as he scored, of all things, a far-post header at home to West Ham (bonus fact, we did not make a single substitution in that game, weird).
As far as breakout seasons go, 00/01 was a solid one for Arca, who would go on to score in wins against Ipswich and Man Utd (the latter in the cup) as Sunderland’s fast, direct team finished seventh for the second consecutive year in the Premier League, with Julio picking up the club’s Young Player of the Year in the process.
Unfortunately however, the start of the 01/02 season saw the start of what would be a two-year period of struggle for both Arca and Sunderland. Immediately blighted by a knee injury, it took until November before Arca got back up to speed, and he managed to score in a 2-1 win against Leeds.
Form was hard to come by for Julio, not helped by the fact that we were garbage for most of that season, but his campaign was ended in early February, limping off in a win away at Derby.
Sunderland survived by the skin of their teeth, but things took a turn for the comically bad the following season. Peter Reid was sacked in in October 2002, and was replaced by Howard Wilkinson, who, after a lengthy process of helping Bob Murray decide on a successor, came to the conclusion that he wanted to give it a go.
I’m not necessarily saying that Wilkinson was an out of touch footballing dinosaur out for one last paycheck, but one of many red flags should have been his immediate lack of desire in picking Arca.
Despite being fit, and clearly one of the more talented players in the squad, after playing in Reid’s final game in charge, Arca did not feature at all for Sunderland until halfway through January, presumably because Steve “Smithers” Cotterill had finally told him that the fans weren’t in fact, chanting “Boo-lio” with each passing game he wasn’t picked.
Arca’s return to the team couldn’t help steer Sunderland away from the relegation zone, though in fairness, Maradona himself would’ve found it tricky. Wilkinson was mercifully sacked in March, leaving Mick McCarthy with a scene that was the footballing equivalent of the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan, as we went down with a then-record points low for the Premier League.
Under McCarthy, Arca tore up the Championship (Division One) by way of being entirely better than everyone else in the division. A highlight coming in our 4-0 victory at Bradford, in which Julio beat a handful of players chasing him, only to realise he needn’t bother any more, and chipped the keeper from roughly eight miles.
Although we lost in the play-off semis to Crystal Palace and Neil Shipperley trying to eat Mart Poom, our title-winning season the next year saw Julio score 9 times as we returned to the Premier League.
In hindsight, this was a mistake, as we blitzed our own points record, with one of the three wins we managed all season coming away to Boro, with, you guessed it, Julio scoring the second in a 2-0 victory.
The second relegation brought an end to Julio’s stay on Wearside, and he moved to Boro for just under £2m in summer 2006, wear he became Gareth Southgate’s first signing as a manager. Largely owing to a troublesome toe injury which would eventually end his career, Arca was converted to a centre-mid, and during his seven-year stay at the Riverside, he’d find himself a regular whenever fit, and was even named captain.
Of course, when it came to the return of Sunderland to the Premier League under Roy Keane, he scored an equaliser in a game which also saw Grant Leadbitter and Stewart Downing on the scoresheet – as well as Liam Miller’s limbs-inducing late goal. He didn’t celebrate though, because he’s a massive lads fan.
Retirement finally came for Julio in 2013, having only managed to make three appearances all season, the last of which in a cup game away to Preston in September 2012. That was, of course, until he decided to turn up at a Willow Pond game in the Wearside Sunday League. Two years later, having recovered from that pesky toe injury, Arca signed for South Shields, and promptly won the Northern League Second Division, First Division, League Cup and lifted the FA Vase at Wembley before retiring for good in 2018.
Since retiring, Arca had been making moves towards a coaching career, and even had a spell at Sunderland’s academy back in 2015, but he finally got his first managerial role in April 2023, when he took over at his last club, South Shields, following the departure of fellow Sunderland legend and former-teammate Kevin Phillips.
Always believe in…
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