Whitburn Cricket Club recently hosted a night with SAFC legend Julio Arca in which he was quizzed by compère Phil Hourigan (@WackemMackem on twitter) on a Sunderland career which lasted six seasons and saw him part of a side that finished seventh twice in the Premier League, was relegated on two occasions, won the Championship and got to a cup semi final. Phil very kindly allowed Roker Report to record the show and as a special treat we've transcribed the best bits for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
PH: What went wrong with Nicolas Medina at Sunderland? We paid a lot of money for him and he never played.
JA: He never got the chance to play 5 or 6 games in a row for people to say if he was good enough or not. Sometimes that happens in football and if you don't get a chance and you have to move on, which he did.
PH: Looking at the set up at Sunderland - you didn't speak English and you had Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton - did you have to learn English, and then learn to understand them two?
JA: I didn't understand them! It was hard. They're great lads though. I still sometimes see Bobby Saxton and I can have a conversation with him now.
Football wise they were really good. I know sometimes people criticise Peter Reid but I feel he was one of the best managers of the last twenty years here. He knew how to manage big names. Bobby Saxton would communicate with the players in a friendly way. I thought that they were a good team, and it's a shame they left the club in the way they did. Even though I couldn't speak the language I could tell that the players wanted to play for Peter Reid - they would do anything for him.
PH: At the time (when Peter Reid's tenure was coming to an end) from the stands it looked as though he was ‘losing the dressing room'. We had two 7th place finishes and then it went downhill after that....
JA: I think he was sacked too early into the season. He only had nine games in charge before he was sacked and the chairman decided to change things around.
PH: I'm just curious - when you first came to the club and couldn't speak the language, how did the coaches get their message across to you?
JA: They would give their instructions and then I'd have Emerson (Thome) next to me. They'd always tell me to work up and down the left and get the ball to big Niall and Kev. They didn't say much to me really unless I had played bad. I knew when something was wrong though because they'd shout Emerson over!
PH: On the dressing room - the social side of things at Sunderland at the time is rather infamous. Micky Gray has said that the divides in the dressing room occurred after a huge influx of foreign signings that didn't like a drink. Was that obvious?
JA: I was 19 and I couldn't speak the language so it was hard; you can imagine that if you go out with them it is hard - if you can't understand them when you're sober then you've got no chance after a drink! I like to go out and I liked to go out when I was younger but at first I just wanted to adapt to my new surroundings and then after a few years when I got to adapt better I started going out with them. Obviously though if another player could speak Spanish I was going to be close to them and the French lads, for example, stuck together because they could understand each other.
PH: What positives did Milton Nunez bring to the club?
JA: He was a funny lad and was lively but he didn't really do much!
PH: How was Kevin Phillips off the field in terms of the way he looked after himself?
JA: He carried on playing until he was 40, which just shows. He's the ultimate professional. He was also very ambitious - every year he set himself targets and was focused on hitting them. I saw him a few weeks ago when we played together at Jody Craddock's testimonial and he looked in brilliant shape, he was very fit. He's a person I look up to. Even after winning the golden boot he still stuck around when he could have left. He's a great lad and a great professional.
PH: I did an event last week with Kevin and he said that he and Niall never actually used to work on their partnership in training. What did you used to do in order to work on getting the ball up to them? It must have been something you had to work on.
JA: It's about connecting with each other. If you are connected then you don't need to practice too much. Niall had certain qualities that combined well with the qualities that Kevin had. On the field they connected so well that when you were watching the game it made you think ‘well they must practice on that in training' but they didn't. I had a connection with George McCartney and Micky Gray when I played left wing. I didn't used to speak much with Micky on the field but somehow we had a connection. He knew when he got the ball what I was going to do, and it was the same thing with George McCartney. They knew when I was going to make a run or overlap. It's not something that you can practice.
PH: We went from finishing in 7th place one season to finishing 4th bottom the next. What (in your opinion) do you think happened for us to have such a dramatic capitulation?
JA: I think that when we had done really well we invested our money wrongly on the wrong players. We spent quite a bit and that was the difference. It was then that I thought we should have brought in five or six quality players and they didn't. We spent money on names rather than on quality. When you spend £12m on a player you expect them to be really good but it didn't work out and we ended up spending money that we didn't really need to spend and we suffered the consequences of that.
PH: It was strange that after giving Peter Reid the money to spend he was then sacked soon after. How much of a shock was that to the players?
JA: Our aim that season, after spending money on new players, was to finish in the top ten. We were wondering what was going to happen next. When the new manager (Howard Wilkinson) came in after that he didn't have any money to spend and that is how the problems started and we began to go downhill.
PH: Obviously your debut was a highlight but what other games from your time at Sunderland were particularly memorable?
JA: I remember beating Manchester United in the cup, that was good. Beating Chelsea away was also great, as was gaining promotion and getting to the cup semi-final. The semi-final was a great experience seeing all of the fans there (at Old Trafford). That was probably one of the greatest experiences of my career. When we came out to do the warm up the fans were unbelievable, we got a good response even before the game. It was passionate and we were disappointed that we didn't get to the final.
PH: What is it like when you are in the tunnel and you can hear the Sunderland fans? Big teams didn't like to come to Sunderland and some of the results in those early days would back that up. How much of a lift did it give you?
JA: It gave us a huge lift, especially in that first year. I felt that we could beat anyone, home or away. That's the kind of confidence you get when you have a good group of players and a good manager because you're all pulling together.
PH: Someone here seems to think you ended Alan Shearer's career....
JA: I don't even know what happened! The guy just came in from the side! I don't even think I tackled him, it was just a 50/50 shoulder and somehow he went down and ended up doing his knee. He was going to retire anyways.
PH: A big club like Sunderland and we're always in relegation battles - what do you think it is about Sunderland and always flirting with relegation?
JA: I've been here fourteen years now and it has always been the same. People think of Sunderland as a ‘rollercoaster'- it can be up and down and it's something that we have become used to. It's not nice but despite struggling last season we managed to stay up and showed that we can play good football, especially in the last six games. Probably 90% of the people here thought we were going to be relegated (after the Spurs defeat) but somehow they managed to pull it out of the bag and play some great football against some really good teams. I think it's about consistency, spending money on the right players and giving time and funds to the right manager. I believe Gus Poyet is a great manager but he needs time to change things in both the first team and the academy in order to get it right. If they give him time I believe he'll become a legend at the club and I'm sure he'll stabilise us as a top side in the Premier League.
PH: You used the word ‘we' - and obviously, you aren't from around these parts. You made marginally more appearances for Middlesbrough than you did for Sunderland - do you refer to both clubs as we or is this ‘your' club?
JA: I feel a part of Sunderland. I am obviously grateful that Middlesbrough gave me a chance to play in the Premier League for a number of years but Sunderland are the club that gave me the chance to come to Europe. From day one until the day that I left I have always been treated well by the people of Sunderland. Even when I left to go to Middlesbrough - that was a huge step across (when you consider the distant rivalry between both sets of fans) - people still respected me and that was nice.
I didn't really want to leave Sunderland but I had to. At the time the club was in a bad place - we had just been relegated and we didn't have a manager - and it was at a time when Niall Quinn was trying to do everything and it was impossible. The opportunity came and I had to leave because I wanted to carry on playing at as high a level as I possibly could. Football is a career and your career only lasts fifteen years or so, so you have to do as well as you can for as long as you can. Some players are clever enough to save as much money as they can in order to live comfortable once they retire - I had to consider everything and be sensible.
PH: You left Sunderland when Niall Quinn was doing just about everything at the club. Roy Keane came in shortly after that and started the Sunderland ‘revolution' that propelled us up. Do you look back and think maybe if you had waited a few more weeks it could have been worth staying around?
JA: You realise when your time comes and you don't know what the future holds and that is what happened to me. I had a chance to come back when the team got promoted - Roy Keane wanted to bring me back to the club - but Middlesbrough didn't let me come back and I ended up staying there for another five years. Like you said, two weeks after I left everything had changed. The team went from bottom of the league to somehow winning it. Anything can happen in football.
PH: When you were signed by the club you were captain of the Argentinian U21s side, but unfortunately you never progressed into the senior set up. Do you think you never played for the first team because you signed for Sunderland?
JA: The players that play for the Argentina national side play for big clubs. I had the chance to go with the squad to the Olympics but I wasn't allowed to go by Mick McCarthy because, at that time, we were about to play in the FA Cup semi-finals. After that they (Argentina) didn't bother with me. It's something I feel is missing from my career and I would have liked at least one game in the first team but it never happened. I have no regrets though. I'm happy with the way my career has gone.
PH: We've got a football tournament coming up in the next few weeks, I don't know if you've heard about it? Should we be sticking our money on Argentina?
JA: I dunno. Realistically with the players that we have got we should be aiming for at least the semi-finals but defensively we aren't good enough. I'm not sure what will happen. I fancy Brazil with them being the home side, having all of their fans there behind them. I wouldn't be surprised if England have a good tournament. The difference this time is that the manager has replaced many of the old faces with younger ones and usually in football when you least expect it a team do well.
PH: It's going to be hard for a European side to win in a different continent when you consider the conditions...
JA: It's depends where you play really. In the North it's going to be hot but in the South the weather is much like here. Also it depends if you're playing at night or not. I don't think the conditions are going to make much of a difference. England, with the players they've got, should have no excuses really for not having a good tournament.
PH: Apart from yourself, who was the best player at Sunderland during your time there?
JA: I'd say Kevin Phillips. I used to like Don Hutchison as well, he was a great player. He was only there a year but he was really good.
PH: Sunderland just never replaced Hutchison, did they....
JA: Yeah, they let him go. It's like I was saying before, we didn't keep all of our best players and the money spent to replace them wasn't spent wisely. After he left us he didn't play as much as he did at Sunderland - that happens sometimes unfortunately.
PH: Did you ever have the chance to leave Sunderland before you did?
JA: Not really. The only chance I had to leave was when Middlesbrough came in for me.
PH: What was Mick McCarthy like to work with?
JA: Mick was great, he was an honest guy. I really liked working with him - he did the best he could. He didn't have much money in his last year in charge and it was a shame to see him leave. We had two really good years under him. We won the Championship with a squad that nobody expected to win anything. He got players from all over that nobody really knew. He built a great group and everyone enjoyed playing for him.
PH: In that time you played alongside Jeff Whitley ...
JA: He was a nice guy. He used to like his nights out! He used to go out, only have a few hours' sleep and still trained better than anyone else! He didn't play pretty but sometimes you need players like him to do the hard work. I know he had his ups and downs on the field but he worked hard - what he could do, he did his best with.
PH: We were talking about Middlesbrough earlier. What is it about Middlesbrough and their ability to produce so much young talent from their academy, in comparison to, say, Sunderland?
JA: They have a guy there that has been working there for years called Dave Parnaby. He's been running the academy for a long time and, as a result, he's produced some great players. I guess Sunderland have changed their structure a few times but I don't think there is a massive difference between the two. The problem is that these young players don't get a chance to play. Clubs prefer to spend money rather than to give these young kids a chance so for them it's getting harder but if they're good enough they'll play. Some of the young players though think they've made it after playing a few games then wonder why they're playing in league one a few seasons later. I've seen it myself. One player must have played about ten games in the Premier League and then the next thing you know he's driving into the car park in a brand new X5. They need to learn to save their money and concentrate on their football instead of thinking they have made it.
PH: Who did you look up to as a young player?
JA: When I was a young player in Argentina I used to play at left back, and there were two guys at the time. One was Juan Pablo Sorin (Ex-Barcelona, PSG & Hamburg full back) who was the left back of the national team and the other was Placente (ex-Bayer Leverkusen). I was looking at them because they had the same style as me. I used to watch videos and watch them play so that I could compare myself to them and try and play as well as they did. Diego Maradona was also our hero in Argentina so I looked up to him. People compare him with Messi - I feel Diego is, and always will be, our greatest ever player. He gave us something to be happy about at a time when Argentina was in a bad place. He's a funny character - he done everything wrong outside of football but people still love him and that tells you everything about what he did for us on the pitch.
Lionel Messi is such a good player but he's always going to be compared to Maradona. This World Cup is huge for him. If we manage to win it and he leads us there I think only then will people start to think he is a better player than Maradona was. If we don't he'll be second best still in the eyes of everyone back home.
PH: You had a few managers in your time at Sunderland - if you could take the best bits from each one of them, what would you take?
JA: I'll start with Reidy - a funny character but he could get angry. He knew a lot about football and I have so much respect for him. Reidy is a person that might lose his temper but he will be honest with it. Then Mick McCarthy - he liked us to try and play good football and it was a shame that he left early. Then there was Niall Quinn - I only spent a couple of weeks with Niall but I know him well. I wish he was still at the club because he's a big character and it's a shame he has left the game. Every manager has different qualities and I always appreciate when people are honest with me and I feel I got that with Mick McCarthy and Reidy especially.
PH: One final question - if you can take one memory from your time at Sunderland, which one is your favourite? When you get flashbacks of your career, is there anything specifically that you remember?
JA: My first game. Even a few months ago I watched it back and from time to time I like to watch it when I'm at home. Other than that I loved winning promotion and I am lucky that I managed to win a trophy with Sunderland, as well as being lucky enough to have been chosen by the fans as their ‘Player of the Year' and that is something that, no matter how much money I am offered for that trophy, it is never going to be for sale. We had some bad times, yeah, and in my six years at Sunderland we had quite a few ups and downs but I always take the positives and I only want to remember the positives. I'm happy to have been here and I'm happy to have spent so much time at Sunderland. If I had to do it again I would.