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Good luck to South Shields and Julio Arca - my Sunderland hero

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I’ve loved watching Julio Arca play football from a young age, and watching him now brings back so many fantastic memories. I hope this weekend that he can finally find some silverware as part of a team from the North-East. It’s the least he deserves.

southshieldsfc.co.uk

Whilst there are thousands of football supporters from the North East descending upon Stamford Bridge this Sunday to watch Sunderland complete their miserable season against the new Premier League Champions, many more will be headed towards Wembley Stadium to take in the FA Vase final contested between non-league sides South Shields and Cleethorpes Town.

In the South Shields team this weekend will be a familiar face for most Sunderland fans as Argentinian midfielder Julio Arca goes in search of his first Wembley trophy.

Julio Arca was my hero as a kid. His name, along with the number 33, was the one I wanted on the back of every Sunderland shirt my dad bought me. At a time when Sunderland had very little in terms of quality, Arca was a shining light and the way in which he - a young lad from Quilmes - came to embrace the culture of the Wearside people and become one of our own was genuinely wonderful. He had a fantastic relationship with the fans during his time at our club, and deep down we all knew that had Julio wanted to leave Sunderland he could have easily done so.

But he didn't. He stayed in the North East because the warmth he felt from the people here put him at ease, and made him feel at home. When Peter Reid brought him to Wearside as a nineteen year old, Julio couldn't speak a word of English and was taken completely out of his comfort zone. Yet he embraced the challenge before him - he learned the language, he bought into the culture, he gave his all for the team in whatever position he was played in, and above all else he knew almost instantaneously what it meant to be a Sunderland player.

I've taken in a handful of South Shields games myself this season because, to me, every minute spent watching Julio Arca play football is still an absolute pleasure - even now in 2017. Northern League football is actually quite frantic and fast-paced; if you don't watch much of it you'd probably be surprised by the standard because it's actually very good.

I watched a match between the Mariners and Sunderland RCA a few months back, and whilst there were a smattering of ex-professionals on both sides there was only one player that stood out from the bunch, and that was, of course, the man who was once a very capable Premier League footballer; the same man who captained his country to an U-20 World Cup win in 2001.

Experiencing Julio spraying the ball around without so much as breaking into a sprint is still just as magical now as when I was a twelve year old boy. He was my favourite player then and he remains my favourite player to this day - it broke my heart when he left for Middlesbrough, mainly because I don't think deep down that either the fans, or indeed Julio himself, were ready for that relationship to end.

Sunderland v Stoke City Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

You have to admire Julio for continuing to play the sport with a club in the North East. It's what endears me to South Shields - the fact my favourite player turns out for them week on week just because he loves to play football.

Isn't that a fantastic thing? I wish more professionals had that attitude. Even when a footballer is well into their thirties many of them still have something to offer the game, particularly at grassroots level, so why don't more do it?

In Julio's case he has been the centre-piece of South Shields' phoenix-like rebirth. His name alone has helped to bring local people in through the turnstiles, investing their money into a level of football that desperately needs all the help that it can get. Not that South Shields need it more than other clubs of course; however their impressive away followings these last two years will have no doubt greatly aided the other clubs in the Northern League who will have benefited from the injection of matchday revenue.

I'm no South Shields fan - in my book you can only truly support one club and for me, that is Sunderland and always will be - but I am a Julio Arca fan, and watching him play football now before his career is eventually over with is certainly something worth cherishing. For me, if he's able to achieve victory on the big occasion at Wembley it will in some part be a positive reflection on Sunderland - the football club that brought him to the North East, and ultimately stole his heart.

So here's to South Shields and Julio Arca - do the North East proud this weekend and bring the trophy home.