This week on the Roker Rapport Podcast we had none other than Julio Arca in the studio - James Nickels, Chris Camm and I were bestowed the honour of interviewing our childhood hero for over two hours to discuss everything about his Sunderland career.
And what an honour it was.
Often it is said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, for they can be underwhelming, nasty or just not what you expected. Sometimes, it is best said that a hero is just that and they shouldn’t be personalised.
Thankfully, meeting Julio on Sunday was arguably the highlight of my time at Roker Report. He was as good a guest as he was a footballer - and that is some high praise. From seeing him in the car park, to asking him what he had for breakfast (turns out Julio doesn’t eat breakfast), to testing his mic levels, and then conducting the podcast - he was just a normal bloke who loves football, no different from you or me.
Yes, we have managed to secure a lot of big interviews over the last few months - but never have I felt that pre-podcast buzz like I did for this one. I annoyed everyone all weekend with my constant talk of Julio; reminding family members of specific Julio moments, and that I was in fact hosting him on the podcast. Friends and family must have been sick of me, but honestly, I was absolutely buzzing for this.
He spoke about his debut against West Ham being like a World Cup game for him - well, this was the equivalent in the podcasting world! You see, I was born in 1994 which just puts me out of range to remember the heights of the 1997-2000 period. But, I do remember Julio Arca scoring on his debut at the Stadium of Light, and from that point, he was my favourite player.
I loved everything about him. He was cool, skillful and a pretty tough lad. He was exactly what I love in a Sunderland player - someone who is committed but has that sprinkling of quality that gives you that chance of winning football matches.
Some of my fondest memories growing up involve Julio. Whether it be going bananas when he scored that winner against Arsenal that was ruled out for being offside. Or watching his ridiculous solo effort against Bradford back time and time again. Or even his stunning free kick against Boro in 2005, which gave us all that hope that we might stay in the Premier League after all.
What I loved most though is that he seemed to be the only player that stuck with the club after our awful relegation in 2003. He said on the podcast that once he fully understood that he was in Mick McCarthy’s plans that he didn’t want to leave. Imagine footballers these days having those qualities? It must make him sick to think of Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong, who refused to return to training this summer despite being under contract.
Arca, though, stayed and offered Sunderland hope when everyone else left the football club. I grew up, as some of you might know, in a Newcastle United supporting hotbed. It can be difficult when all your friends are Mags and you are one of about three Mackems at your school - but players like Julio gave me something to cling onto as a child.
He was the one player that I considered to be a ‘superstar’ of that 2003-06 Sunderland side that truly lacked star players. Newcastle fans could lay claim to Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and European football while we at Sunderland suffered through a tumultuous period whereby we lost all of our best players and suffered a record breaking relegation.
Arca was the one player in that Sunderland side who could get you off your seat and without him, I wonder if I would have remained as avid a supporter of the club if he hadn’t been around.
Julio, though, wasn’t just a class act on the pitch. He was one of the few players to come to Sunderland and understand what the club is all about - and let’s be honest, how many players can we really say that about?
Having him talk about the club, his career and his time at other clubs for two hours was an absolute privilege and when I listened back to the podcast I had goosebumps - such was the passion he spoke about Sunderland and the north east in general.
Looking ahead, we have some very exciting guests lined up for the podcast and poor Simon O’Rourke has to follow on from Arca’s performance this past weekend.
I won’t share the details of other future guests, but I can promise you that they are as interesting as Julio was this past week.