Sunderland’s Twelve Days of Christmas: (10) Hartlepool United and Arca’s day

Jake wasn't there either
By Jake

Pete Sixsmith
digs into the memory again to find a 10th Christmas period game about which he can reminisce as a safe alternative to slitting his wrists in despair at Sunderland’s latest act of shooting self in foot. Here he recalls one of the happy moments from Julio Arca’s time at the club …

See the full series here:

10. Jan 3 2004: Hartlepool United FA Cup 3rd Round (H) Won 1-0

This was one of the most enjoyable days I have had at the Stadium of Light and far, far better than the ones I have had to sit through for the last eighteen months.

We were in the Championship that year, a competition then sponsored by Nationwide, having gone down the previous year with a record low of 19 points – soon to be beaten by us and then Derby County.

Mick McCarthy was in his first full season at the club and had begun to arrest the slide with a team made up of those who could find nowhere to go after the previous season’s debacle – Babb, Bjorklund, Stewart – and a host of loanees. That year we “borrowed” Stuart Downing, Kevin Cooper, Stephen Quinn, Colin Cooper and Carl Robinson as McCarthy tried to find a balanced team.

He didn’t do badly as we reached an FA Cup semi-final, losing to Millwall and made the play offs, losing to Crystal Palace. South London was not a pleasant place for Sunderland fans that year.

The season started poorly as we continued our losing streak into the first two games before McCarthy realised that Julio Arca could play at left back. He played in a 2-0 win at Preston and then scored a corking goal when we had our traditional win at Valley Parade and stayed in the team, injuries permitting, for the rest of the season.

Arca was a very popular figure in his time on Wearside. Peter Reid had signed him from Argentinos Juniors in 2000 and he made a scoring debut at home to West Ham United. His game developed steadily under the protective wing of Emerson Thome, signed on the same day and who looked after the fledgling Argentinian, helping him with the language and even managing to translate some of Reid’s Scouse euphemisms into acceptable English.

Fleet of foot with a lovely shuffle and a great left foot, Arca became a crowd favourite. But his confidence suffered as we lost every game bar one from December to the end of the previous season and he only made 7 appearances that year as neither Wilkinson nor McCarthy seemed particularly enthused by him.

It was assumed that he would leave the next close season, but he came back and enjoyed a good year among a far more prosaic bunch than he had joined up with in 2000. Instead of Thome, there was Gary Breen. Niall Quinn had been replaced by Kevin Kyle and Jeff Whitley had come in for Don Hutchinson. Journeymen instead of quality – that’s what happens when you fall into the Championship.

By Christmas of that year, we were standing fourth in the table after good wins at home to Bradford City and away to Rotherham United and we were awaiting the invasion of 9,000 Poolies for the FA Cup Third Round tie.
Hartlepool are my second favourite North Eastern League side – not that they have much competition. They have shaken off the label of perennial strugglers and have had some decent teams, managers and players over the last few years – Neale Cooper, Chris Turner, Danny Williams and now Colin Cooper have all turned out good, solid football teams.

Neale Cooper was the manager for this one and he must have thought that Pools had a chance of causing an upset and getting at least a draw and an uncomfortable trip for us to the spruced up Victoria Ground and its simian mascot, H’Angus.

That they didn’t was due to Julio. He had already rattled the upright twice before he turned in Marcus Stewart’s flick on and rammed home a left foot shot at the far post.

But he wasn’t finished as Provett made an excellent save from him and then he made an excellent tackle on Eifion Williams when the Welshman looked as if he was about to level. Williams almost had the ball in the net in the 88th minute, but Phil Babb (not a player fondly remembered on Wearside) made a great clearance and we went on to beat Ipswich Town, Birmingham City (in a replay at St Andrews) and Sheffield United, before losing to Millwall and a certain Tim Cahill.

Julio stayed with us for another two years, leaving at the end of that wretched 15-point season in which he will be remembered for a fine goal at ‘Boro and an awful tackle on Alan Shearer which led to Mr Creosote retiring from the game and becoming the world’s most boring pundit.

Bypassing Hartlepool, he moved down the A19 to Middlesbrough and had a decent spell there, but it is on Wearside that he is most fondly remembered as a player who was good and who could have been great if only the club hadn’t gone into one of its far too often periods of decline.

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