By Tom Simmonds.
Being in the North East of England this weekend to participate in Sunday’s Great North Run had an unexpectedly newsworthy footballing by-product for me. A Northern League Division Two fixture between South Shields and Stokesley Sports Club sounds unprepossessing.However, it was lent a touch of stardust by the home side’s signing of former Sunderland and Middlesbrough left back-cum-midfielder Julio Arca.
This was too good an opportunity to miss, so off I went with my Geordie host to Shields’ Mariner’s Park, which is tucked away down a side street at around mile 8.5 of the GNR course. As I took in Arca’s debut and hauled myself around the world’s most famous half marathon the following morning, I thought about the motivations of high-level players who are content to drop down to lower levels until their bodies finally say ‘enough’.
Mariners manager Jon King is in no doubt regarding Arca’s motives. His programme notes read:
“He’s here because he loves football. He wants to come here, do well and win things,teams from higher divisions wanted to sign him, but he didn’t want to travel”.
The Argentine’s performance vs. bottom placed Stokesleybore King’s comments out. He looked fit, if leggy towards the end, as a heavy pitch exacted its toll. His day job as a coach in Sunderland’s academy has kept him in the game and his performance, as well as his programme interview, gave the impression of a man who wants to play at the highest level he can, for as long as he can.
Arca certainly compliments the attractive pass and move game that Shields are attempting to play, and there were several occasions where he flicked balls around with that famous left foot to remind the 764 spectators of his pedigree.
Shields had no issue with forcing the pace in this game. The midfield consisting of Gilberto Chapim and captain Lee-Paul Scroggins imposed themselves early and right back Barrie Smith supporting the attack impressively with his runs down the right. This begot a number of first-half chances, Scroggins heading against the bar, a disallowed goal and striker Ryan Noble’s composure failing him at crucial moments ensured that the game was scoreless at half time.
The claret and blue tide continued unabated in the second half, and Arca was to play a prominent role. After Richard Briggs had an effort cleared off the line, Arca broke the deadlock on 63 minutes after Stokesley’s goalkeeper spilled a routine header, allowing Arca to scramble in from the resultant pinball. Shields were punished for their profligacy in front of goal when Joshua Chambers equalised via a huge deflection from a shot he was given too much time to line up. Yet more wastefulness by the home side ensured that the game ended in a 1-1 draw which would have reflected the balance of play only in a hall of distortion mirrors.
Yet, you left the ground feeling that this result, as annoying as it was for Shields given the ease with which they should have won, was a minor blip in their ascent. Shields sit fifth on 17 points, four points off top spot after nine games. Thinking beyond the result, the thing about this afternoon which really gave the soul a coat of balm was seeing Arca’s obvious pleasure in putting something back into the game in the football-mad region he has made his home, ensuring that the local game can benefit from what remains of his physical gifts, experience and knowledge.
Also, when so many examples exist of players struggling to readjust their sights as their top-level careers end, actions such as Arca’s should serve as an inspiration to those who feel themselves becoming involuntarily lost to the game when their own careers begin to taper.
Which players in the twilight of their careers have lit up your club with their last hurrahs?
Read more from Tom Simmonds here!