The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football by Nige Tassell. It is out now from Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99) penguin.co.uk.
‘SWANSONGS AND ENCORES IN NOVEMBER 2015’ – PART TWO
After the exploits of the evergreen Barry Hayles and Chesham United, along with the TV headline-makers of Salford City covered in our Waltham Abbey programme, today we travel north for this derby edition against Romford, whom we meet in the first of two games inside ten days – Bostik North League today – Essex Senior Cup Quarter-Final at Ship Lane on 10 January.
They love a South American here in the North-East. From the Robledo brothers in the stripes of Newcastle in the 1950s, via Claudio Marangoni, Mirandinha, Faustino Asprilla and Juninho – not to mention “The Fast Show’s” Julio Geordio – Spanish and Portuguese have been familiar sounds around the region’s grounds for decades. Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough have all been more than partial to a little South American flair, the latter two having had their first teams illuminated by the skills of one particular Argentinian – Julio Arca.
It’s Arca for whom the ‘Hoo-lee-o!’ chants toll here at Mariners Park, a modest ground squeezed among industrial units in the hinterland between South Shields and Jarrow. For the midfielder – who’s only thirty-four, still a perfectly respectable age for a pro – now plays for South Shields. Having almost exclusively spent his playing days in the Premier League, Arca now patrols more humdrum territory. This is the EBAC Northern League Division Two, three levels below Barry Hayles and Chesham United [Asst Editor – and two levels below even our beloved Grays Ath]. It’s an unlikely place to find Arca just two seasons after he left Middlesbrough.
‘It wasn’t a straightforward retirement,’ he explains. ‘I finished my contract with Middlesbrough and was trying to recover from an operation on my foot. I was in recovery for a year trying to get back to professional football.’ The call never came so he embarked on his coaching badges instead. After eighteen months, his foot was feeling much stronger. The itch might just stand up to being properly scratched.
His return to action, though, was for an even more unlikely team: Willow Pond, a pub side from the Sunderland Sunday League, for whom he’d have to pay £3.50 a match to play. ‘One of my friends, who’d been playing for Willow Pond for a long, long time, asked me if I fancied playing again. So I played a few matches – it was an adventure! I’d prepare myself on Saturday night by eating right and get there on time. But they’d have been out on a Saturday night, all night, but no matter what, they’d turn up on a Sunday and I respected them. I became one of them. I was just another player. An ex-professional football might come along with some arrogance, but it was nothing like that.
‘In the majority of games, it was long balls, throw-ins, corners, everyone fighting. My idea was to make the team play more football. I was centre midfield and we were trying to play it on the floor as much as we could. Obviously the condition of the pitches wasn’t great, but it was good. I’d be running around like a chicken without a head some days. We won promotion, so it was a good season.’
By now Sunderland had offered their former midfielder a position working with their academy. Sunday mornings were taken up with his new job, meaning Willow Pond lost their midfield fulcrum. Saturday afternoons, though, remained free – a situation that the South Shields manager quickly exploited. Fit and injury-free, moving back to playing on Saturdays was the right challenge for Arca. ‘They probably thought I might not be fit, that I might be fat. But they saw me play with their lads and everything was fine. I felt I could compete at a higher level.’
From his showing in today’s match against Tow Law Town (a club most famous for being the football incubator of a certain Chris Waddle), Arca can comfortably compete at this level. South Shields are favourites for the league title, evidence for which comes in spades this afternoon. Tow Law take an early lead, but by half-time Shields are 4-1 up.
All grace and poise on this gluey playing surface, Arca still has the full bag of tricks at his disposal. During one attack, he dances around his marker, leaving him dizzy and discombobulated. At corners, he hovers and prowls on the edge of the box, looking to outfox the keeper with an elegant side-foot or to launch a speculative thirty-yarder towards the top corner. Even when one of his efforts lands in the car park of the warehouse next door, the chorus still rings out: ‘Hoo-lee-o! Hoo-lee-o!’ He’s only been with the club for a couple of months, but from the off he’s been afforded instant cult status.
The crowd of 1,400 – an enormous gathering for this level-ten match – is attracted by the presence of a North East legend. Shields are dominant in the second half and on the ninetieth minute, Arca finally gets the goal he’s been sniffing out all afternoon, curling one into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. It’s their eighth of the game, but there’s still time for one more to make it 9-1 by the end, to keep the title chase firmly on track. For the crowd lining the perimeter fence, that’s ten goals for their £5 entry. A fine return on any investment.
Despite the ease of the victory, Arca and the rest of the team never dropped down a gear or two. ‘I play the way I’ve always played. Yes, it’s different playing in front of forty to fifty thousand than playing in front of five hundred, but if I make a bad pass I still get grumpy with myself like I used to as a professional. When I find I don’t have the legs to run any more or I feel like everyone’s just going past me, then I’ll probably stop playing. For now, I can chase people, I can tackle, I can score. That’s why I still play.’
There’s certainly no sense of embarrassment at a rapid descent down the slopes of the pyramid. ‘The Northern League is very competitive. There are some very good players who could make it as a professional. One of our youngest players last year signed for Hull City. I’d definitely recommend ex-pros, if they’re still fit enough to run around, to have a go in the Northern League. Why not?’ [Asst Editor – having watched 40-year-olds like Glen Little and Jamie Stuart, “run around” for us at Grays during the last few years, I can certainly recommend WATCHING older ex-pros, as well].
Arca is not the only player with Premier League pedigree currently playing down at level ten. He might have lost his pencil moustache and nature now forces him to shave his head, but at forty-one, Julian Joachim remains a relatively quicksilver presence on a football pitch, having swapped his top-flight days with Leicester and Aston Villa for the more prosaic East Midlands Counties League, where he now wears the yellow and green of Holwell Sports. Unlike Arca, though, Joachim’s journey from England’s top table down to the tenth tier took a distinctly serpentine route. His passage through the non-league system has included spells at (deep breath) King’s Lynn, Thurmaston Town, Quorn, Hinckley United, Holbeach United, Boston United, Coalville Town, Oadby Town and Shepshed Dynamo. The quintessential journeyman.
Former pros can even be found further down the pyramid. Last season, one in particular could be spied on the blustery cliffs above the Pembrokeshire village of Solva, cliffs clung to by gulls and guillemots. Here, Simon Davies – the former Spurs, Everton, Fulham and Wales winger – pulled on the emerald- green jersey of the local team to take on the likes of Fishguard Sports and Predergast Villa. Solva’s home matches are held on the very playing fields where Davies honed his skills as a football-mad kid. He’s gone full circle, the homecoming king.
Arca’s self-described ‘adventure’ on Sunday mornings isn’t without precedent for an ex-pro, either. On the frost-scorched pitches that line the A10 corridor north of the M25, Fitz Hall – an alumnus of several Premier League clubs, including Southampton, Crystal Palace, Wigan and QPR – now turns out for Hertfordshire-based Percival in the Waltham Sunday Football League. Having converted from the centre-back role of his professional days to a Sunday morning striker, often in the company of his former team-mate Patrick Agyemang, he’s clearly enjoying his new position – and the comparative ease of this level. On his very first match upfront for Percival, he helped himself to a hat-trick against Enfield Rangers.
Colin Hendry, the former captain of Scotland is another defender who takes up a more advanced position on Sunday mornings. He now plays upfront for Clifton Casuals, a Lancashire side for whom Hendry’s old Blackpool colleague, Gavin McCann, also turns out. Meanwhile, over in East Anglia, that former terror of Premier League defences, Darren Huckerby, is now terrorising the defences of the Norfolk Veterans League as the star turn for Cringleford’s village team.
On the touchlines of the Blades Super Draw Sunday Sports League in Sheffield, the fifty-four-year-old player-coach of Hallam FC’s Sunday morning side has, very occasionally, been seen to strip off his tracksuit and slip onto the field of play, especially if the game is safe and his job is done. His name? One Christopher Roland Waddle.
The most inspiring story of a former pro gracing Sunday morning pitches, though, surely belongs to Stiliyan Petrov. In 2012, the Aston Villa captain was diagnosed with acute leukemia. After extensive treatment and retirement from the professional game, Petrov decided to dust off his boots once assured he was in remission. Wearing the number ten shirt of Sunday Leaguers Wychall Wanderers, Petrov inspired the Solihull side to a league and cup double in his first season. ‘It will go next to my UEFA Cup medal,’ he said, clutching his Central Warwickshire Over 35s Premier Division One Cup winner’s medal. The worth he put on it was unspeakably symbolic. ‘It is more valuable than everything else. It is priceless.’
UPDATE FROM THE WANDERER
South Shields duly won the League title in 2016, sealing promotion to the EBAC Northern League Division One.
Season 2016-17 was about as memorable as it gets. This report from the official South Shields website on 21 May 2017, summarises it better than I ever could.
“South Shields enjoyed a dream first trip to Wembley as they defeated Cleethorpes Town 4-0 to win the FA Vase – and seal a historic quadruple.
Roared on by more than 13,000 Mariners supporters on a sunny London day, the Mariners dominated their opponents to provide memories all of those involved with the club will never forget. They were always in control, but had to wait until late in the first half before Carl Finnigan slotted away a penalty to break the deadlock.
The second goal was also long in coming, but once Dillon Morse’s header found its way over the line with 10 minutes left, the party could get in full flow. David Foley added the gloss to the scoreline in the latter stages with two strikes as the Mariners ended an almost perfect season in fitting style.
Club captain Leepaul Scroggins and team captain Julio Arca then followed their team-mates up the famous Wembley steps before holding the trophy aloft as the Mariners won the competition for the first time. [Asst Editor – Arca is pictured on the right of the picture, raising the FA Vase Trophy with his right arm].
With the Northern League Division One title, Northern League Cup and Durham Challenge Cup already in the bag, the Mariners completed a near-perfect campaign with yet another trophy.”
Arca, at the age of thirty-six has now captained the side to two successive championships and promotions. They earned a massive 107 points in 2015-16 and went one better with 108 points in 2016-17. On Boxing Day 2017, they sat proudly atop the Evo-Stik Northern League Division One North (the eighth tier of the pyramid, just like Grays Athletic and Romford) with games in hand on their closest rivals. Arca has featured in most of their games this season, as his team chase a third consecutive promotion.
It’s clearly a new lease on life for one of football’s gentlemen. Long may that continue for him.
Updated 10:11 - 8 Jan 2018 by GAFC News