Julio Arca sits forward on the wooden table outside the Mariners Park clubhouse, shielding his eyes from the glare of the South Shields sun.
Not for the first time this season, he’s in the spotlight.
It’s media day at the ground. Print press – both local and national – have been joined by TV and radio, a gaggle of students from Sunderland Uni and a multitude of photographers, including the Football Association’s own PR team.
The Park is packed – not to the extent it was when three and a half thousand people crammed in for the FA Vase semi-final against Coleshill, of course, but busy nonetheless.
The media are doing the rounds, speaking in turn to the dozen or so players, management and committee folk who have turned out to preview Sunday’s big game, the Vase final against Cleethorpes.
But Arca is the main man, the one everyone is hoping to catch a word with.
As ever, he’s generous with his time. Having turned up slightly late due to prior commitments, he stays back longer than most, fulfilling all the requests for pictures, poses and interviews.
It reminded me of the last time I interviewed him at this ground, in the aftermath of the Coleshill victory. Then, still fully kitted with mud adorning his knees and sweat glistening his brow, he’d stayed on the pitch for almost an hour, conducting interviews and signing autographs for fans.
That was his moment. Ninety minutes earlier, he’d set Shields on the way with the opening goal of the second leg – a stunning left-foot rocket. It had settled the nerves around the ground and catipulted the Mariners firmly down the road to Wembley, the venue he’s yet to grace despite his years as a stellar professional in the Premier League.
Not just fan nerves settled, though. His own too.
He may have played in front of 70,000 crowds and millions of TV viewers, but the Argentine still gets as twitchy as ever heading into big games, and Sunday’s final will be no exception. He’ll embrace those feelings, though, conquer them and use them as a positive to help bring the trophy home for the thousands of supporters and band of dedicated volunteers who still inspire him.
“I’m sure I’m going to be nervous,” he said. “It happened here for the semi-final and people ask me how I can be nervous when you’ve played in front of forty, fifty, sixty, seventy thousand but it just happens and you can’t get away from it.
“It’s good nerves in a way. In my mind I’ll be thinking what should I do in the game, what’s going to happen, should I do this, should I do that. I’m sure the nerves are going to be there but once you go in there and start running around you forget about it.
“It’s happened before in many, many games. When I was a professional it was probably every game and here, the bigger the game the more nerves I get. That’s just me, and some guys probably don’t feel the nerves and that’s fine but I’m sure I will be nervous, especially the day before or the morning.
“It’s a mix of nerves and excitement. We know there’s going to be thousands of people, 10-15,000 South Shields fans, so it’s about trying to perform for you and the team and trying to get a result for the fans who have come and spent their money.
“For all the people working here, not just over the last two years but over 10 and 15 years, some people have been here for a long time. So to give them something back, something as big as this, it will be a dream come true.
“Two years ago, when they were playing at Peterlee, they would never have thought of it so when you mix all these things, it’s a lot and you are nervous.
“We have to do what we do best and perform and if we perform in the right way we’ve got a good chance.”
Arca retired from the pro game back in 2013 aged just 32, bothered by a long-standing foot injury. He’d ammassed more than 350 games for North East duo Sunderland and Middlesbrough, becoming a fan favourite at both clubs for his endeavour, graft and class.
He couldn’t keep away from football for long, however, and started playing again for Willow Pond, a Sunderland-based Sunday League team before being persuaded to join Shields by then-manager Jon King in one of the greatest coups the Northern League has seen.
The boost to attendances was huge, and gave the club a profile among Sunderland fans – and wider – that they couldn’t have dreamed of just a few months earlier. And now, it’s given Arca the chance – at the age of 36 – to realise a dream of his own that he never thought would come true – an appearance at Wembley.
But just gracing the famous stadium won’t be enough for the skipper. It has to end with him lifting aloft the trophy come 2pm on Sunday.
“I feel lucky to obviously get this chance, to go down there and play in one of the best stadiums in the world,” he added.
“It will probably happen for some of our players once in their life...for some players they have been here (before). But for someone like myself, I don’t think it will ever happen again.
“Yes it will be nice, and I’m really looking forward to going there, but I want to win the cup. That’s me, and everyone is the same here.
“We know how hard it will be. This is probably the hardest of the cups. We have had to play so many teams and play in different places but we have done that and now it’s a one-off.
“You have to make the most of it. But we have to keep doing the same things we have been doing all season, there’s no point in changing it.
“We have to see what they have been doing this season, have a look at videos, analyse and prepare in the right way for the game specifically.”