How Arca's dream return was ruined by moment of madness
It is the 92nd minute at the Ricoh Arena. Middlesbrough are 3-1 down, heading to their third successive league defeat, and their promotion hopes are taking a major battering.
Thanks to referee Gary Sutton, and Kevin Thomson's two rather rash challenges, Julio Arca has spent an hour running round the midfield area in frustration and increasing desperation.
Despair: Julio Arca is left heartbroken after red card
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And then it happens. He mis-controls a flighted ball midway inside the Coventry half, and, unwisely as it turns out, launches himself at the loose ball, and Sammy Clingan in the process.
He doesn't make contact with the Sky Blues man. In fact Clingan makes that very point to Sutton, but the referee's mind is made up and he is reaching for the red card which will devastate Arca.
'I couldn't see the card at first in the floodlights,' he said. 'But when I turned my head and saw it was red, I couldn't believe it. And of course, I knew straight away what it meant. And everything collapsed.
'I just sat in the dressing room with my
head in my hands and I could hardly speak when the lads came in. The
manager came over to me and we had a discussion about it and he had to
be honest with me and say he didn't think an appeal would work and I'd
probably get another game. I was disappointed but I understand.
'I am not the type of player to go
and hurt someone. It was two guys going for the same ball and he got
there quicker than me. I slid in quickly but I didn't even touch him and
he tried to tell the referee that.
'I watched it straight away on the computer on the bus home and I still think it was a harsh decision.'
The three hour journey back to Teesside
was beyond miserable. He spent all of Monday, his day off, apologising
to his girlfriend for his mood and behaviour the previous day.
Red mist: Arca pleads in vain
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Fans' favourite: Arca is still popular at Sunderland
And quite right. He's always been a lovely footballer, but for all his delight on the eye, he is up for the scrap which English football presents. For a teenager who couldn't speak a word of the Queen's when he came over, it is an astonishing achievement to stay in this country, and want to stay, and make such a favourable impression on two rival sets of supporters over 12 seasons.
And he is also a very nice person and humbled by the hero worship. And I've seen it. He once presented awards at my son's football club in Durham and was totally at ease with people from all clubs who simply love him (although that might be stretching it for some of a black and white persuasion who won't forgive him for that tackle on Alan Shearer, which ended the great Geordie's career prematurely.)
Aside from the sentimentality, Arca's absence is also a major blow to Tony Mowbray and his team. He is already without the influential Nicky Bailey, Thomson, who is banned for one game for his dismissal and injured Haris Karoun.
Without Bailey, an ever present until he suffered a cruciate injury which keeps him out for another six weeks, they have suffered a serious blip which could prove fatal to their play-off hopes unless it is arrested. The chasing pack are catching up and hitting strides Boro have lost since the turn of the year.
The cup tie offers a respite, and Middlesbrough can go to Wearside, in front of a packed house, and give it a go. As Arca said, they have nothing to lose. But it is a shame they won't be at full strength.
They meet a buoyant Sunderland side, and a home support which is rather enjoying Martin O'Neill's impact.
Steve Bruce's failure in the cups was a factor in his fractious relationship with Sunderland fans who have been to one FA Cup Final since their triumph in 1973. A run is long overdue.
O'Neill would not be the first Sunderland manager to tinker with his cup line-up if he grants rests and offers opportunities to the restless this weekend.
But Bruce did it a year ago and lost at home to Notts County and was never really forgiven. St Martin can do no wrong so far, but even he will not be immune to the wrath of an unhappy Mackem if the outcome is a home derby defeat in the Cup.
But changes must come. Nicklas Bendtner's broken nose offers Connor Wickham or Ji Dong-Won openings, but you can't see Stephane Sessegnon being rested.
Keiren Westwood deserves a recall after the misfortune of losing his place through illness after a near faultless start to his Premier League career, while Jack Colback, Craig Gardner and David Meyler will be looking to catch O'Neill's eye on the training ground this week.
Two men who will play are the captains. Best mates Lee Cattermole and Matthew Bates will shake hands in the centre circle before battle commences. And the former Boro academy duo are both sure to be in the thick of it.