Aodhán O’Hara was, as he says, buzzing. The former Cal State Bakersfield was on trial with Irish Premier League soccer club Finn Harps, and he had scored twice in two games.
He had previously played pre-season in Sweden with little success, he had spent time with his hometown Simcoe County Rovers in Canada, but now he was looking to sign a European professional contract for the 2022-23 season.
“I was pretty sure they were going to sign me,” O’Hara said. “Right after the last game, (they) told me they were going to go another direction.”
It was by no means the first setback in O’Hara’s journey, which seemed totally stalled after four insufficiently distinguished years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (by his own admission), and did not completely neither took off after a starring role. at CSUB.
But once again he found another way by joining a new residential Spanish football program called Atletico San Jorge which helped earn him a place in Gibraltar.
Now O’Hara and Gibraltarian side Manchester 62 start their season on Saturday.
“Obviously you want to go to the highest possible level and play as many minutes as possible right away,” he said, “but you also want to go somewhere where there’s a clear upward trajectory…I thought that was a great level to get into, being able to do well right away.
Originally, O’Hara believed he would start his career somewhere in the United States, through the Major League Soccer Player Combine or the United Soccer League system. These opportunities were not the way he had hoped after his time at UAB, and so using his additional COVID-19 eligibility, he instead returned to the University of Bakersfield.
To hear him say it, he was transformed. CSUB coach Richie Grant and his team were ready to use O’Hara not as a stationary, heavy forward, but as a creator who could dribble and generate chances – “the player I was before coming to the United States”.
“They really looked at me as a player,” O’Hara said, “determined what my strengths are and what my weaknesses are, and put me in a position that was going to get the most out of me.”
O’Hara had an unconventional stint at CSUB, living with three freshmen and one graduate student, and only spending about six months in town. But on the pitch, he led the Roadrunners with five goals, adding two assists, highlighted by a brace against Pacific and a game-winner at CSUN.
Along the way, the coaching staff helped him find combines and agencies he could use to gain professional attention.
Irish-Canadian O’Hara had the chance to shine with the semi-professional Rovers in his hometown of Barrie, Ontario.
“It’s not tiny, but compared to Toronto it’s quite small,” he said. “The townspeople laugh at you. We have never had top level football in this community. To have the Rovers created, especially by the staff who created them… it’s a really big deal and it’s right in my backyard.
Eventually, his CSUB teammate Eric Whelan put him in touch with the Irish agent who ended up offering him his chance with Atletico San Jorge.
“Around the world there is potentially a lack of opportunity for some people to get into the professional game,” said ASJ head coach Jamie McDonough, who joined the fledgling program this year. “So what we’ve done is we’ve basically opened up a residential program where we seek to provide the highest quality possible in terms of coaching and support.”
McDonough was impressed with O’Hara’s drive, calling him an “intrinsically driven individual”, as well as his movement and football IQ off the ball.
“I haven’t really seen things on the ball for about a week… He understands the game and he understood his role in the game and how to create opportunities for others and for himself,” McDonough said.
ASJ retains its players for a target period of three months and has given O’Hara the chance to play against teams from Qatar, Spain and Gibraltar during this period. After considering several destinations, he began to focus on Gibraltar, FIFA’s smallest member by region. McDonough said Manchester 62 weren’t sure the price would be right for O’Hara at first, but they talked about it and turned out to be a good fit.
“I have a good relationship with their coach, their manager,” McDonough said. “I had also met their owner a few times, who is also an American. It was one of those things where the first conversation I had… they said, ‘He’s a good player that No.10, a real good player isn’t he.’
O’Hara said his time in Europe was an “incredible experience” and would have been worth it even without the reward of a professional contract. He is getting used to the lifestyle of training in Gibraltar and living across the Spanish border. (“Everyone is nice, it’s laid back, they sleep really late, and they take naps in the middle of the day.”)
Then he will have to acclimatize to the rigors of the Gibraltar National League, from which the best teams can qualify for the UEFA Champions League or the Europa Conference League. That’s what O’Hara is aiming for this season.
Along the way, maybe he can make a name for himself again in a new environment.
“I think it’s a really good stepping stone and an opportunity for him,” McDonough said. “I know they will play in a way that will help him shine. But he also becomes a bit of a star in an environment where people are watching and people are constantly looking to refresh their teams.
Journalist Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.