Jamie O’Hara was meant to be in Las Vegas this weekend for his best friend’s 30th birthday but then he got an even better offer, a contract to pay for Billericay Town in the Ryman League Premier Division.
So on Saturday afternoon O’Hara was in south London, making his Billericay debut in an emphatic 3-0 win over promotion rivals Dulwich Hamlet. It was his first competitive football in almost seven months, his first start in almost a year.
O’Hara began this season in League One at Gillingham but could not get fit, only managed three brief substitute appearances, and left the club in September. This January his career took an unusual turn when he appeared on series 19 of Celebrity Big Brother, alongside Calum Best, Bianca Gascoigne and Jedward. He was the ninth housemate to be evicted.
But last week O’Hara, a Championship regular for Fulham just last season, got his route back into football.
Glenn Tamplin is a tattooed steel and construction magnate who bought Billericay Town late last year. He is investing unprecedented sums of money for the Ryman Premier, up to £10,000 per week on wages. Tamplin and O’Hara have a mutual friend, TV star Mark Wright, and so last week O’Hara was given the chance to sign up.
“I was meant to be going on holiday this week,” O’Hara told The Independent on Saturday evening, “but Glenn said ‘I want you to play on Saturday, we’ve got a massive game, so cancel your holiday because I need you in the team.’ I wanted to show them that commitment and I wanted to be involved.”
So O’Hara signed on Thursday, trained for the first time that day and then on Saturday he was in the team, playing in front of 2,805 people at Champion Hill. “Waking up this morning, thinking of being out on a football pitch again, playing competitive football, is just the best feeling ever,” O’Hara said. “I couldn’t wait to get out there. Obviously I’ve not played for a while so I was a bit worried about how it would go. But in terms of how it went for me, I was pleased.”
O’Hara was not the only star in the Billericay team. Paul Konchesky, former England international, joined last month. Last week Tamplin paid Conference South side Hemel Hempstead Town £24,000 for Jake Robinson. Against a Dulwich side who were playing their fourth game of the week, Billericay blew them away, taking an early 3-0 lead that was never under threat.
It took O’Hara some time to get up to the speed of the game and he was booked for an early tackle on Dumebi Dumaka which he knows might have been a red card in the professional game. But there were touches, turns, passes and free-kicks that all showed he has played at a higher standard before he was taken off on 60 minutes. If he gets fit he could be a good player again.
“I’m feeling tired,” O’Hara admitted afterwards. “I was struggling after 60 minutes. I said to the manager that I would give him everything I’ve got for as long as possible. Obviously it is going to take me a few weeks to get back to where I am used to being at. I have not played a competitive game for a while. But I felt it went well, so I’m happy.”
O’Hara has been out of the game for some time and is not in perfect footballer’s shape. He rates his current fitness at “70 per cent”. But he has signed up with a personal trainer to compliment the training he will do with his new team on Tuesdays and Thursdays, also giving him time to focus on his burgeoning radio career.
Naturally O’Hara does not want to be playing Ryman Premier football forever. He wants to get back into the professional game. While he is contracted until the end of next season, on good money for this level, he has a clause allowing him to leave if a team from League One or above comes in from him. He just has to get fit first.
O’Hara has played plenty of Premier League and Championship football in recent years and it is slightly strange to see him in non-league. But he accepts that having postponed his career to go on reality TV, he could walk back in at the level he left at. Now he has a chance to prove himself again.
“Of course, I went on a TV show, and I put myself in that bracket,” O’Hara accepted. “So I had to be realistic about where I was going to go in terms of my football after that. I still believe that I can play in the professional game. But this is an opportunity for me to show people what I am about, to show I am still committed to football and that I want to play. It is just good to get back out on the pitch.”