From prospective hero to worse than zero
#7 : JAMIE O’HARA
Signed: January 2011 from Tottenham, initially on loan then permanent £3,500,000 deal in June 2011
Left: August 2014, contract cancelled
He was: Like the Royle Family Christmas specials, great at first and then worse than torture
The strange dichotomy of Wolves’ 2010/11 season will forever remain a puzzle; how could it be that we were able to perform creditably and even pick up results against the best teams in the league, but would so frequently fail to turn up and collapse to terrible results against the filth in the bottom third? We had survived in the previous season largely on true grit alone – Jody Craddock being second top scorer tells its own story – but that approach can never last for particularly long, it simply isn’t sustainable to have a playing style which leads to you scoring 13 goals at home all season. We were trying to play a little more football now (while still being recognisably a Mick McCarthy team) and while it was easier on the eye, we were coming unstuck. Mired in the bottom four from late September onwards, it was apparent that we needed something a little different. Nenad Milijas was still extremely hit and miss while David Jones had contributed strongly to the second half of 2009/10 and kicked this season off with a stunning goal against Stoke, but his influence on games was waning and more pertinently, what had at one stage seemed to be an imminent signing of a contract extension had dragged on to the point where it was now in serious doubt that he would stay – in the event, he didn’t, he left on a free at the end of the season.
As the January transfer window opened, Jamie O’Hara emerged as our primary target. He had been very highly rated at Tottenham at one stage, making 25 appearances for them in 2007/8 and picking up seven England U21 caps. He fell out of favour when Harry Redknapp Lambeth-walked his way into White Hart Lane and joined Portsmouth on a season long loan in August 2009. Pompey’s prospects for this season were always grim given their ownership shenanigans and how an expensively assembled (by Redknapp) squad had been dismantled when the money ran out, but O’Hara never went through the motions as you might expect a young player on loan from a top six club to do in such circumstances. Right to the end he gave it everything he had and was rewarded with Portsmouth’s Player of the Year award – along the way impressing at Molineux in their 1-0 win which happened to be their very first points of the season after opening the season with seven straight defeats. Incidentally I think that may have been the day that I worked out that I really do hate Greg Halford. O’Hara struggled with a back injury in the latter stages of the season but played on in a determined effort to feature in the FA Cup final; on his return to Spurs, he was ruled out for several months and spent the first half of 2008/9 working his way back to fitness. On the face of it he seemed ideal for us; some extra class in midfield, the knowledge that he’d already played for a team in a relegation fight and not hidden away while doing so, plenty for him to prove and with him initially only being a loan signing, we weren’t going to be shelling out a hefty fee and wages on a player with the large risk that we would be a Championship club in a matter of months. The deal to loan him for the remainder of the season was done on 30 January 2011.
He made his debut as a substitute against Bolton three days after signing – a game memorable for Ronald Zubar showing that if he put his mind to it, he could slide passes through to Daniel Sturridge just as well as Steven Gerrard – and then went into the starting line up for the remainder of the season (barring the home game against Tottenham where he was ineligible). He made a big impact early on, including goals against West Brom and Blackpool. It was in the latter game where his general play was most to the fore; in a game where we absolutely needed to win, we were 1-0 up against ten men but had a very nervy start to the second half. O’Hara was outstanding in galvanising the team and dragging them through a sticky patch through the force of his own will as much as anything and eventually we ran out 4-0 winners. Results were up and down as they had been all season – big wins over Manchester United, Aston Villa, West Brom and Sunderland going hand in glove with horrible defeats to Newcastle, Everton and Stoke – before we memorably secured survival at home to Blackburn on the final day, O’Hara scoring the first goal in reply to Rovers’ 3-0 lead before Stephen Hunt completed the job (in as much as you’ll ever settle for losing by one goal) right at the death.
There was almost universal approval for his permanent signing as it was clear there was no real future for him at Spurs; indeed, there would have been mass uproar had we let him slip through our fingers and join a rival. The deal was done on 21 June 2011 which looking back in isolation now, seems perfectly standard – around a month after the end of the season, well in advance of pre-season. However at the time there were daily gnashings that the deal was dragging on and much fretting that the club would let this one get away. We were later told by the club that any perceived slow progress was due to O’Hara being subject to an extended, stringent medical. We spent £3,500,000 on him and he penned a five year deal; it seemed an extremely astute piece of business. He was definitely on another level to our signings in the previous two seasons and in O’Hara’s case this meant off the field too, as he came with an obligatory celebrity wife. Now this kind of thing is of absolutely no interest to me – football is not an extension of Hello! Magazine, however much Ashley Cole might want it to be – but apparently it does matter to some people. Did this represent Wolves moving on a step now, from Mick’s old guard which still included cheap and cheerful signings from as far back as 2006/7 in the form of Karl Henry and Stephen Ward; grounded lads who would run through a brick wall for you but hit a brick wall of their own through the constraints of their own ability, and moving on to a different class of footballer?
The answer to that question was no as O’Hara was one of only two permanent signings made that summer (and there’ll be more on the other one later in the series, unsurprisingly enough). As a team we started 2011/12 well with seven points from three games, although even in these opening fixtures – which saw us all too briefly on top of the Premier League – O’Hara seemed oddly subdued and didn’t have the same influence in these games as he had in the previous season. Maybe this was due to us moving back to 4-4-2 rather than the three man midfield that we’d largely used in the final months of 2010/11 and he was adjusting to new and different requirements. The team’s form subsequently fell through the floor and as the weeks went on (and we stuck rigidly with 4-4-2) it became apparent that O’Hara was being used as the deeper of the two central midfielders. This brought up two key tactical issues; firstly, O’Hara either couldn’t or wouldn’t do the defensive elements required from someone playing in that role and just wasn’t endowed with the necessary anticipation, a prime example being Emmanuel Adebayor’s goal for Spurs at Molineux where Scott Parker ran straight off the back of him. Being played in a deep role also detracted from his goalscoring ability; having scored important goals for us in the previous season, we had all hoped that would continue and we’d have a reliable threat from that area of the pitch. Secondly, O’Hara being the deeper of the two central players meant that in turn we had Karl Henry playing as the more advanced midfielder. In the Premier League. You can imagine how well that went.
Teams began to carve through us with ease and run straight on to a struggling back four (and once again, this season we’ve seen a repeat of this narrative). O’Hara’s mobility was also now being called into question – he didn’t look in especially good condition and he wasn’t getting around the park as he had during his loan spell. The sight of him slapping the Molineux turf in frustration became commonplace – that Jamie Pollock-style faux passion is all well and good and might impress some people, but I’d rather have not had him sending the ball sailing out of play half a dozen times a game with failed Hollywood passes or having opposition attacking midfielders run rings round him in the first place. He went on a mini-scoring run in late October/early November where he scored three goals in four games (albeit one of them in the League Cup) and we hoped that this was the sign of both he and the team turning things around, but it wasn’t to be. In mid-December he was ruled out with what was initially reported as a calf strain but subsequently turned out to be double hernia surgery – any easy conflation to make – and missed nearly two months. He returned for our win at fellow strugglers QPR where we were greatly abetted by a foolish first half red card for the home team – another familiar tale – and was then included in the suicidal final midfield ever sent out by Mick McCarthy at Wolves in the 5-1 home defeat to West Brom. Doyle-Edwards-O’Hara-Jarvis. Just look at it. A centre forward, two blokes who can’t tackle (Edwards has improved his defensive work in recent times, but back in 2012 he offered very little in this respect) and an out and out winger. It was no wonder we got torn apart and as we will all sadly recall, Albion could easily have scored a dozen times. Mick was sacked and O’Hara played in the first three games of the risible Terry Connor era, including one of the worst Wolves performances in the last 30 years – an honour for which there is some serious competition – namely the 5-0 defeat at Fulham. It seemed very much like the club had given up on the season and O’Hara swiftly followed suit, declaring himself unfit for the remainder of the campaign in mid-March. We were, of course, relegated out of sight and left to rebuild in the Championship.
The hope was that if O’Hara stayed at the club – and he was definitely one of those who unlike Steven Fletcher and Matt Jarvis, hadn’t made an inestimable case for another Premier League club to snap them up – he would prove himself to be a cut above in the Championship, which theoretically of course he should have been. New manager Stale Solbakken appeared to be reasonably upbeat about his prospects but after just 45 minutes of pre-season action, he broke down again and was set for more hernia surgery. This ruled him out for four months and by the time he reappeared as a substitute in our horrendous Christmas and New Year displays against Peterborough, Ipswich and Crystal Palace, we were deep in a malaise where it seemed matters were coming to breaking point between the squad and the manager. He started our FA Cup defeat at then non-league Luton – so many times that season you thought “this must be the nadir” and then something even worse would happen – and Solbakken was sacked to be replaced by professional moron Dean Saunders. O’Hara was on the bench for Saunders’ first game at home to Blackburn and set up our equaliser with virtually his first touch after coming on, producing a long, raking cross from near the halfway line for partner-in-crime Roger Johnson to nod home. This seemed to cement the idea in Saunders’ tiny, tiny mind that O’Hara would be our playmaker, free to use his range of passing in a Xabi Alonso style. But O’Hara was never really that kind of player, even at his best. And we’d already tried this once, the previous season, with stunning results. He still had no aptitude for the defensive side of the game so the best solution would have been to get him high up the park where his lack of mobility – even more accentuated since his injuries through 2014 – would be less of a factor and we could take advantage of his decent technique and finishing ability. Being as this represented somewhere near common sense, there was no hope of it happening under Saunders.
He continued to be deployed largely in a deep-lying role which of course, meant one of Karl Henry or David Davis playing far too advanced given their limited ability on the ball. The exact same issue as during 2011/12. Why had Saunders not looked at this structure being palpable nonsense in the previous year and why was he persisting with it now? On occasion, in some kind of bizarre attempt to confuse the opposition, he’d start O’Hara wide for 10-15 minutes before switching him back to a central position. It had to be seen to be believed, genuinely some of the most crackpot management I’ve ever seen at any level. Meanwhile O’Hara himself was frustrating our fans with his attitude, on big money and not delivering, coasting through games without really having any impact and not showing any fight as we hurtled towards the bottom three. He was sent off for a petulant shove in the dismal home defeat to Huddersfield in April; when his three match ban expired, Saunders thought it a wise idea to start him in the de facto dead rubber on the final day at Brighton (we had a purely notional chance of staying up by then). Predictably we lost 2-0 without too much of a fuss, O’Hara sarcastically gave the travelling fans who were aiming their ire at him a thumbs up, and we were doomed to playing in the third tier for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. Good times.
Mercifully Saunders was swiftly sacked and Kenny Jackett succeeded him; understandably enough, he decreed that there needed to be a fresh start at the club. As you would expect, O’Hara was one of those singled out for the double relegation and told to train away from the first team squad. This represented some downward trajectory for him; rising Premier League star to League One outcast in two and a half years. He only had himself to blame for this to a large extent; he hadn’t made the best effort to keep himself fit, he hadn’t really had a go at changing his game when he was asked to play a different role, his play was sloppy, slovenly and counter-productive a lot of the time and his general attitude did not give off the impression that this was a man we could trust to scrap with all his might for Wolverhampton Wanderers. He was included in the U21 squads early in the season, presumably trying to get him in the shop window, and scored three goals in ten appearances at this level. At the start of November, he was oddly brought back into the first team fold – hard to see why as at the point at which he did return, we had lost one game all season and were on a run of five wins in six. Nevertheless, he came on for seven minutes at home to Stevenage, where he got a mixed reception – probably better than he deserved – and then 33 minutes at Carlisle where descriptions of his athletic ability were not flattering. A caravan being towed uphill was one that I seem to remember. He was patched back out of the squad just as swiftly as he’d been brought in, packed off to Los Angeles (reportedly at his own expense) for an intensive fitness programme as Ken was by now quite open that O’Hara was simply not where he needed to be if he wanted to play in his team. Given that Kevin McDonald was a regular in our team at the time, the bar wasn’t exactly set impossibly high in that respect. As it transpired, he never played for us again. A trial at Blackpool in January 2014 came to nothing and there was no appetite on the club’s part to return him to first team duties, so he remained frozen out until we finally reached a settlement on his deal on 28 August 2014.
He did eventually join Blackpool on 5 November 2014 on an initial short term deal which was later extended to the end of the season. The 2014/15 campaign was already a write off for the Seasiders – they were bottom of the table after 16 games when O’Hara joined and already nine points short of safety – as the Oystons had cast the club into a cycle of no funding with the Premier League funds siphoned off elsewhere, leaving them with a squad made up of youth players and ultra-cheap free agents. He did, to his credit, at least put the effort in while he was at Blackpool, even if there was no realistic prospect of them getting out of that mess. He played against us at Molineux in mid-January where, in an oddly passive first half from us, he didn’t do too badly. In as much as if you don’t put any pressure on him at all, he looks like a decent enough if fairly unremarkable footballer. If you do pressure him as we did after half time, then he’s of very little use at all. 28 appearances and two goals at Bloomfield Road were enough to persuade Fulham to sign him in the summer of 2015 on a one year deal. He went on to be a regular for them in 2015/16, making 39 appearances in all, and received some good early reviews, but it was a familiar tale as time went on. Teams worked out how Fulham were using him fairly quickly and soon enough he was having no impact as the Cottagers struggled along just above the relegation zone for another season. Released in the summer, he subsequently joined Gillingham in August 2016 on a two year deal, only to unilaterally walk away from the club on 30 September 2016 after just three substitute appearances totalling 93 minutes. It was revealed a week or so later that he’d left of his own volition as he was carrying a foot injury which was more serious than first thought, and didn’t want to burden the Kent club with his wages while he would be unavailable to play for the foreseeable future. So fair play to him for that, I suppose.
He was such a let down of a signing for us, especially as we’d all seen what he was capable of at the highest level, albeit briefly. It’s telling how the trajectory of his career went – and arguably where his priorities were focused for too long – that of the the 16 entries currently on the first page of Google News results for “Jamie O’Hara”, nine of them are about his ex-wife. Was it his fault that he got injured a lot? Not really, though he evidently didn’t do everything he could to get himself into the best possible shape that he could. Was it his fault that Wolves as a whole voluntarily threw themselves into a spiral of appalling decisions for 18 months or more? No, but he became a symbol of those poor decisions and our decline, rightly or wrongly. The biggest crime was that he was, at one stage, an extremely talented footballer who could have been pushing for full England honours at one stage, and he seemed to give up on being the very best he could very quickly. There is no one single factor which caused our double relegation, and you certainly couldn’t say it was all Jamie O’Hara’s fault. Being a passive presence who drifted through games, ruling himself out of contention quite publicly in what was still a theoretical relegation fight, not having the wit or guile to work out that what he was doing on the pitch wasn’t helping us, a refusal to work on the weakest areas of his game, deciding that Twitter was an appropriate medium through which to tell the world how tough it is being a professional footballer, thinking it was a good idea to grant a bizarre interview with Tim Nash to give “his side of the story” while he was still contracted to the club – well, pretty much all of that is his fault. When you’re being paid as much as Jamie O’Hara was and you’ve been earmarked as the star of the show, that just isn’t good enough.