'Portsmouth saw the best of me, I was never the same player again' - Ex-Spurs, Wolves and Fulham man Jamie O'Hara on unfulfilled talent, depression, Big Brother and Billericay
The pride in Jamie O’Hara’s voice is abundantly evident – at least Pompey fans were able to savour the player he once was.
By his own admission, Fratton Park staged the finest season of a career which sadly failed to fulfil immense early promise.
Within seven years of his south-coast star turn, the former Spurs man and England under-21 international was representing non-league Billericay Town, following a stay in the Big Brother house.
A fractured spine and subsequent associated problems contrived to demolish the pathway of a player who would battle depression and contemplate taking his own life as he stumbled down the leagues with Wolves Blackpool, Fulham and Gillingham.
Yet, to this day, the Fratton faithful still revere O’Hara’s classy presence amid a bleak 2009-10 campaign devastated by financial crisis, administration and Premier League relegation.
Such was the calibre of the dynamic on-loan midfielder’s performances, he was honoured with nine player of the season trophies, including The News/Sports Mail’s accolade.
Wembley was indeed a worthy host for the final outing of the 23-year-old’s memorable Pompey stay.
The 1-0 FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea in May 2010 signified a White Hart Lane return with Blues followers’ best wishes after 29 matches and three goals.
It would also prove to be the swansong for a talent which never again occupied such heights.
‘I was never the same player after Pompey,’ O’Hara told The News.
‘At Fratton Park I was quick, I could play on the left or off the front man, I could get around, I could travel and run with the ball, I could go past people.
‘A back operation at the end of that season meant I lost a yard of pace and had to adapt to a different way of playing. I became a holding midfielder, more of a passer.
‘That stress fracture of the back massively changed the way I played. It finished my whole body really.
‘I had two titanium screws and a rod put into my spine, while they took bone marrow out of my hip and packed that into the back to keep it together.
‘The surgeon told me I’d never have a problem with my back again – although everything else might break down. He was completely right.
‘I ended up overcompensating everywhere else. There was a double hernia, groin tendonitis, the hip went, my ankles started changing because I was running differently.
‘Pompey saw the best of me, it was when I was at my fittest, my quickest. I went down there and absolutely loved it, I loved everything about the club, the fans, the people that worked there, the stadium.
‘I had a great season. I was playing really well, at the top of my game, then rounding it off with an FA Cup final. That was a special moment for me, something I’ll always hold close to my heart.
‘It was the best spell of my career and I’ve still got all those nine player of the year trophies in my games room. I cherish them because it was a great time in my career.
‘I’ve moved houses probably three or four times and those trophies have come with me every time. It’s something I can look back on and be really proud of.
‘You want to be the best version of yourself and it’s not easy to accept when your body then won’t let you.
‘I was obviously talented and a good player, but had to adapt my game. I had to tell my brain that I was unable to run past these people any more – but I could pass it past them.
‘The injury was something I had to accept, there was nothing much I could do about it.’
Back surgery immediately following that May 2010 FA Cup final sidelined O’Hara for five months, yet he recovered sufficiently to be sent out by Spurs for another Premier League loan spell, this time at Wolves in January 2011.
A return of three goals in 14 appearances during their successful fight against relegation persuaded Mick McCarthy to sign O’Hara permanently that summer.
Fetching a £5m fee, he was catapulted among the club’s top earners and handed a five-year deal. Not unreasonably, much was expected.
Instead, as injuries bit deep, the midfielder’s appearances became frustratingly sporadic, coinciding with Wolves suffering successive relegations.
The 2013-14 campaign dawned with the Molineux club in League One under the management of Kenny Jackett, who would bring down the axe on the ex-Spurs man’s stay.
Following O’Hara’s permanent Wolves switch, he totalled 43 appearances and three goals during three-and-a-half seasons.
It was a bleak period which also saw him suffer from depression and contemplate suicide as once the hero of Fratton Park descended into boo-boy territory.
He added: ‘I was the easy target at Wolves because I was the player who had come in for the big fee and was expected to be the man that took them to the next level.
‘The club needed a scapegoat – and that was me.
‘It killed me every day not being able to go out there and perform, I just wasn’t fit enough and that was the problem. I was carrying my back injury, carrying my groin injury, getting injections to play.
‘You don’t give a good account of yourself when you are doing that.
‘I was on antidepressants while at Wolves. It was a terrible time in my life, constantly getting abused from fans, constantly receiving stick. It wasn’t nice.
‘I’m one of these people who want to be loved by supporters. I’ll give as much as I can just to be adored by them, but I wasn’t able to do that.
‘I always backed myself, I always knew I was good enough, I knew I had the ability. Yet injuries took their toll on my body and I could no longer compete at that level.
‘I was really struggling to get my fitness to where it needed to be – and it hit my confidence.
‘At Pompey I was confident, I was playing regularly, everyone loved me. When you’ve got that feeling, that adulation, it makes you play even better. I never had that at Wolves and became depressed.
‘There is nowhere near enough being done for players’ mental health in football these days. It’s getting better, but much more work is needed.
‘People see you on big money, living in nice houses and doing lovely things and think “How can he be unhappy?”.
‘We now know that’s not the case. It doesn’t matter what you have, if your mind’s not right then the amount of money in the bank is irrelevant.
‘I have been through it – and know there’s a lot of players currently experiencing it themselves. Thankfully the stigma has now gone, but previously you couldn’t say anything, you couldn’t speak up.
‘I want to help other footballers with my story and make them feel they aren’t the only ones going through it. You feel you're the only one dealing with it, but, I can assure you, you’re definitely not.
‘I get loads of footballers getting in touch saying they're going through the same thing, from all levels of the game.
‘I’m a mental health ambassador for a few charities, it’s always something I am keen to talk about, so if you’re ever struggling or not feeling right, I’m on the end of the phone.
‘For me, at Wolves I was at the point where I didn’t want to be here any more.
‘I’ve got through it now and am positive, everything’s going great. I have put that to bed and love my life, it’s only positive things.
‘Wolves was the worst, but with every door that closes, another opens. Luckily I've now had some great doors open for me.’
After departing Wolves by mutual consent in November 2014, O’Hara featured in the Championship for Blackpool and then Fulham over the next two seasons.
Then, after an ill-fated 50-day spell at Gillingham, which involved three substitute appearances and tearing up a two-year contract, the 30-year-old walked away from the game.
O’Hara stepped back into public consciousness through Celebrity Big Brother in January 2017, finishing eighth after lasting 27 days.
Then, two months later, he staged a football return with Isthmian League Premier Division side Billericay Town, later managing the Essex-based side.
Nowadays it's a blossoming media career which provides the 34-year-old with a career path, featuring as a regular on talkSPORT, including often hosting evening shows.
‘After Gillingham, I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be playing football. I wasn’t in a good place. So I finished with it,’ O’Hara said.
‘I wanted to have a look at something different and see where it took me – so I went on Big Brother. I also needed the money at the time, to be honest!
‘Before entering that house, everyone had a bad perception of me, which was upsetting. I’m not a bad person, just a normal bloke.
‘I came from nothing into football, I love the game and, like everyone, I like to do nice things. Yet people had the wrong impression of me for a long time, maybe because of who I was with and how I was portraying myself.
‘Big Brother gave people a glimpse of who I actually am, the real person, and what I’m about. After that, everyone was back on my team a little.
‘I came out of Big Brother and was being pulled everywhere, asked to do all these things, but I just wanted to play football, I wanted to get back into the game.
‘I knew it was going to be difficult to return to a professional level after that, then Billericay came in.
‘Glenn Tamplin was offering decent money and had the right project, trying to take the club into the Football League. It was really fun, something I loved.
‘I didn’t know too much about non-league before that, now I love it. It’s something I never thought I’d be involved in, but it was great.
‘I didn’t care if it was non-league, I just wanted to play football. I played at Goals the other night with my pals. I will play anywhere if there’s a game, a decent pitch and decent players.
‘As long as you are enjoying it and having fun, that’s all that matters.
‘Football was a massive part of my life, now I get to talk about it every week on talkSPORT rather than have to constantly run around and get injured.
‘I’ve always talked openly and been honest about my mistakes, I think people like that and relate to it. We all make mistakes and have done stupid things – in my case, it’s someone who has played at the highest level.
‘I’ve never really retired, not officially. Who knows, I might get the boots on next season if I can get fit.
‘It’s difficult to let football go.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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