Former CSUB soccer standout O'Hara begins pro career in Gibraltar

Sep. 30—Aodhán O'Hara was, as he puts it, buzzing. The Cal State Bakersfield alum was on trial with Premier Division Irish soccer club Finn Harps, and he had scored twice in two games.

He had previously played in preseason in Sweden with little success, he had been spending time with his hometown Simcoe County Rovers in Canada, but now he was looking to ink a European professional contract for the 2022-23 season.

"I was pretty certain they were going to sign me," O'Hara said. "Right after the last game, (they) told me they were going to go in another direction."

It was by no means the first setback in O'Hara's journey, which appeared totally stymied after an insufficiently distinguished four years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (by his own admission), and didn't completely take off either after a starring role at CSUB.

But once again, he found another path, joining a new Spanish soccer residential program called Atletico San Jorge that helped him win a spot in, of all places, Gibraltar.

Now, O'Hara and Gibraltarian club Manchester 62 begin their season Saturday.

"Obviously you want to go to the highest level you can and play the most minutes you can right away," he said, "but you also want to go somewhere that there's a clear trajectory upwards ... I thought it was a great level for getting in, being able to do well right away."

Originally O'Hara had believed he'd begin his career somewhere in the United States, via either the Major League Soccer Player Combine or the United Soccer League system. Those opportunities didn't align the way he had hoped after his time at UAB, and so using his extra COVID-19 eligibility, he instead went back to college in Bakersfield.

To hear him tell it, he was transformed. CSUB coach Richie Grant and his staff were ready to use O'Hara not as a stationary, lumbering forward, but as a creator who could dribble and generate opportunities — "the player I was before I came to the States."

"They really examined me as a player," O'Hara said, "figured out 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 a sophomore as a post-graduate, and spending only about six months in town. But on the field, 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 set him up with combines and agencies he could use to get professional attention.

The Irish-Canadian O'Hara had a chance to shine with the semi-pro Rovers in his native Barrie, Ont.

"It's not tiny but compared to the likes of Toronto it's pretty tiny," he said. "You get made fun of by city people. We've never had a high level of soccer there in that community. Having the Rovers created, especially by the staff that created them ... it's a very big deal and it's right in my backyard."

Ultimately, his CSUB teammate Eric Whelan connected him with the Irish agent who ended up getting him his shot with Atletico San Jorge.

"Around the world there's potentially a lack of opportunities for some people to get into the professional game," said Jamie McDonough, head coach at ASJ, who joined the fledgling program this year. "So what we've done is we've opened up essentially a residential program where we look to provide the best quality we can in terms of coaching and support."

McDonough was impressed by O'Hara's drive, calling him an "intrinsically motivated individual," and his movement and soccer IQ off the ball.

"I didn't actually see the stuff 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 gave O'Hara the chance to play against squads from Qatar, Spain and Gibraltar in that time. After considering several destinations, he began to hone in on Gibraltar, the smallest FIFA member by area. McDonough said Manchester 62 wasn't sure the price would be right for O'Hara at first, but they talked through it and turned out to be a great fit.

"I've got a good relationship with their coach, their manager," McDonough said. "I'd also met with their owner a few times, who's also an American guy. It was one of those things where the first conversation I had ... they said, 'He's a good player that No. 10, real good player isn't he.'"

O'Hara said that his stint in Europe has been an "amazing experience," and would have been worth it even without the reward of a professional contract. He's getting accustomed to the lifestyle of training in Gibraltar and living across the border in Spain. ("Everyone's kind, it's laid back, they sleep in very late and they take naps halfway through the day.")

Next up, he'll need to get acclimated to the rigor of the Gibraltar National League, from which top teams can qualify to the UEFA Champions League or Europa Conference League. That's what O'Hara is shooting for this season.

Along the way, perhaps he can make a name for himself in a new environment once again.

"I think it's a really great stepping stone and opportunity for him," McDonough said. "I know that they'll play in a way that will support him to shine. But he also gets to be a little bit of the star in an environment where people watch, and people are constantly looking to refresh their squads."

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.