Real Salt Lake

A Jamaican international who began life as a professional in Major League Soccer not all that long ago, for midfielder Omar Holness to arrive last month in the Vanarama National League North is a compelling twist. The Darlington man comes complete with a desire to recapture what he knows he is capable of, and the studious 25-year-old from Kingston has felt anything but an outsider in his new surroundings.

An October night at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh’s Station Square, the USL Cup Playoffs Conference Quarter-Final tie between Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Bethlehem Steel is deadlocked at 2-2 in the penalty shootout. With a crowd of over 5,100, the visitors’ Omar Holness takes his time before striding up and seeing his effort kiss the underside of the bar before dropping in nicely down the middle.

The shootout will later end 8-7 in favour of Philadelphia Union affiliate Steel FC, though eventual champions Louisville City will end their season in the next round. Five months later, Holness is spraying a sumptuous long-range pass out to Darlington’s Alex Henshall down the right to set up a headed Stephen Thompson goal at Nuneaton Borough.

In the latter, the rangy midfield campaigner is given a seemingly harsh second yellow card for an honest, if mistimed, challenge around halfway, but it is a highly valuable 2-1 away win for the Quakers. Although the attendance is 620 for this debut, his first taste of the competitive cauldron that is the National League North has undoubtedly whetted the appetite for the weeks to come.

In a division crammed with renowned clubs somewhat out of place in the sixth tier, Darlo are another. For their new addition, his association with a proud old English football name had been sparked by decidedly modern means, as Omar explains.

“I tell you what, it was through Twitter. (Club finance director) John (Woolnough), he messaged me, saying ‘what are your plans?’ and I told him ‘I’m looking at opportunities and open to any door.’

“He said ‘you can always come up to Darlington, whenever,’ and lo and behold, I came up, saw the place, had a one-week trial and impressed Tommy (Wright), the coach, and the rest is history. I knew of John before through Andre, a colleague of mine.

“It was the first time I really had contact with him and it just kind of shows you how technology has advanced now!”

For the one-time Real Salt Lake player, Woolnough has also welcomed him into the family home during his first proper tilt at English football, lending him the spare room. Darlington born and raised, Woolnough grew up a Quakers fan but only began his role two months ago with the club that was forced to reform in 2012.

As a former Bermuda resident, Woolnough’s link has recently seen 20-year-old Bermudian international midfielder Osagi Bascome add a second dash of Caribbean flavour to the club. That Darlo are currently bidding merely to chase off the meagre possibility of relegation trouble (nine points clear with five games to go) is not what Tommy Wright and all concerned had hoped for from 2018/19.

Omar, however, has been encouraged all the same.

“There’s brilliant players here. From what I’ve seen, it’s just results haven’t been going our way; just one or two simple errors that lead to goals that really shouldn’t be goals.

“I think that’s just the tale of the season so far. If we can just minimise those errors then I think we’ll get the results we need.

“Darlington as a town, I think it’s a fabulous place. I’ve done some appearances, and the fans and the people of Darlington have accepted me.

“It’s every footballer’s dream to be accepted into the climate of where they’re playing. That to me has been important.”

To hear him speak after that debut red card about needing to control his emotions on the pitch seems almost comical given the mellow and infectious warmth he puts across, but looking inward at where to improve is part of his nature.

“I’m a huge fan of reading; I like reading autobiographies of sports personnel. I’ve read Steven Gerrard’s book, My Story, I’ve read Michael Carrick’s book, Between the Lines, Muhammad Ali’s; I’m actually on (Andrés) Iniesta’s right now.

“I’m a firm believer in reading as a form of just clearing my head and learning a bit more about yourself, as well as others.”

Interestingly enough, he has crossed paths with some elite names in his career to date, playing against Manchester City’s French pair Benjamin Mendy and Aymeric Laporte at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Mexico in 2011. Far from appearing for a few minutes late on, Omar was Jamaica’s captain at that tournament.

Holder of a British passport by virtue of his father being born in Birmingham, he was taken at number five in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft by Real Salt Lake. It was mooted that the University of North Carolina prospect was being earmarked as a potential long-term successor to captain and club icon Kyle Beckerman in the middle of the park, a player who started every game for the United States at the 2014 World Cup.

Not unlike the playing surfaces he became accustomed to growing up, however, Omar has found that smooth is not often the way. He felt that with full force soon after turning 17, when he tore his ACL, but was able to work his way back and had a trial with Bolton Wanderers during the following year, with the club not long out of the Premier League.

Having left Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer after 18 games, spread over his two years in Utah, he has trodden the trial track again with Oldham Athletic in League Two earlier this season. Both Bolton and Oldham have a connection to Jamaica, via former players Ricardo Gardner and Jermaine Johnson, for example, and like many to wear Reggae Boyz colours at international level, ‘road ball’ was big in their football beginnings.

Is it a term that similarly claims a place in Omar’s upbringing?

“Yeah, road ball, street ball, scrimmage! You have many terms.

“I feel that every youngster has had to have that experience of playing like 5-a-side at the street, or 2-a-side, 4-a-side. I think now, though, it’s a bit different, because you have different pitches that are being built, in terms of like sport-specific areas in Jamaica where you can grow and play, but back in the day, that was definitely a part of my childhood.”

Coming from what he describes as a very close-knit family, Omar tells how his cousins were essentially siblings for him and his brother Nickolai growing up. He flew the nest for America’s Southeast in 2013, spending three seasons at the University of North Carolina, where he would earn first-team All-ACC honours as a sophomore.

In the women’s game, UNC’s tradition is awe-inspiring, with several former players going on to win the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and head coach Anson Dorrance (who led the U.S. to the 1991 World Cup) building an incredible legacy over four decades to date. Current U.S. Men’s National Team boss Gregg Berhalter is also a former Tar Heel.

For Omar, he says the competitive edge he had as a youngster was turned up (and up..) once he ventured to Chapel Hill.

“UNC, the women’s program, it’s a dynasty. I’d say the same for the men’s soccer team as well; every year you have players going to the draft and doing well in MLS.

“The biggest difference I believe UNC made for me and my career, UNC turned me into a winner. UNC made me hate losing and want to win absolutely everything; if it’s a pick-up basketball game, I want to win, if it’s FIFA, I want to win.

“Just that level of competitiveness is what UNC taught me, because it’s just the culture there; it’s not just in men’s football or women’s football. When you talk to other athletes, it’s the same things that they’re saying, the same sort of core values that each team have.”

Before he got a chance to train or play, though, touching down in his new setting was enough of a change. There might be palm trees to be found in North Carolina, but unlike Jamaica, there is the chance of snow covering them during the year!

“It was a culture shock for me; it was the first time I’d ever experienced four full seasons. That first winter, I remember just staying indoors as much as I could; I couldn’t necessarily go to the park, and I love doing that.

“I couldn’t go outdoors because it was so cold. Not to mention, me having to buy winter clothes!

“Experiencing firsthand what it means to live in a cold country. The food, I had to learn how to cook.

“It was a culture shock, but as soon as I got used to what living in the United States was like, it was fairly easy, and that same process of learning, I feel like I’ve kind of translated that into the culture here in England.”

Spared having to perform an initiation at Darlington, Omar was not so lucky in college (“It’s called ‘being carried to the moon’ – that’s as much as I can say!”) When it came to being the new kid in MLS, on his debut against FC Dallas in June 2016, he was hailed as the bright spot in a 2-0 loss, with head coach Jeff Cassar commenting: “He looked like he made a big step in becoming a man out there.”

Real Salt Lake

During his college years, he had a stint with Portland Timbers’ Under-23s, but beyond the customary photo on stage with RSL club scarf around his neck and a handshake with MLS commissioner Don Garber, how did he find trying to acclimatise to life as a professional player?

“It was difficult transitioning from college to a full professional. The biggest thing that I realised, and I had to realise quickly, was now, you’re not sharing a locker room with companions, per se, you’re sharing a locker room with seasoned professionals that have to go home and feed their families.

“The level of competitiveness had to increase tenfold. ‘This is now your job, this is not a pick-up game, this is not college.’

“At UNC, it wasn’t as if it was a pick-up game, it was very serious, but it just got that more serious, and I think the standard of play increased a lot, the pace of the game, a lot faster. That’s why my time at RSL, I valued so much, because they were very patient.

“The staff, (assistant coach and former Jamaica defender) Tyrone Marshall, the head coach at the time, Jeff Cassar, because they knew what I was capable of, and I turned out to be a pretty decent player for RSL, despite all the injuries.”

One thing he has learned is you have to back yourself in order to go anywhere. In 2015, he was called up to Jamaica’s CONCACAF Gold Cup squad in the knockout round, as the Reggae Boyz went on to finish runners-up to Mexico.

The company he was in during that tournament, and in his senior international career overall since his 2014 debut, has been impactful.

“I think it’s four or five caps, I’m not quite sure, to be honest. I do remember making my debut against Canada.

“It was a 3-1 loss but it was a very proud moment; I had my family in the stand. We did lose 3-1 but Kemar Lawrence scored an unbelievable free-kick; I remember it like it was yesterday.

“Incredible, and you rub shoulders with some great players. You say to yourself, ‘Okay, I want to be like this guy, I want to be like him.’

“I think that’s what the national team has done for me. Especially being part of the Gold Cup team, I met some lovely characters: Jobi McAnuff, Rodolph Austin, Garath McCleary.

“Playing for big clubs, you kind of study what they do on a day-to-day basis and see if you can emulate their success and them as people. Giles Barnes, for example, Wes Morgan.”

Although he claimed his first MLS goal when he swept home against FC Dallas in 2017, Omar spent last season in Pennsylvania and the USL Championship for the aforementioned Bethlehem Steel. He acquired his U.S. Green Card last year – no quick or simple process, as anyone who has experienced it will know – but the challenge of Step 2 football in England this time was one he wanted to tackle.

“I think that the fans are a bit more passionate over here. Football over here is in a sense the number-one priority, whereas in the States, it might be fourth or fifth along a line of other sports.

“The attention to detail in soccer in America by the fans is not as defined as it is here in the UK. Just simple things like switching the point of attack, here the fans applaud, and when you get stuck in, the fans applaud, whereas in America, it’s not something you really see.

“I don’t want to say the fans don’t necessarily understand the game in America, but I think it’s just that passion that the fans in England have.”

So far in Darlington, Omar has appeared at The Dolphin Centre leisure venue in a club capacity, feeling that bit more connected with the community as a result. Like the text he got from Kyle Beckerman after being drafted by Real Salt Lake, he has felt similarly embraced by a Darlo player who was at Bradford City when the Bantams had Jermaine Johnson, Donovan Ricketts and Omar Daley.

“Simon Ainge, he’s had some experiences with past Jamaican players, so he welcomed me with open arms and made me feel comfortable and made the transition really easy for me.”

Along with staying with the Woolnoughs and their two kids, Omar is in England with his partner, Summer Breese, who also comes from Jamaica but has a Welsh father and studies at the University of Reading. While many would agree that successfully adapting to somewhere comes from immersing yourself in the ways of that place, to have a cove of home to go to can mean the world.

So, has Omar found any Jamaican restaurants since he arrived?

“I haven’t, to be fair, but I did go into Middlesbrough today and actually found one. But no worries, John’s wife cooks better than any Jamaican restaurant!”

An economics student in college, Omar’s ambitions most certainly include getting to don the black, green and gold of his national team again. He shares where he believes he stands at present with the man in charge, former Hull City and Tranmere Rovers midfielder and Reggae Boyz great, Theodore Whitmore.

“I met with him and he was aware of the injuries that I’ve had, and he said ‘not to worry, just get back on the field, be patient and you’ll get a call-up.’ That’s what I’m doing, playing with Darlo, doing the best that I can to get back to that Omar scoring goals, getting assists, getting stuck in.

“I think with Darlo, that’s the way I want to be.”

Playing the game since he was four, Omar will always associate his 25th birthday with Darlington, as that was the day he officially signed. The surface of what could be achieved for him at the club has not even begun to be scratched as yet.

The prospect of staying next season and potentially helping Darlo scale the heights again of two seasons ago, when they came 5th but were denied their play-off place due to a ground grading issue, may be an appealing one for both parties. Omar offers his thoughts on where he feels his compass is guiding him at this point in his career and life; to happily go with the flow, or to push for somewhere to put down roots?

“To be honest, that’s a great question. I think every footballer wants to be stable.

“Every footballer wants that sense of stability for three or four years, where you can be comfortable, but at the same time, there’s a dream that you have, to obviously play at a certain level, wherever it may be. Right now, I’m kind of in between that.

“I still believe I have a bit of gas left in the tank; another five, six, seven, eight years, knock on wood, obviously. That’s kind of where I am; in between that stability and wanting to explore!”

 Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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