Back in July, there were plenty of people casting aspersions about the wisdom of signing Jamie O’Hara on a free transfer. The reasons ranged from the fact that he had played for a Blackpool side that almost permanently occupied the relegation spots in last season’s Championship, his double relegation with Wolves, his reputation as a bit of a playboy or simply the assumption that he was washed up. O’Hara’s arrival, initially on trial, was treated by some as a microcosm of what they considered to be penny-pinching from Shahid Khan regardless of the midfielder’s attributes as a player.
Never mind, of course, that O’Hara had an outstanding season for a dysfunctional Blackpool side whom he joined after being frozen out at Wolverhampton without having had a full pre-season. The full context of his move to Craven Cottage was detailed in a revealing Daily Mail interview last weekend, where the player himself admitted he worked hard to persuade Kit Symons that he was worthy of consideration. Talking the talk is one thing – but O’Hara’s determination to prove a point to the doubters who had written him off seems to have fired a fine start to the season, which has seen him take to the deep-lying playmaker role at the base of Fulham’s midfield impressively.
There are similarities with Danny Murphy, who also arrived at Fulham with people questioning whether his legs had gone, and – although it is still far too early to compare the new arrival with a man whose impact at this club cannot be understated – there is no doubt that his experience and example in training can only be a positive around Motspur Park. Far from assured of a place in the starting eleven when he converted that summer trial into a one-year contract, O’Hara’s organisational ability, energy and fine range of passing has promptly turned him into one of Symons’ first names on the team sheet.
More of a passer than a stopper in his Premier League days, O’Hara isn’t a natural fit for the spot that’s proved most troublesome to fill for Symons since he took over from Felix Magath last September. He’s certainly not afraid to put his foot in, as evidence on plenty of occasions at Adams Park last night, and his hard work in screening an under-pressure back four was one of the key factors in two much more assured defensive performances to start the season. Just as crucially, he’s a dependable passing option in an area – twenty five yards from our own goal – where Fulham frequently surrendered possession far too meekly last term.
What is most encouraging about O’Hara’s excellent start is that he hasn’t allowed his additional defensive responsibilities to dilute his effectiveness as a progressive distributor of the ball. So assured has his start to his Fulham career been, it’s difficult to see where club captain Scott Parker fits in once he returns from injury. Time and time again last night, O’Hara was slipping a forward ball to the feet of a white shirt and spreading the play wide to orchestrate another attack. With the likes of Tom Cairney, Ben Pringle and Ross McCormack – all themselves perceptive passers of a ball – in front of him, O’Hara’s ability to step forward from a deeper position allows Fulham to manipulate possession at pace, and allied with the interchangable nature of that midfield quartet, poses serious problems for the opposition.
For someone who has faced questions about his fitness, O’Hara’s engine has purred along nicely so far. Like Sean Davis – who became so crucial during Fulham’s Championship winning season all those years ago – he has a happy knack of popping up around the edge of the box to offer another option that defences can’t easily nullify. A couple of shots at Wycombe last night were wayward but you feel as if he might be able to chip in with a couple of crucial goals during the course of the season.
First impressions can of course, be deceptive, but O’Hara’s early contributions have been telling. He was voted man of the match by the travelling fans on Saturday, which was telling, because much of his work was the unheralded hassling and harrying and positional play that goes unnoticed for the most part. Against a League Two side last night, O’Hara was peerless – often covering team-mates effectively, but he also looked to have time on the ball, even in the most congested parts of the field. One wag sitting near me described him as ‘the Putney Pirlo,’ a tag which might be a trifle overdone, but there’s no doubting his importance to this new-look Fulham side. That speculative summer signing now looks like a masterstroke.