Obituary: Tommy O’Hara, footballer

Tom O'Hara, footballer played more than 350 games for several clubs. Picture: Daily Record

Tom O'Hara, footballer played more than 350 games for several clubs. Picture: Daily Record

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Born 17 August, 1952 in Bellshill. Died 27 January, 2016 in Kingskettle, Fife, aged 63.

Tommy O’Hara was a supremely talented Scottish footballer who played over 350 games for several clubs in a lengthy career both here and in the United States, where he featured alongside stellar names such as Johan Cruyff and against the iconic Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.

He also won an international cap for the US. A fast skilful left sided player, he was equally at home in midfield or at full back and was a fans’ favourite, twice winning Queen of the South’s Player of the Year award and repeating the feat with American team Washington Diplomats.

A Celtic fan,he was brought up in Viewpark, Uddingston.His father was a steelworker and he had two brothers and two sisters,elder brother Pat being a well known junior footballer.

Tommy attended Our Ladies’ High in Motherwell after which he played for Kirkintilloch Rob Roy winning two junior caps for Scotland. His boyhood dream was realised when Jock Stein signed him for Celtic in 1971 and he would later credit Stein with having the biggest influence on his career. His favourite player was Celtic star of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s Willie Fernie. Others who joined Celtic at the same time included Tommy Burns and Andy Ritchie. Competition for first team places was stiff with Celtic having been European Cup finalists the previous year. As a result he was unable to make the breakthrough into the top team but was a regular member of a reserve team that often featured a number of big name players. Instead he had to content himself with a few first team appearances in friendlies although in 1973 he did play in the Celtic team that reached the final of the televised Daily Express five-a-side tournament at Wembley, knocking out Stoke ,QPR and Manchester City before narrowly losing the final to Derby County.

At the start of the 1974-5 season he accepted a free transfer from Celtic and was signed for Queen of the South by manager Mike Jackson, himself an ex Celt. There he made his debut against Dundee in a Drybrough Cup tie and soon established himself as an effective left sided player and valued member of the team over the next four seasons. His immediate impact was reflected in being voted Player of the Year in his first season when Queens finished close runners-up in the old 2nd Division, earning them a place in the new Division 1 the following season.

That season the ‘Doonhamers’ reached the quarter final of the League Cup where they played Rangers, taking them to extra time in the second leg at Palmerston after a pinpoint O’Hara cross clinched the equalising goal. His continued good form won him a second Player of the Year award from the appreciative Queens fans in season 1976-7 and the following season Billy McNeil was keen to sign him for his Aberdeen team.

However a better offer from across the Atlantic secured his transfer to Washington Diplomats in the North American Soccer League in 1978. A determined effort was being made to establish football or ‘soccer’ as a mainstream American sport and the engagement of star foreign players was seen as crucial to the sport’s development. New York Cosmos attracted the biggest headlines, signing players of the profile of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia among others.

Tommy’s stylish and consistent performances meant he was a virtual ever present for the ‘Dips’ alongside fellow Scots Jim Steele, ex Southampton and Rangers, Eric Martin, ex-Dunfermline and Southampton and English player Bobby Stokes, scorer of Southampton’s famous FA Cup winning goal against Manchester United.

The game’s popularity was steadily growing with the Diplomats playing to average home crowds of about 20,000 by 1980. In his final season there that year he won their Player of the Year award, no mean feat when teammates included the great Johan Cruyff and his fellow Dutch international Wim Jansen, later of course Celtic manager. Despite the healthy crowds the club ran into financial difficulties and O’Hara found himself transferred without being consulted in 1981 to the Jacksonville Teamen, based in Florida where the managerial duo were former Manchester United stars Noel Cantwell and Dennis Violet. Again Tommy’s consistently good play led to him being an ever present for the Teamen and was recognised in his selection for the US in an international match against Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain which the Americans won 2-1. Alongside Tommy in defence was former Hibs player, Derek Spalding then playing for Chicago Sting.

After a season with the Teamen he returned to Scotland and joined Motherwell helping them to lift the Division 1 title. After two seasons at Fir Park, he went to Falkirk for a season, then joined Partick Thistle for season 1984/5,his last in senior football before winding down his career at junior level with Lesmahagow.

After football he worked for several years as manager of Jack Daniel’s bar in Motherwell and in several other jobs in the licensed trade. He lived latterly in Kingskettle, Fife where he was a well liked member of the community and considered modest about his football achievements. He assisted with Sport for the Disabled activities there. Mike Jackson commented,”His death is such a shame, Tommy really was a lovely lad.”

He is survived by daughters Lydia and Chloe and a grandson.

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