With the 2020-21 National League North season being curtailed and then voided in February, quickly followed by a first international call up in nearly five years, it certainly has been a memorable few months for Darlington midfielder Omar Holness.
The Jamaican returned to the international setup in March against the USA and the Reggae Boyz have their eyes firmly set on qualification for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
I chatted with Omar about his love for the game, playing overseas, World Cup aspirations and his career so far.
When did you discover your love for football? Which players did you look up to?
I started playing at age four. I didn’t really enjoy football in the early days, at four and five. I was quite a chunky baby and my parents loved football, they wanted me to trim down in weight! My older brother loved the sport and he was playing too. I would play with his team and against the older guys. At age six and seven, I really started enjoying it, particularly scoring goals.
The footballer that I admired most was Steven Gerrard, for his leadership, attitude and his ability on the pitch. He’s a great role model and I base my game on his.
How did the move from Jamaica to the University of North Carolina come about? Did you regularly have international scouts watch you in Kingston?
Actually it was quite lucky. I played for the U17 Jamaican national team and at that time we played against the USA a lot. There were guys that committed to the University of North Carolina and some that were already attending. During the games against the USA, the scouts were really impressed with me and some of my teammates. I always focussed on football but I did well in the classroom too. When I visited the campus it was spectacular and I fell in love with the place.
Did you ever get homesick in North Carolina or could you travel back to Jamaica often?
The first year I did get homesick. It was the first time I’d really experienced different seasons. The first time it dropped below zero, I was losing myself! During the Christmas period, I had to go back home, I was really homesick. The food and culture are different, it really was a shock. But then you get used to it.
After playing college football, you were drafted by Major League Soccer side Real Salt Lake. Do you have fond memories of that time?
Definitely. But I had a few injuries while I was there. It was really good – there were a few Jamaicans with me over there, so it was a comfortable environment. The football was good and I liked the people there.
In 2019 you signed with Darlington. How have you found living in England?
It wasn’t as much as a shock for me as North Carolina, but it certainly was different. The football is a lot more physical and a lot faster than the States. When you compare the two, in the MLS there are better players but in England it’s who wants it more on the given day. Everybody wants to come to England and for me that was the dream ever since I was a child watching Liverpool on TV.
Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, the 2020-21 National League North has been curtailed and now voided. How did you react to the announcement?
It was incredibly difficult. I miss the routine of training, going to the gym and then playing. But obviously I understand that Covid has been a pain for everybody and it’s been a tough time for all. I imagine it’s been difficult for all of the players in the National Leagues North and South.
How are you finding life in lockdown? Have you learnt any new skills?
To be fair, not really. I’m enrolled in online courses at the moment with the University of North Carolina, so I’ve just been focussed on completing that. I’m studying economics and management, right now I’m doing a statistics and sociology course, which is really tough!
Do you have any Netflix recommendations?
Absolutely. Right now I’m watching Snowfall, it might be on BBC. That’s definitely one I’d recommend. I do enjoy Power, I’ll re-watch it any time of the day.
Despite the cancellation of the Darlington’s season, you recently played for Jamaica in a friendly against the United States? How did it feel to be back in national colours?
Obviously, it’s great being called up. It’s been four and half or five years since the last call up. In-between then I’ve had so many setbacks. To come here to England and do well enough for Jamaica to give me a call up made me feel very proud of myself. I know my family felt proud of me too. It gives me the confidence to help me kick on more and push the limits of what you can achieve.
Several English born players including Michail Antonio, Nathan Redmond, Kemar Roofe and Ivan Toney to name just a few, are all in the process of obtaining Jamaican passports and intend to represent the Reggae Boyz. How did you react to this news?
At the end of the day, it’s what is best for the country. If the experience of English-born Jamaicans can increase the talent pool and the level of competitiveness within the pool then for me that’s what is important. Right now, we can see on a weekly basis what these guys are capable of. The truth is they should have been in the national team a long time ago. If there allegiance lies with Jamaica then I’m not complaining.
Do you think Jamaica can realistically qualify for the 2022 World Cup? In your opinion, which players are pivotal to Jamaica’s success?
Now more than ever, I believe we have a great chance of qualifying with this influx of the English based players. I wouldn’t want to say any one individual. A lot of Jamaican players are playing overseas, not just in the MLS but we have guys playing in Belgium, England and Germany. We have great talent coming through the ranks and we haven’t seen this before. I know we had a few English born players at the 1998 World Cup that were really integral. Now you could field a team just with Jamaicans playing in Europe. I’m really excited for the future.
What made you pick Liverpool as your Premier League team?
Originally it was because I really liked Steven Gerrard. Then in 2005, when they came back against Milan, I thought this is a top tier team. I got to understand their history and things that surround the club. I truly enjoy the history and want to learn more about them on and off the field.
Aside from football, what other hobbies do you have?
I’m not as big of a basketball or American football fan as I used to be. When I lived in the States, the Los Angeles Lakers were my team. I was a huge Kobe Bryant fan, I was really saddened by his death. I also like Twenty20 cricket, I only really watch the West Indies to be honest.
From my conversation with Omar, he is an extremely engaging, focussed and down to earth individual who will be an integral part of Jamaica’s and Darlington’s future plans for years to come.