iCanPlay: Omar Habeeb Q&A
Tell us about how and why you got involved in playing semi-professional football?
I represented the West Riding County team and played open age football at a young age, I believe I was 18 years old at the time.
I signed for Brighouse Town playing for the U19’s Reserves and made a couple of first team appearances when they were in the NCEL.
It was a great experience and some good players in that team who have gone on to have good non-league careers.
After that I went to Bolton Uni to study Civil Engineering and stopped playing at that level.
I signed for a Sunday league team in Bradford which my friend told me about at Uni.
When I come back from Uni at the weekends I played Sunday league for Relay FC, That’s how I was introduced to Riz who is the current Albion Sports manager, he was still playing at the time but he struggled with injuries and mainly concentrated on coaching and management but he was still quite young back then.
I got recognised quite quickly playing Sunday League and had a few teams asked me to play for them on a Saturday.
I decided to sign for Albion Sport when I was 19 or 20 and after they watched me play.
I played against Dan Brown who was Albion captain back then and he played for Buttershaw on Sundays, I always had good games against them, so he got Kully Sandhu to sign me.
I felt I wasn’t given a fair opportunity there at the time, so I eventually signed on for Campion who played in the County Amateur League back then.
I was one of the top scorers in that league and eventually I represented the County team at open age level and travelled to Isle of Man for a tournament which was a great experience.
I had a couple of good seasons which got me attention from the NCEL teams and eventually I went back to Albion Sports and became a regular in the team which involved a good cup run in the FA Vase.
I think that’s where I fully established myself as a player.
I would regularly score goals and back then I thought the NCEL had some really tough teams in there.
Who have you played semi-professional football for and who do you play for now?
I started playing my junior career at Campion but they were just an amateur side at the time, I then moved to Brighouse Town.
Since then, I have gone on to play for Albion Sports, Campion, Thackley AFC and now I am back at Albion Sports.
What do you enjoy about playing semi-professional football?
I’ve enjoyed it for different reasons at each of the clubs I have played for.
When I was at Albion the first time round the culture, the environment and players I played with made it enjoyable.
I played with people who I would class as friends outside of football, so it was even more enjoyable.
I grew up playing against Temour Khan and Aran Basi because they both played for Albion in the junior set up and I played for Campion.
As we got older and I played Sunday League we became good friends so playing with them on a Saturday made it more enjoyable.
I’ve been playing at this level for many years so playing with good players improves your game and makes football much more enjoyable.
I’ve had the privilege of playing with some good players, so it makes you always want to improve and get better.
More recently when I was at Thackley and coming back from injury I felt the training sessions were good, it’s a good set up and a good club, the Committee and the people who run the day to day were very good to me which made it special.
What are your greatest achievements in playing semi-professional football and why?
With Albion Sports we had a great run in the FA Vase which at the time felt like the best thing ever.
At Campion we had a great season when we lost out on promotion the last day of the season losing to Grimsby Borough who got promoted.
From a personal point of view I’ve had a couple of good season in terms of scoring goals and the seasons I scored around 20+ were good personal achievements.
I have only just come back this season after rupturing my ACL and having and operation and doing rehabilitation.
I have returned to Albion Sports mid-way through the season and they are in a difficult position, if we beat the drop and avoid relegation that will be one of my greatest achievements for me personally.
What are your goals for the future?
I was unfortunate to get injured in my peak but I believe I can still achieve something at this level.
It would be great to win a cup, get promotion or win a league championship.
I am using this season to get fit and get my sharpness back, but next season I would like to have a good pre-season get fit again and get back to scoring goals at this level.
It will be great to see Albion back up near the top of the division before I stop playing.
What are the biggest obstacles you have faced in playing semi-professional football?
At first, I believe it was about getting an opportunity.
It’s very rare you will find a manager who will put trust and faith into young players.
I felt I had to move around teams at young age and I had to prove myself before getting a real opportunity.
I have also felt that cultural differences can be barriers.
I have always been quite social and got on with all of my teammates but at times there is a cultural difference and can be difficult to socialise.
I am Egyptian but I have seen other players from the BAME background come and play for teams I have been with and struggled to fit in.
It’s the smallest of things which sometimes can make you feel uncomfortable or out of place.
As a Muslim I only eat Halal meat or vegetarian dishes.
Playing in the NCEL it involves travelling all over and at times after a game when both teams are having some food I would be the only one not eating because not many places catered for vegetarians.
So imagine being at work or uni all day having a midweek game and finishing around 9pm/10pm and not eating for hours.
That was tough and it made me feel out of place in all honesty.
Having said that, there were clubs who made sandwiches and offered a veggie option but that was only a handful.
I do feel something needs to be done and small issues like this are not really addressed.
Who’s had the biggest influence on you as a semi-professional footballer and why?
I would probably have to say my current manager at Albion Sports.
Riz was the manager of my Sunday league team 10 years ago and he always gave me good advice when I wanted and helped me through difficult times.
When managers wanted to sign me, they contacted him at times and I was always comfortable for him to act on my behalf and speak to them if he personally knew them.
I actually remember sending him text messages what managers had sent me and asking him to write a reply for me so I can forward it on, back then I was quite reserved and didn’t know how to get my points across – he always reminds me of this.
He took me to Liversedge because he knew the manager and eventually I signed on there but only played for their reserves, but early on I could see he wanted me to do well and encouraged me to play at the highest level possible.
He’s always been coaching and managing around the amateur scene and when he went to Thackley, I was going through rehab and I signed for them and he helped me with my recovery.
I’m happy he’s got his opportunity as manager of Albion and that’s the reason why I am back at the club, I think it’s been coming for a while.
All the players respect him and he is a good at what he does.
I think having his voice always pushing me and challenging me to do better motivate me over the years.
He probably never got the recognition for what he’s done behind the scenes but I know he’s helped a number of players and done the same for them what he’s done for me.
What advice would you give to people who aim to play semi-professional football like you?
If you are playing non-league football but act like a professional off the field, meaning you eat right, you train at the gym, and do as much as possible away from the field you will have a longer career and also progress through the divisions.
If you’re a young player you’ve got to have patience, I see too many young talented 18– 21 year olds not willing to sit on the bench and wait for their opportunity.
What they need to realise is if you’re not coming out of an elite academy set up you will probably be used as a squad player.
It happens to everyone, but when you get given your opportunity you need to take it.
My final bit of advice applies for players probably from a BAME background.
There is some good players who are comfortable playing with their mates on a Saturday, they have the talent to make it but not willing to put the sacrifice in or even to come out of their comfort zone.
I think as they get older, they tend to regret it and realise how they have been held back but I believe it’s down to the players to make a decision on where they want to play and if they are willing to put the work in.