Conor Hourihane was honoured with the latest West Cork Sports Star of the Month award last week, and as Kieran McCarthy discovered, thanks to some inside information, the Barnsley FC midfielder has come a long way since his bleached blonde days on the Cork primary schools' football team ...
HE didn’t need to be asked twice to spill the beans on Conor Hourihane.
‘I’ll never forget the bleached blonde hair,’ Cork footballer Brian Hurley laughed, looking back over a decade to their days together on the Cork primary schools’ football team.
David Beckham wasn’t a patch on him, he quipped.
What’s more, Hurley had proof. Check out the 2004 team photo on the opposite page from the half-time game at that year’s Munster final in Killarney – there’s Hourihane, back row, fourth from left, a brilliant blonde.
The Bandon ace, now brilliant with a football at his feet across the water with Barnsley in League One, was just as good with an O’Neill’s ball in his possession, Hurley insists.
Hourihane’s more modest. He preferred hurling, if he’s being honest, but it was as a young footballer with Bandon that he made jaws drop. General consensus suggested he was a better footballer. His father, John, agrees.
‘I was mad GAA. My aspirations when I was 12 and 13 were to become a Cork hurler and footballer,’ Hourihane (24) said, relaxed back in his seat in the reception of the Celtic Ross Hotel last week before he accepted his deserved West Cork Sports Star of the Month award for May.
‘Around 14 or 15, it changed when I got more into soccer and I started getting on various Ireland teams. When Sunderland came calling I had to pack up the GAA, but there is always that thought in the back of my mind – would I have made it at hurling or football? It’s something I’ll never find out.’
Hurley, like his playing style, is more direct.
‘If Cork football had him at underage we’d have gotten over the line more than we did – he would have been the defining factor,’ he stated.
Hurley knows because he regularly marked the blonde-haired Bandon boy who became a good friend through their shared love of Gaelic football.
In early 2004, at the West Cork Sciath na Scol finals, Hourihane set the place alight, scoring ‘six or seven goals’ in one game, Hurley recalls. One word: lethal.
Then came the Cork primary schools’ football team trials in Ballincollig. Admitting he was a shy, ‘pure country boy’, not knowing anyone, Hurley (then in fifth class) recognised Hourihane (sixth class) and his bleached blonde hair. A friendship was born.
‘I stopped laughing when I realised that I had to mark him in the trial game,’ Hurley said.
‘I was a back at the time and he was a forward, and let’s just say that I didn’t have the best of games on him. But I must have done something right because I was still called back.
‘We went off down to the Munster final in Killarney that year to play in the half-time game. I was in the backs again but I didn’t have too much to do because Conor – still with the bleached head – scored something like 2-5 out of our 2-6, and he rattled the crossbar as well. It was all about Conor. You don’t realise the talent he had.’
Hurley added: ‘He was a nightmare to mark, he’d dummy on his left or his right, and he’d be gone before you knew it, leaving you flat on your arse on the grass.’
Cork GAA’s loss has been soccer’s gain, as Hourihane, now heading into his ninth season in English football, continues to go from strength to strength. The stats don’t lie.
Last season, his first with Barnsley after he was signed from Plymouth Argyle in the summer, saw Hourihane excel, much like at the West Cork Sciath na Scol finals all those years ago.
Voted the Fans’ and Club Player of the Year, it’s little wonder when you consider he finished as their top goal scorer (14), had the most assists (15) and played more times for the club last season than anyone else (53). Barnsley finished 11th in the League One table, seven points off the promotion places. He was also voted League One Player of the Month for August.
This Friday (tomorrow), pre-season starts with Barnsley, with their League One campaign kicking off away to Chesterfield on August 8th.
Before it all, Hourihane enjoyed eight days back home in Bandon, catching up with family and friends, while also taking time out of his schedule to pick up his West Cork Sports Star of the Month award – the popular awards scheme run by the Celtic Ross Hotel, The Southern Star and C103.
There was plenty of support for Conor at the Celtic Ross Hotel as relations from Leap, Skibbereen, Dunmanway and Ballineen turned out in force.
On the side of his father, John, a Leap man, Conor’s uncles Bertie (Skibbereen), Dan (Leap) and aunt Gretta Galvin (Skibbereen) were there, while on his mother Helen’s side – she’s originally from Dunmanway and is principal of Crossmahon National School – Conor’s aunts Nuala Hennessey (Ballineen) and Catriona O’Donovan (Dunmanway)were equally proud of their nephew’s fantastic exploits.
Conor’s older sister Elaine also attended, while his older brother Patrick, who works in London and watches Conor whenever he’s in the English capital, couldn’t make the trip back home.
Home comforts agree with this former Bandon and Douglas Hall underage soccer prodigy.
‘I love coming back home. It gets you away from constant football. If you’re out for a bite to eat over there you’ll have fans wanting to talk all about football, so it’s nice to escape that for a few weeks and just chill out.’
A holiday in Dubai with his girlfriend Shelby Tribble – the current Miss Great Britain, and who joined Conor in West Cork after jetting in last Friday – was followed by six days in Las Vegas with some of his friends, before returning back to Bandon, where this adventure all started.
‘He was a ridiculous soccer player when he was younger,’ Brian Hurley explained.
‘I remember one year in the Kennedy Cup, when I was with the West Cork Schoolboys’ League and he was with Cork City, and he was pure class – he’s a cracking left foot and one of the goals he got was right out of the top drawer. You could see he had that something special.’
Last weekend, the two friends caught up, like they always do when Hourihane returns home. Relaxing in the sitting-room at Old Chapel, Bandon, the two will share stories over a glass of Club Orange, like they always do. Hurley laughs.
‘He’s a big fan of the Club Orange. He loves it. That’s another one of his secrets out there now,’ he smiled, himself quite keen on it as well.
Hurley adds: ‘He’s still pure West Cork, he has still the same accent and he’s still the same guy.’
Paudie Palmer, of C103 fame, concurs. Not a stranger to telling stories, he offers one up. ‘I met Conor in downtown Bandon one day and asked him to pop into St Brogan’s College to give a quick chat. He came in the next day and met the students – it was the highlight of their year. He was fantastic, totally obliging and down to earth,’ Palmer explained.
But it’s what Hourihane has achieved on the football field that will define his career. He was 16 when he left these West Cork shores and after spells with Sunderland and Ipswich Town, it took off at Plymouth Argyle.
In the three years he spent at the League Two outfit, he played 142 times, scored 16 goals, and was made club captain in 2013. Then Barnsley came calling and it took three bids, and £200,000, to prize him away from Plymouth.
Personally, it was an important move for Hourihane, as it moved him up the leagues. ‘Moving to Barnsley was a challenge, but I am one of those lads who thinks that wherever I end up I’ll always do well,’ he said, and that’s just what he has achieved.
Considering he scored 16 goals in three years with Plymouth, to finish with 14 in his first season with Barnsley was terrific. Signed for the Oakwell side by former boss Danny Wilson, he spotted goal potential in Hourihane. And after being pushed further forward, the Bandon man has delivered, helped by hours studying Chelsea midfield great (and record goal scorer) Frank Lampard.
‘One of the coaches with Barnsley showed me a lot of videos of Frank Lampard – how he gets into the box and scores all those goals,’ the former Republic of Ireland U21 international said.
‘Lampard’s goal-scoring record is phenomenal. His movement in the box is exceptional. He’s like a striker. He’ll make a move in the box and if the ball doesn’t come he’ll make another move. With Lampard I don’t watch the goals from 30 yards out, I’m interested in his goals from six yards out, to see what he did to get in that position.
‘Goals are important, obviously, so if you can add goals to your game then you make yourself a more valuable player. I had ten goals by the start of January so I was targeting 16 or 17, so to only end up with 14 goals at the end was a little disappointing. But if someone had offered me 14 goals at the start of the season I’d have been very happy.’
Hourihane’s obviously doing something right. The Yorkshire Post outlined five things Barnsley need to do for the 2015/16 season – among them was the statement: Keep hold of Conor Hourihane.
On The Southern Star’s Facebook page, Paul O’Driscoll left a comment: ‘I live in Barnsley and he’s one hell of a player. I’d be very surprised if we don’t get an offer for him from a Championship club this summer but would be very happy if we don’t.’
There have been talks of Championship clubs sniffing around this Bandon ace, with Bolton Wanderers mentioned. Just last week Hourihane said he was staying put in South Yorkshire, but that could all change if a big offer comes in.
It’s onwards and upwards for Hourihane, who sets himself a target at the start of every season to improve on the statistics of the last campaign.
‘I scored 14 goals last season so I want to end up 14 or more next season. It’s about being consistent. If you are consistent in your career you will always go places. The players at the top, the best players, are always consistent, and that’s what I look at,’ he said.
He’s on the right road right now to live his dream of being a Premiership footballer, and he knows he can’t take his eye off the ball.
‘My dream is to end up playing in the Premiership one day. Whether it happens or not, we’ll see, but that’s the goal I train for every day,’ Hourihane said.
‘Whether I play in the Championship with Barnsley or with another team, that’s yet to be seen, but it’s all about progression. I don’t want to be in the same place in the same league table for the next five years. It’s all about moving forward.’
There’s a lesson here for all aspiring kids who dream of the professional soccer lifestyle in England. While he has had eight years in England, it’s in the last four that his career grew legs, as Hourihane worked from the bottom up, and is now reaping the rewards.
‘I get a call here and there about young Irish players going over to England to see what I would advise personally. If I was a young lad going back again I’d definitely start lower down the leagues,’ he said.
‘It’s very tough for a lad to break into a first team in a Premiership club. If you do, it’s fantastic. But if you don’t you get forgotten about quite quickly. If you can get 50 to 100 games under your belt by the time you are 20, you are ahead of so many players out there.
‘There are so many players in England that don’t get the chance because there are only a certain number of teams. If you get that lucky break and the chance to play first team football you really need to take it because you might not get that second chance. Luckily for me, it’s worked out, and I’m looking to push on.’
That desire to improve is driving him on but so too is the fear of failure and the thought of having to come back to Ireland if this adventure grinds to a halt.
‘As bad as it sounds being an Irish lad, I don’t want to come home because it means that something went wrong. I need to keep working hard and hopefully that lucky break will come for me that I might get the chance to move forward again,’ he said.
‘If some fella comes back with an eight-year career he has done alright, but if a fella comes back with a 15-year career then he’s done great.’
Intent on staying in England, that’s blown Bandon AFC’s hopes of luring the town’s most famous soccer son home for next season’s Munster Senior League Premier Division campaign.
Hourihane’s home-town club was promoted as champions last season, and as he is good friends with club members such as Richard O’Regan – who regularly makes the trip to Barnsley for games – he keeps in touch with life at home as much as he can.
Whether it’s updates on Bandon AFC’s progress from Richard or watching Cork championship games on TV in Barnsley, home is never too far from his thoughts – either is the prospect of, some day, making a senior appearance for the Republic of Ireland.
Enjoying the sights and sounds of Las Vegas, and due to the time difference, he didn’t get to watch Ireland’s recent 1 – 1 draw at home to Scotland that has left the Boys in Green in real danger of missing out on next summer’s European Championships. ‘It wasn’t the best result. I know enough about football now to never say never, but it will be hard,’ admits Hourihane, who knows what he has to do to get an international look-in.
‘A lad playing in League One probably wouldn’t cut it. If I got to the Championship that is something I would look towards. I’d love to play for Ireland at some point but right now I am concentrating on Barnsley and improving as a player, and we’ll see where that takes me,’ he said.
So far, the journey has been fascinating – from bleached blonde hair to, literally, returning to his brown roots; from banging goals in at the Kennedy Cup in UL to scoring absolute belters last season (check out Youtube); from Bandon to Barnsley, and there’s a lot more to come.
No doubt, it will all be reflected on the next time he’s home with Brian Hurley over a glass of Club Orange.