Bandon’s Conor Hourihane will captain Barnsley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final at Wembley this Sunday. Kieran McCarthy charts the West Cork man’s rise through the ranks by chatting to those who helped coach, mould and shape this prodigious talent
TONY O’Leary has always been one of Conor Hourihane’s biggest fans.
A former chairman of Bandon AFC, where the current Barnsley captain (25) started off, O’Leary also coached Conor in his underage schoolboys’ soccer days with the club – and O’Leary knew from very early on that there was something special about the Old Chapel boy.
One U14 match, in particular, springs to mind.
‘I used to be raving that Conor was a very good player. A particular gentleman in the club, who shall remain nameless, came down to see him play against, I think, Glasheen. It was 0-0 at half-time, and I could see your man thinking there was nothing special about Conor,’ O’Leary recalled.
‘I said to Conor at half time: “do you see that man over there? I told him you were a good player but now he thinks you’re useless. Go out there and show him what you can do.”’
In the second half, the talented young midfielder scored five goals. Point made.
Goals have always been a key part of Conor’s game, and while his winner for Barnsley against Port Vale in League One on Easter Monday took him to double figures for the season (10) – he scored 14 from midfield last season, his first campaign with the Tykes – it’s worth noting that he was also a prodigious GAA talent, with Bandon and his national school, Gaelscoil Dhroichead na Banndan.
He won underage and Sciath na Scol titles, was selected for the Cork post-primary schools’ football team, and was fast earning a reputation as one to watch in the GAA scene.
Current Cork forward, and Conor’s long-time friend, Brian Hurley told The Southern Star before that he was good enough to go all the way.
‘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,’ Hurley said.
‘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.’
More inclined to hurling rather than football however, when he was around 14, Conor’s interest switched firmly to soccer.
He might have been a late starter to soccer, joining Bandon at U11, but he quickly progressed. Soon, he took the next step.
For two seasons, Martin McKenzie, along with Anthony Lane, coached Conor at Douglas Hall AFC in Cork City.
The Bandon teenager immediately impressed.
‘Conor had superb ball control. Like Denis Law, he had the ability to carry the ball whilst only occasionally glimpsing down. He would focus instead on the opposition player confronting him or the target,’ McKenzie explained.
‘He also had tremendous awareness of what was happening around him. He played the game upright, shoulders back and chest out. At the time, I compared him to Glenn Hoddle. The impression Conor made on others was mainly by his ability.’
Before he made the switch to Douglas Hall in 2005, where he played U15 and U16, Conor had impressed in the ’05 Kennedy Cup with the Cork Schoolboys League. His left foot was already earning a reputation.
‘Of all the young fellas I have trained, he had the most powerful left foot I have ever seen. He was deadly accurate with free kicks and he was a great passer of the ball. He had the vision to see the whole pitch, not just the space he was in himself,’ Tony O’Leary explained.
During his Douglas Hall days, Conor was involved in Republic of Ireland U15 and U16 squads. Attention was starting to come from across the water. Southampton were first, and Liverpool, Chelsea and Celtic were all said to be interested.
By the time Conor signed for Sunderland and then-manager Roy Keane (his childhood hero) in 2007, his former coaches had all noted his professional approach to the game.
He was dedicated, a leader who, as McKenzie says, ‘did his talking with his feet.’
He added: ‘Conor would do exactly what was asked of him at training and on match days. He would always push himself to the limit physically.’
Tony O’Leary said: ‘He is a quiet fella but what he does is lead by example. He won’t ask any fella to do something that he is no prepared to do himself. He is looked up to because he is so dedicated and committed.’
It’s no wonder, then, that soon after his arrival at League Two Plymouth Argyle in the summer of 2011, on a free transfer, via Sunderland and then Ipswich – he was made captain – this natural born leader, then 21, was making people sit up and tack notice.
Rick Cowdery, Head of Communications at Plymouth Argyle, told The Southern Star: ‘Conor might have been young when he was made captain but he was viewed as a leader. The manager saw something in him to make him captain.
‘He took the responsibility in his stride and I feel that it made him even a better player. He led this club at a time when Plymouth was fighting financial problems and fighting hard to just stay in the league – but he led by example and was a great choice of my captain.’
Throughout this great adventure, that has taking him from Bandon to League One in England, he has remained grounded and, to his credit, has never changed. Tony O’Leary shares his thoughts on why.
‘His parents (John and Helen) are the people that kept him level-headed. There is great credit due to Conor but there is also great credit due to his parents,’ he said.
Even in his Douglas Hall days, Conor was every inch the consummate professional footballer that he is today, and who has earned the honour of captaining Barnsley in Sunday’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final against Oxford at Wembley.
‘We were on a coach, on our way up to Templemore for the last 16 of the National Cup,’ recalled Martin McKenzie,’ and most of the lads were giddy with excitement, hopping around the bus, as you’d expect from teenagers.
‘I looked back and Conor was relaxing quietly, sipping mineral water and listening to music on his headphones.’
Try as Plymouth did, and they refused Barnsley’s first two bids for Conor, they eventually relented, for a transfer fee of £200,000. Then-Barnsley boss Danny Wilson had got his man, at last. He had landed his leader, branding the capture ‘a terrific signing’.
‘Last season we didn’t score enough goals throughout the team and definitely in midfield we struggled to get goals. Hopefully Conor will continue to score goals and add to an area we have been lacking in.’
Conor scored 16 goals in three seasons, and 142 games, at Plymouth, including nine in his last season, but the step up in divisions didn’t faze the former Republic of Ireland U21 international.
Pushed further forward in midfield, last season for Barnsley he scored 14 goals. A goal-scoring midfielder is worth his weight in gold. Add in 15 assists, being voted League One Player of the Month for August, and voted Fans’ Player of the Year, and it was a good year.
This season, he has moved up another level and it’s no coincidence to those who know him that the decision to make him captain in mid-December has coincided with an upturn in Barnsley’s form. They have gone from bottom of League One to just outside the play-offs after a tremendous run, and are on the verge of Wembley glory this Sunday. Conor has now ten goals (despite playing deeper in midfield) and 15 assists, and in this form, there will be interest from Championship clubs.
‘Conor is only 25. I expect his career will continue to prosper over the next 10 years or so,’ Martin McKenzie noted.
Bound for Wembley as a supporter this Sunday, Tony O’Leary feels ‘it’s only a matter of time before he moves to the Championship’.
Plymouth Argyle’s Rick Cowdery added: ‘We never doubted he could play at a higher level – and he can still go higher.’
One final story. With Douglas Hall, after being knocked out of the National Cup to eventual winners Belvedere, they also missed out on winning the league and were runners up in the Cork Cup at Turner’s Cross, losing to Carrigaline in extra-time. Conor missed the last few games that season. He had his tonsils removed, before heading to Sunderland.
That cup final in Turner’s Cross was Conor’s last involvement with Douglas Hall. He watched the game from the stands. In a wonderful gesture, and showing how highly Conor was thought of, Douglas Hall captain Olan Bermingham from Douglas, gave his medal to Conor. There were only 16 players’ medals but Olan gave his to his teammate who now becomes the first West Cork man to captain a team at a cup final in Wembley.