KIERAN McCARTHY caught up with Bandon's Conor Hourihane before Christmas to chat about his heroics with Barnsley in 2016 and his hopes for 2017
CONOR Hourihane isn’t the type to rest on his laurels.
Despite his success in 2016, the Bandon man is already thinking about next year and how he can surpass the achievements of the past 12 months.
In the last year he captained Barnsley to Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final success and League One play-off final glory – both at Wembley, becoming the first West Cork man to lead a team to silverware at the world-famous stadium. Then he kicked off life as a Championship player by winning the Championship Player of the Month for August, before going on to be called up to two Republic of Ireland provisional squads for World Cup qualifiers late in the year.
The West Cork man packed a lot into 2016 – but he’s challenging himself to take the next step in the new year by forcing his way into a Republic of Ireland match-day squad.
His form with Barnsley in League One has put him on Martin O’Neill’s radar, but while he was included in the provisional squads for the qualifiers against Georgia and Moldova in October and against Austria in November, he was cut from the final squad both times.
‘Playing for Ireland is a huge goal of mine, everyone knows that, it’s not a secret,’ Hourihane said.
‘It was great to get named in two provisional squads but it was equally very disappointing to not get in the match-day squads because I have been performing well and I felt that I was in with a good chance of making the final squads.
‘It wasn’t meant to be but it will make me hungrier for the next few months before the next internationals come around. The ultimate goal is to play for Ireland and playing consistently well for Barnsley is how I am going to get there.
‘I feel like I deserve to get in the provisional squads and maybe I need to do a little bit more over a longer period of time to get into the match-day squad. I will try to prove myself before the next international in March. I’m sure I will get there.’
Hourihane’s impressive form for Barnsley both in the 2015/16 season and in their first campaign back in the Championship has seen the calls grow for him to be given his international break.
Rewind just over 12 months ago and the Tykes were struggling at the foot of the League One table and in relegation trouble, but Hourihane’s promotion to captain coincided with a tremendous run of results that in March saw Barnsley as the third most in-form team in any league in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Only Barcelona and Juventus took more points in that period than Barnsley, who surged up the table and into the promotion places.
Then came a magical few weeks, as Hourihane captained his side to 3-2 triumph against Oxford United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final on April 3rd, and in late May Barnsley won the League One play-off final against Millwall (3-1) to earn promotion to the Championship.
For Hourihane, it signalled the next step in a career that took him to England ten years ago with Sunderland, then Ipswich Town before he dropped the divisions down to League Two with Plymouth Argyle – that one step back in 2011 was the best move he made.
‘I was involved with a Championship club (Ipswich Town) before but I never got on the pitch. I had to take a few steps back to start moving forward, and here I am, a few years later playing in the Championship as the captain of a team,’ Hourihane said.
‘I knew that I had to hit the ground running this season. It’s taken me time to get to this level so I wanted to do everything possible to play well and stay here.
‘I worked really hard in pre-season and had the bit between my teeth because I want to show people who back along said I wasn’t good enough to play at this level that I am good enough and that I deserve to be here.
‘I was anxious to start off well and show people what I am all about. Luckily for me it’s gone well and the challenge is to move it on again.’
Hourihane has been in great form in the 2016/17 Championship campaign, scoring five goals and weighing in with 11 assists, and that has seen him linked with a move in the January transfer window. Last season he weighed in with 11 goals from midfield and 18 assists, so his stats compare well against the best in the Championship.
‘It was a big stepping stone in my football career to get to the Championship. I have been waiting a long time to get here.
‘If I hadn’t won the play-off final, I might be mid-table in League One now and trying to make a name for myself,’ Hourihane pointed out.
‘It’s taken me a few years to get to a respectable level in England. League Two and League One are competitive leagues but I think that the Championship is the fifth most-watched league in the world. It’s competitive, full of players and clubs who have played in the Premier League; it’s like a mini Premier League in many ways.
‘I wanted to show people that I can stay and play at this level and that I can handle the game here – and I feel I have done that. I just need to keep playing consistently at this level to show that I can stay here.
‘You never know where it might take you because you could get that one lucky break or that one great season that can take you to the next level.
‘Right now, I’m showing people that I deserve to be here.’
2016 was a breakthrough year for the former Republic of Ireland U21 international and he’s adamant that the best is yet to come.
‘I’ve taken my own football career to the next level by winning promotion to the Championship, going to Wembley twice and I just had that bit of luck in 2016 that you need. I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and hopefully we can keep going from strength to strength in 2017,’ he said, his target set on a strong second half to the season with Barnsley and a call-up to the national team for the crunch World Cup qualifier against Wales in March.