BY KIERAN McCARTHY
TWELVE months ago, Conor Hourihane sat in the stands at Wembley, watching his friend, Greg Cunningham, win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final with Bristol City.
Little did he know that day, but one year later he would be preparing to lead out Barnsley, as club captain, in the very same final at Wembley, after a terrific run of League One form that saw the Tykes mentioned in the same breath as Barcelona and Bayern Munch (more of that later).
‘I have been to a few games at Wembley over the years, the last being the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final that Greg Cunningham from Galway played in, and won, with Bristol City last year. It’s strange to think that one year on from that day I’ll be on the pitch playing and Greg will be in the stands watching me. It just shows that you never know what will happen next in football,’ the 25-year-old Bandon man explained.
Sunday will be a special day for Hourihane, as family and friends from West Cork travel in numbers to support their home-town hero in his Wembley debut and to watch, what he hopes, will be another memorable moment in his own cross-channel adventure.
It’s already been another impressive campaign for the former Bandon underage soccer starlet who has ten goals – including a crucial goal in the semi-final second leg against Fleetwood Town – and 15 assists to his name in this campaign. That follows on from his first season with Barnsley where the midfielder finished as top scorer (14) and had the most assists (15), and won Fans’ Club Player of the Year.
Hourihane was promoted to captain in mid-December, and it’s no coincidence that switch has led to Barnsley surging up the table.
In November, they languished in the relegation zone but, after a terrific run, they’re now well in contention for a play-off spot – currently sitting seventh in League One after Monday’s 1-0 win away to Port Vale on Monday when Hourihane scored the game’s only goal.
At one stage in early March, after winning 12 and drawing one of their previous 15 league games, Barnsley sat third to only Barcelona and Bayern Munch as the most in-form team in any league in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. Not bad, eh?
‘It’s a strange one to see yourself in company with those two, but you have to enjoy moments and runs like these. They don’t happen too often but when they do you need to make the most out of them,’ Hourihane explained.
‘With Wembley on the horizon, it’s a good place to be and we want to continue our form and try and get into the play-offs at the end of the season.
‘Things are going well, we’re riding the wave at the moment. Momentum has kicked in and we’re going with it. We’ve a good team spirit and a good mentality that we won’t lose any games so we’re going out on the pitch with sky-high confidence believing that not many teams will get the better of us.
‘If we can get into the play-offs, that would be a successful season for us, especially from where we were. At the start of the season we set our aim for promotion, whether that be automatic or through the play-offs. The first half of the season wasn’t great but we’ve turned it around now and we’re in with a chance of making the play-offs. There’s a lot of football to be played, but we’ve given ourselves a chance. Who knows, we might have a second trip to Wembley later in the season.’
Not even a change of management in early February – when Lee Johnson left Barnsley to join Bristol City – has derailed the Tykes’ charge for glory. Paul Heckingbottom was promoted to caretaker manager, and the transition was seamless.
For Hourihane, and his teammates, it’s all about Wembley this Sunday, as Barnsley return to the famous venue for the first time since their 2008 FA Cup semi-final defeat. Taking the emotion out of the occasion as much as possible, he is approaching this as just another game.
‘I haven’t thought about it too much since we won the semi-final, to be honest. I was concentrating on the league, nothing else. It is a big occasion on Sunday and you don’t want to let it get to you too much,’ he said.
‘It is a final but it’s important to remember that it’s just another game. Ya, it’s a big game and there will be a lot of people watching on TV – but at the end of it all, it’s just another game that we want to win. Nobody wants to play in Wembley and lose. We want to win the cup there. That’s the dream.’
He added: ‘Not many players get the chance to play at Wembley in a cup final and even less get the chance to captain a team there in a big occasion, so I’ll enjoy Sunday and everything that comes with it.’