KIERAN McCARTHY spoke to Bandon man Conor Hourihane ahead of Championship play-off final
Conor Hourihane’s biggest fan will be at Wembley next Monday to cheer on her dad.
Ora Rose Hourihane will be ten weeks old on Friday. She’s daddy’s little girl. And has him wrapped around her little fingers already.
Hourihane had the day off training on Monday and himself, his partner and Ora Rose were off out and about. He’s loving fatherhood and all its trappings. Already, the time is passing too quickly.
Ora Rose will visit West Cork for the first time this summer – but will her dad return home to Bandon as a Premier League footballer or still a Championship player?
Hourihane has never made a secret of his desire to play in the Premier League. It’s the biggest show in town. He wants to be part of it.
He’s 28-years-old now so he knows he doesn’t have too many chances left to tick that ‘Premier League footballer’ box.
He left Ireland when he was only 16 years old to join Sunderland. He was chasing a dream then. And he still is now.
When it didn’t work out at Sunderland or Ipswich Town, he dropped down to Plymouth Argyle in Division 2 (the fourth tier in English soccer) and did what he does best: work hard.
No surprise he started to climb the divisions. After three seasons at Plymouth, who made him club captain, he joined Barnsley in the summer of 2014.
By the time he left the Tykes to join Aston Villa in January 2017, Hourihane was club captain and had led Barnsley to the Football League Trophy and glory in the League 1 play-off final, both at Wembley. He took them up to the Championship.
He saw Villa as his ticket to the Premier League. He still does. He’s one win away.
‘I have made no secret about wanting to play in the Premier League,’ he says.
‘I have worked tirelessly over the years to improve and to give myself a chance of getting there. Hopefully this time around I can. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I have left no stone unturned and done everything possible to make it work. If it’s not this time I will try and go again next year. Hopefully we will get the rub of the green and I will get the rub of the green and we get over the line. The sooner, the better.’
It’s one year since Hourihane had his dreams shattered at Wembley. That feeling after Villa’s 1-0 loss to Fulham in the 2018 Championship play-off final is the type you don’t forget in a hurry. He hasn’t. It’s a timely reminder ahead of the date with Derby County on Monday.
‘I had heartbreak there,’ Hourihane admits.
‘So did Jack Grealish. So did Elmohamady. A few of us will have an edge about us on Monday after what happened in Wembley last year. That was very tough to take so we want to make sure we don’t feel like that again.’
This is a different Villa team to the one that was outplayed by Fulham in May 2018. There’s been a change in management, a big turnover of players, change in style and Villa are in a far better run of form this year compared to the same time last season. They’re coming off the back of a ten-match club-record winning streak that catapulted them up the Championship table and into the play-offs.
Momentum is the word that Hourihane uses.
‘We had huge experience in that team last year. Players like Robert Snodgrass, John Terry, Mile Jedinak, Lewis Grabban. This year it is different. We have a little bit less experience – but we are younger and more energetic with a different style of play,’ he points out.
‘We definitely have more confidence and belief this year. We are a good side, we fancy ourselves, we have good momentum and we will give it everything we have on Monday.’
John Giles told Off The Ball on Newstalk lately that ‘there’s nothing really creative’ about Hourihane.
Giles added: ‘I would expect more of him on the ball as a midfield player. He’s useful in that sense, he’s got a shot on him he will get you a goal. But he won’t take control of the game, he’s just a bit conservative in his play and his passing.’
It’s not the first time Hourihane has been criticised.
But, feet in Camp Hourihane, we’ve a few points to make:
• He is Villa’s second highest league scorer this year with eight goals, including his crucial strike in the first leg of the Play-off semi-final against West Brom.
• The former Bandon AFC underage player has 11 assists this season, more than any other Villa player.
• When he reached the milestone of 100 games for Villa in March, he had scored 19 goals and had 14 assists in those games. And no other midfielder in the Championship had scored more goals than Hourihane since he became a Villa player in 2017.
• In the 2017/18 season he scored 11 goals from midfield and in doing so became the first Villa central midfielder since David Platt in 1991 to hit double figures in a league season.
Not bad stats for a midfielder who’s not really creative, is it?
Villa boss Dean Smith said earlier this season that Hourihane ‘has a lot of abilities that sometimes go unseen in the eyes of supporters.’
Perhaps Giles’ view on Hourihane is based on what he has see at international level from the West Cork man. Up until the recent set of 2020 European Championship qualifiers, he hadn’t been given a fair crack at the whip. It was minutes here, minutes there, and mostly in meaningless friendlies.
A change of management saw Mick McCarthy take the reigns again. Big Mick likes Hourihane. He tried to sign him before. He knows what he can do. And McCarthy started Hourihane away to Gibraltar and home to Georgia. The Bandon man repaid that faith.
He was man of the match in the win in Gibraltar. Better was to come at the Aviva Stadium when Hourihane scored a trademark stunning free kick in a 1-0 win against Georgia.
‘The goal was something special, wasn’t it? I’m pleased for him because I’ve always believed in him and thought he was a good player,’ McCarthy said.
On his Ireland breakthrough, Hourihane says, ‘It was another box ticked. I always wanted to make an impact with Ireland. I didn’t get the chance as much as I wanted to under the last manager. It feels like I have my foot in the door at this stage.’
He’s not a match-winner in the ilk of Jack Grealish. It’s Hourihane’s job to get the ball to the likes of Grealish who have magic in their boots. Like Dave Woodhall, editor of Heroes & Villains, the Villa fanzine, told us before, ‘Conor is a 7/10 every match player and whatever he does, he does it right. He is consistent and every team needs players like that.’
Hourihane has his own attributes that make him dangerous, especially that left foot, as well as his set-piece delivery.
Hourihane had a tough patch earlier this season when he was in and out of the Villa team before Christmas and struggled for form. He prefers to say it was ‘frustrating’ rather that tough. ‘A tough year is being out for the whole year injured,’ he points out.
Things are going a lot better since the turn of the year for him and Villa, and it could get even better on Monday.
Hourihane has already scored three goals against Derby County in the Championship this season. Another one on Monday will push him closer to where he wants to be and what he has worked towards all his football life.