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LAST WORD COLUMN: Conor Hourihane must prove his worth to Aston Villa, again

January 13th, 2021 10:30 AM

By Kieran McCarthy

Bandon man Conor Hourihane signed a contract extension with Aston Villa in the summer of 2019.

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TO get to the top Conor Hourihane had to build himself up from the bottom, and right now he has a fight on his hands to stay at the summit.

The Bandon man’s rise from the depths of League Two to the heady heights of the Premier League is well told by this stage. He’s the boy who lit up the Town Park in Bandon, then packed his bags and left home when he was 16 years old to chase a life in professional soccer – and he’s one of the fortunate few who made the cut.

The secret to his survival is hard work. Relentless hard work day after day. That’s what earned Hourihane his rewards: a move to Aston Villa in January 2016, becoming the first West Cork man to play in the Premier League and becoming the first West Cork man to play for the Republic of Ireland senior team. That hard graft opened doors and created opportunities. And he needs that work ethic now more than ever if he wants to force his way back into Aston Villa’s plans.

Hourihane has featured in only five of Villa’s 18 matches this season and has found himself out of favour in recent times.

His last appearance – his 150th for the club – came in Villa’s 2-1 loss against West Ham United on November 30th, and since then he has been an unused sub in six games.

Ahead of his 30th birthday in early February the Bandon Beckham – a creative player with an eye for goal and a magical left foot – might have a big decision to make: does he stay at Villa and battle to get back in the team or does he leave to get regular playing time?

At this stage of his club career, and if he wants to stay in Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland plans, Hourihane needs to play – but there’s no room for him in the Villa midfield right now. And there are plenty of options ahead of him, too.

The arrival of English international Ross Barkley on a one-season loan deal from Chelsea increased the competition for places in the Villa midfield. He hit the ground running and played every minute of every game before injuring his hamstring against Brighton in November. Tellingly, Villa boss Dean Smith didn’t view Hourihane as the solution to Barkley’s injury.

Even more telling was Smith’s decision to plump for wonder kid Jacob Ramsey (19) over Hourihane in recent weeks. That will have stung the 29-year-old, that he was overlooked for an academy hot shot. While Hourihane did start in the 2-1 away defeat against West Ham at the end of November, in the next match against Wolves, Dean Smith handed Jacob Ramsey his first Premier League start.

Smith admitted the decision was ‘a little bit harsh’ on Hourihane, but his reasoning for picking the youngster over the experienced Bandon man was because of Ramsey’s athleticism and energy, and his ability to ‘go up and down the pitch’ and ‘break into the opposition penalty box.’ In recent Premier League games against Manchester United and Chelsea, Ramsey came on as a sub while Hourihane sat unused, and he must be wondering what he has to do to get back into the Villa team.

With high-flying Villa favouring a 4-2-3-1 formation in most games this season, John McGinn and Douglas Luiz have been preferred recently as the two sitting midfielders with Jack Grealish, Bertrand Traore and Anwar El Ghazi ahead of them in behind striker Ollie Watkins. And they’re producing: Grealish has six goals and seven assists, El Ghazi has six goals, McGinn has started every Premier League game, Barkley was finding his feet before he got injured and had two goals, Luiz has started 14 of their 15 league games. This has helped Villa emerge as one of the surprise packets in the Premier League. They currently sit in eighth place in a congested league table and have a game in hand on most of the teams above them.

They’re a settled side too, and that’s making it harder for Hourihane to force his way back into the starting line-up. In the five matches (four in the Premier League) he has played this season, he started three but was subbed off in all three, while he was brought off the bench in the other two. Hourihane has played a total of 239 minutes this season. In that, he has scored one goal and provided one assist, both in the win against Fulham on September 28th.

Compare this to the 2019/20 season, his first in the Premier League, when he played in 27 league games (starting 18), scored three goals and racked up five assists. He was one of the reasons Villa survived the drop with his impressive form (three assists) after the league restarted last June following lockdown. But there’s no room for sentiment in professional football. Hourihane knows this. He knows too that he needs to take his chance when he gets it. He has form for battling his way back into the Villa team. Last season after Smith benched Hourihane, the Villa boss explained how the West Cork man didn’t take the decision well – and he responded by scoring a brace in a 6-1 win against Crewe in the Carabao Cup. A similar response is what Hourihane needs right now.

‘He’s a great professional and an international for a reason,’ Smith remarked, but the Villa landscape has changed since then, especially with Barkley’s arrival, and the Birmingham Mail recently said that Hourihane ‘is fighting for his future once again.’

The knock-on effect of not playing with Villa is that it will hurt his Republic of Ireland career. He needs first-team football to keep himself in the frame. He’s under pressure now to respond and the next few weeks will be telling. It’s unlikely to see him move in the January transfer window – a loan move, perhaps – but if the situation doesn’t improve in the second half of the season, Hourihane could have a big decision to make in the months ahead.

Every choice he has made so far has worked out. He dropped down to Plymouth Argyle to save his career, that earned him a move to Barnsley where his heroics saw Villa come knocking. Each move has worked, it took him to where he wants to be, and he’s a shrewd operator who will make the right move for him again when he needs to: whether to stay or go.

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