It’s been another incredible year for West Cork’s greatest-ever soccer player, Conor Hourihane. KIERAN McCARTHY highlights the Bandon man’s top ten moments from the past 12 months.
100 AND COUNTING
Back in March, Conor made his 100th appearance for Aston Villa in their 1-0 away win against rivals Birmingham in the Championship. It was a landmark moment as he racked up 100 appearances in just over two years at the club. In those 100 games he scored 19 goals, had 14 assists, started 87 matches, created 148 chances and also, in 2018, became the first Villa central midfielder since David Platt in 1991 to hit double figures in a league season.
Sprung off the bench for Villa in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final against Derby County in May, Conor rattled the net with a screamer from 25 yards eight minutes after coming on to help Villa take a 2-1 lead into the second leg away at The Hawthorns. Here, after Villa lost 1-0 to level the game 2-2 on aggregate, the tie went to penalties and the ice-cool West Cork man kept his nerve to convert from the spot. Villa won the shoot-out and advanced to the Play-off final.
With a point to prove after losing his place in the Villa starting team, Conor bagged a first-half brace of goals in their 6-1 Carabao Cup win against Crewe Alexandra in August to send a reminder to Villa manager Dean Smith. Conor’s goal prowess from midfield has seen him score regularly in recent seasons and he was also on target in Villa’s third round cup win against Brighton.
On July 13th, Conor put pen to paper on a new deal with Aston Villa, an important moment as it offered him security heading into his first Premier League campaign. Given his stats by then – 21 goals and 16 assists in 111 games – it’s no wonder Villa pinned him down with a new contract. He beamed: ‘I’m absolutely delighted. It’s exciting times for the club with us moving into the Premier League. I’ve waited for all my career for the opportunity to play at this level and the time has now arrived.’
MAN OF THE MATCH
As Euro 2020 qualifying games go, the Republic of Ireland’s 1-0 win away to Gibraltar in late March was instantly forgettable, but Conor’s man-of-the-match display was one of the few positives to take away from it. After Mick McCarthy gave him the nod, Conor was excellent in midfield and was involved in the build-up to Ireland’s goal scored by Jeff Hendrick.
WE’RE GOING UP!
It’s no secret that he has wanted to play in the Premier League and test himself against the best players in the world, and on May 27th, that dream became a reality. Conor started in midfield as Villa beat Derby County 1-0 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley Stadium, as they booked their ticket back to the big time 12 months on from losing the play-off final to Fulham. Conor tweeted afterwards, ‘PREMIER LEAGUE!! What dreams are made of!!’ as he became West Cork’s first-ever Premier League footballer.
It wasn’t the result that Conor wanted as Villa lost their Premier League opener 1-0 away to Spurs, but it was a special moment as the former Bandon AFC starlet made his Premier League debut. This is what he had worked towards ever since he first kicked a ball, and now he was a Premier League footballer, having played his way up from League 2 to League 1, then the Championship and now the Premier League. And, while they say an elephant never forgets, neither does Conor who, days after his Premier League debut, tweeted a fan who had, back in 2014, told Conor: ‘You’re Argyle’s best player kid, no danger, but the Premier League? There’s ambition and there’s reality.’ Five years on, Conor said: ‘Never tell anyone they can’t achieve something.’
MORE TO COME
When Conor scored his first Premier League goal – in Villa’s 5-1 thrashing of Norwich City on October 5th – he completed the remarkable feat of scoring in all four of English football’s top divisions. ‘I’m delighted with that and hopefully it’s the start of many more goals in this league,’ he smiled after his classy left-foot finish from the edge of the box hit the back of the net in the second half. This was also his 25th goal for Villa. He was up and running in the top flight.
BEND IT LIKE CONOR
We all know that Conor is lethal from set-piece and frees, and he showed just how good he is in Villa’s 2-0 Premier League win at home to Newcastle United on November 25th. Back in the starting team after being dropped for the league loss to Manchester City, Conor had a point to prove – and that’s just what he did. He scored a superb free in the first half, whipping the ball around the wall, and minutes later set up Villa’s second goal with a teasing cross that was asking to be tucked home. Villa boss Dean Smith hailed Conor’s ‘wand of a left foot’. Indeed, it was more magic from the Bandon genius, who took his goal tally to five by the end of November.
Conor’s first international goal for the Republic of Ireland was, in Mick McCarthy’s words, ‘something special’. This 1-0 home win in the Aviva Stadium over Georgia came four days after Conor’s man-of-the-match display in Gibraltar and, again, the Bandon man was at the centre of it all. Conor’s stunning first-half free was curled around the Georgian wall and high into the net. It was a thing of beauty.