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Conor walked out chatting to Micah Richards. Pure surreal

Sunday, 9th June, 2019 5:00pm
Conor walked out chatting to  Micah Richards. Pure surreal

Conor Hourihane celebrates Astpn Villa’s win in the Championship Play-off final against Derby County at Wembley Stadium.

Conor Hourihane is West Cork’s first-ever Premier League footballer. From the Town Park in Bandon to the Premiership, KIERAN McCARTHY takes a closer look at the West Cork man who has worked his way to the top

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MONDAY, MAY 27TH, 2019

CONOR Hourihane spotted some familiar faces in the West End of Wembley Stadium as the victorious Aston Villa players applauded their supporters.

They were eight rows back from the pitch. Jumping up and down. Celebrating. Roaring. Two decked out in Villa scarves. Hands flying in all directions. The Bandon boys made sure they were seen and heard.

Richie O’Regan, Fionn O’Leary and Jason O’Donovan are the regulars that have been back and over from Bandon to England for years. They’ve had their adventures following Conor on his. They’ve trekked all over. 

Trips to Plymouth Argyle’s Home Park in Devon. Oakwell, home of Barnsley in Yorkshire, was another one. Now it’s Villa Park in Birmingham. Wembley Stadium has also become a regular haunt. This was Conor’s fourth final there in four seasons; and he’s won three, two of those promotion finals.

Richie, Fionn and Jason have watched Conor rise through the leagues. Step by step. Always going forward. The travelling gang for the latest Wembley away day was swelled this Monday afternoon by Adrian Linehan, Jason McCarthy, Ray Brennan and Cian Collins.

‘Go on Conor! That’s it buddy! Come on Bandon!’

Conor threw them a big salute. He couldn’t hear what they were saying. But their whoops, hollers and smiles said it all. Their buddy had done it. He played the full 90 minutes as Villa beat Derby County 2-1 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley. 

Conor is heading to the Premier League. That’s been his dream, goal and target for years. Ever since he kicked a ball with Bandon AFC.

 

***

Richie O’Regan can’t remember the first time he saw Conor play. He’s a year older than Conor. Different classes in school. But he had heard about him. Everyone in the club had. He wasn’t a secret.

‘Everyone knew of his quality,’ Richie says.

Those days Conor was a striker. When you have a player of his quality at that level, and with a left foot capable of taking the head off a particular daisy in a field from 30 yards, put him up top. He hasn’t lost that goal-scoring knack. Most seasons he hits double figures from midfield. (This season he finished on nine goals, eight of those in the league, as well as 11 assists)

Tony O’Leary shared the story with the Star years ago of an U14 game that Conor played for Bandon AFC. Tony’s a former club chairman but he’s claim to fame now is that he coached a local guy who will play in the Premier League next season.

‘I used to be raving that Conor was a very good player. A particular gentleman in the club came down to see him play against, I think, Glasheen. It was 0-0 at half-time, and I could see your man thinking there was nothing special about Conor,’ O’Leary recalled.

‘I said to Conor at half time: “do you see that man over there? I told him you were a good player but now he thinks you’re useless. Go out there and show him what you can do.”’

Conor scored five goals in the second half. Point proven. That didn’t surprise Richie, who has been coaching soccer himself for the past 12 years, since he was 17.

‘Some years you come across a young fella and you just think he is quality. Any of the games I saw Conor play for Bandon AFC, you came away thinking that he is going to make it, that he is something special. He could turn a game on its head,’ Richie says. 

Richie’s from Casement Road in Bandon. That’s a distance away from where Conor grew up – but back then there were regular soccer games on the street. Fionn O’Leary was Richie’s neighbour, too. Conor would call to Fionn, and a game wouldn’t be too far away.

Even there, with jumpers for goalposts, Conor was different class.

 

***

In Cork forward Brian Hurley’s early years he was a defender – and he was also turned inside out and back to front regularly by Conor. 

In his early teens Conor was GAA mad. He wanted to be a Cork hurler and footballer. He’s genuinely one that got away. The consensus is he was a better footballer. Hurley agrees. 

Conor lit up West Cork Sciath na Scol finals with Gaelscoil Dhroichead na Banndan. He was a baby-faced assassin. Lethal with the ball in his hands.

He was also selected on the Cork post-primary schools’ football team, along with Brian. They played at half-time in a Munster final in Killarney. Conor took over. Those were his days with the bleached blonde hair. He even managed to pull that look off.

‘He scored 2-5 or 2-6, something like that,’ says Brian, who has remained good friends with Conor since they played together on that Cork schools’ team.

‘I didn’t know what a dummy solo was until I met him. He did them on me all the time. He was ridiculous at that age and he was years ahead of everyone else. When I played against Conor I had to mark him. He skinned me all the time.’

Brian recalls an U12 league game between Castlehaven and Bandon at Union Hall. Conor was centre forward. Brian picked him up. And spent the day chasing him.

‘He was a step ahead in everything, his runs, his anticipation, he was always a move ahead of everyone else.’ He left Hurley flat on his arse more often that not.

Conor told the Star before: ‘When Sunderland came calling I had to pack up the GAA, but there is always that thought in the back of my mind – would I have made it at hurling or football? It’s something I’ll never find out.’

 

***

After Bandon AFC and before he joined Sunderland as a 16-year-old in 2007, Conor spent two seasons at Douglas Hall in Cork City. That was a stepping stone. He left his mark there too. Like he did at Bandon. And would do at Plymouth, Barnsley and now Aston Villa.

Martin McKenzie was Conor’s coach. The young recruit from Bandon had the most powerful left foot he has ever seen. It’s lethal.

In the 2005/06 season, Conor was paired in central midfield with future Cork City star Gearoid Morrissey. Douglas Hall were blessed with this combination. And there was Dean Kelly on the left wing, an Ireland U15 international.

‘Mick Conroy, the FAI Coaching Development Officer for Munster, would often attend our games to keep an eye on their progress. Myself and Mick were convinced that both Conor and Gearoid would both make a career from the game. I am glad to say that we were both right in that regard,’ McKenzie says.

Conor had it all. Superb ball control. Tremendous awareness. He played the game upright, shoulders back and chest out. Great vision to see the whole pitch. Accurate, from dead balls and open play.

Conor’s last game for Douglas Hall in May 2007 was a memorable one for Mayfield. Douglas Hall couldn’t win the league. They were home to Carrigaline who only needed one point to clinch the title. Mayfield were there in numbers too. If Douglas Hall won, Mayfield were champs. It was on pitch number two, that slopes at one end. 0-0 at the break. Then Douglas Hall’s Robert Fitzpatrick broke through and dinked the goalkeeper. 1-0. Douglas Hall won. Mayfield celebrated. Conor flew out to north England, minus his tonsils that he had to leave behind.

 

***

Despite what’s been said and written, Conor has never been ‘let go’, ‘released’ or ‘discarded’ by a club in his career. He wasn’t released by Sunderland and he wasn’t released by Ipswich Town. 

When his contract with Sunderland expired in 2010, Conor was offered a new contract. They wanted him to stay. But his heart was set on following his hero Roy Keane, and fellow Cork man, from Sunderland to Ipswich. 

He did in July 2010 and signed a one-year contract. Keane didn’t last long and was sacked in early 2011. Paul Jewell came in as Ipswich manager and in the summer of 2011 Conor was offered a six-month deal by Ipswich. 

By then Plymouth Argyle boss Peter Reid, who knew Conor from Sunderland, invited him down to the club for a trial. Conor impressed and was offered a two-year deal. That was more security than the six months on offer from Ipswich so Conor (20) dropped to League 2 and began the climb to the top. 

At a time when Plymouth were struggling on and off the pitch his leadership qualities came to the fore. He’s a natural born leader who leads by example. Conor was a quiet kid. He did exactly what he was told to do in training and in matches. He has a steely determination. A focus and a drive. He’s competitive; whether it’s a derby against Birmingham or a game of pitch and putt in Brinny, he wants to win. He’s not flash or arrogant. He worked hard, then harder again. And then worked some more. No stone was left alone.

And he rose through the leagues. Left Plymouth (where he was captain) in June 2014 for Barnsley. Spent two and a half seasons there where he was made captain and led the Tykes to promotion from League 1 to the Championship. Signed for Aston Villa in in January 2017. Last season he became the first Villa midfielder since David Platt in 1991 to hit double figures in goals. This season Conor played the second most minutes for Villa (3,495), was second top goal scorer (nine) and their assist king with 11. Not bad for the former Bandon Grammar School boy who has never forgotten his roots.

 

***

Conor has always kept in touch with Bandon AFC and his hometown. When non-league Bandon qualified for the second round of the FAI Cup and a trip to Dublin to take on Shelbourne at Tolka Park at the end of May 2013, Conor – then captain at Plymouth – was home and travelled on the supporters’ bus to Dublin for the game. Right bang in the middle of friends and former team-mates.

Everyone tells you the same story: he has never changed and is still the same Conor. Level-headed. No airs and graces. Just Conor. Down to earth. A solid guy. His parents, John and Helen, need to take the credit here. 

Their support has been key. Of the memories Martin McKenzie has of Conor at Douglas Hall, one is of Helen on the sideline at ‘virtually every match he played’.

They’ve taught him well. The genes were good too, to be fair.

Conor’s dad John lined out for Kilmacabea footballers in the 1980s and ‘90s, alongside his twin Dan, who is the current chairman of the Kilmacs. They played on the same team. John was the free-taker. Like Conor, John had bags of skill too but, unlike his youngest, he didn’t like training. (Incidentally, Dan is also Conor’s godfather)

A quick look at the family tree shows that Conor’s first cousin is Liam O’Donovan, a forward on the Ballymun Kickhams team in Dublin that also includes Dean Rock, Philly McMahon and James McCarthy. Liam’s mother Colette is also Conor’s godmother, and sister to his mom Helen. Another of Colette’s children, Nuala, represented Ireland at the 2016 World Championships in Ultimate Frisbee.

 

***

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

The first Aston Villa game that Richie O’Regan and Fionn O’Leary travelled to at Villa Park, to watch Conor play, he banged in his first career hat-trick. 4-2 against Norwich. One goal in the first half, two in the second half.

Afterwards the two Bandonians met Conor in the players’ lounge. Conor walked out chatting to former England and Manchester City defender Micah Richards, also a Villa player.  That was surreal. Richie was used to watching Richards on TV. Here he was having a laugh with Conor. It’s been a journey for Richard, Fionn and that gang too. It’s been better than that, it’s been a pleasure. Last week, after the Championship play-off final win, Richie spoke to Conor on the phone. 

‘Congrats, lad, we’re all so proud of you.’ Richie added: ‘This has been an absolute pleasure.’ 

It was a pleasure to go to Home Park to watch Conor lift Plymouth Argyle off the bottom of League Two. It was a pleasure to travel to Oakwell and watch Conor captain, inspire and drive Barnsley to promotion to the Championship and win two finals at Wembley in two months in 2016.

It’s been a pleasure to watch their buddy step up at Aston Villa and play a huge role in their return to the Premier League.

Thanks, Conor.

‘They have been some of the best experiences of our lives and we never would have got that chance without our best buddy doing what’s he done, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him,’ Richie says. And he’s not done yet.

 

***

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

It was worth the wait. Conor’s first goal for the Republic of Ireland was a stunning free kick, off his trusty left foot, in a Euro 2020 qualifier against Georgia at the Aviva Stadium. Turned out to be the winner too. 1-0.

The Saturday before he was named man-of-the-match in the 1-0 win away against Gibraltar.

There’s the sense that, 28 now, he has arrived on the international scene. Martin McKenzie watched on and smiled. 

‘I thought that one moment would be the pinnacle of his season and his career so far. Maybe in an Irish sense it was,’ he says.

‘I really feel though that we have not even nearly seen the best of Conor Hourihane. He will blossom as he matures, similar to my own countrymen Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister. 

‘There are so many parallels between Conor and Gary McAllister, in particular. He has the appetite, the focus, the stamina and the finish to go all the way to the top.’

The top level in English football awaits West Cork’s best-ever footballer next season. He will be a Premier League player. 

That’s what he dreamed of when he first kicked a ball at the Town Park in Bandon. That dream has come true. But he’s earned it. He always believed he could get there. Now he has.  And now he has left Richie O’Regan with a conundrum. Richie is a Manchester United fan. But Conor is his pal. Divided loyalties await next season.