Last week Conor Hourihane completed his long touted transfer to Aston Villa. This move is a signal of intent from the Cork man, who will be hoping to force his way into the Ireland squad for next month’s World Cup qualifier against Wales.
This season has been one of the best for Irish players domestically in many years. To name a few, Daryl Horgan lit up the European stage earning a move to England in the process. Young players Ryan Manning and Liam Kelly are becoming some of the hottest properties in the Championship and Seamus Coleman continues his rise to the top. However, one of the standout success stories this season has been Hourihane’s rising star.
Having been on the books at Sunderland and Ipswich under Roy Keane, Hourihane made the meteoric rise from League 2 to the Championship. Made captain at Plymouth Argyle aged just 21, he gained a lot of attention form some of the football league’s top teams. He then made the move to Barnsley where he too became captain, after only 18 months at Oakwell.
His qualities are now finally shining through after a late crack at first team football, leading his side to double honours last season as the Tykes won the Football League Trophy and secured promotion to the Championship.
Prior to his departure from Barnsley, the 26-year-old netted an outstanding 29 league goals. One of the Bandon man’s last acts at Barnsley was slotting home an incredible free-kick against Championship flyers, and Yorkshire rivals, Leeds. Despite heavy speculation over his future at the time, he put in an assured performance as Barnsley pulled off a surprise victory.
What has been the standout success of Hourihane’s season is his eleven assists to date in addition to his six league goals. He tops the Championship assist charts in a league with players like Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Ritchie and Wes Hoolahan. However, there is more to the ex-Plymouth man than just stats – many of the goals he has created are down to his spectacular deliveries from set-pieces. He is a player capable of scoring from long range yet committed to tracking back and putting in crunching tackles.
In an age where the box-to-box midfield role is losing out to functional holding midfielders and attacking number 10s, with no defensive responsibilities, Hourihane has managed to strike the balance between attack and defence from his midfield role; mainly down to Barnsley’s tendency to play a more fluid 4-4-2 formation. The Irishman’s energy suited this style of football and Steve Bruce looks to have given him a similar role at Villa judging by his debut against Brentford.
Despite the midfielder’s many glowing reports, he is still considered an outside contender for an Ireland spot. Hourihane, who featured heavily at underage level, has made provisional squads under Martin O’Neill this season but that’s as good as it has gotten. Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane had suggested his former novice had to do more to get in the team despite a stronger start to the season compared to some of his fellow internationals. It seemed strange given the struggle some of the Irish midfielders have in retaining possession, something the former Sunderland man is an expert at.
At present James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter, Jeff Hendrick, David Meyler and Eunan O’Kane seem to be ahead of Hourihane in the pecking order. All bar O’Kane are Premier League players, which may have some bearing on it but his overall game offers more than some of the aforementioned names. For one, Hourihane’s set-pieces are something that could win Ireland games. Steve Guppy was appointed by O’Neill as a set-piece coach but Ireland have not been prolific from corners or free-kicks under him. It is something the Corkonian would certainly bring to the table.
O’Neill’s side seem to have good rhythm at the moment but some of the midfielders still tend to give the ball away cheaply and look extremely uncomfortable with the ball at their feet. This will eventually catch up with Ireland in the latter stages of World Cup qualification.
Harry Arter showed in Vienna that he has the composure and technical ability to take Ireland forward but may need to be paired with someone as adept in their technical skill. Hourihane has the ability to maintain possession and dictate play. He is capable of dropping deep to play the ball out from the back and has the ability to hit lovely through balls when on the front foot, something many of Ireland’s midfielders lack.
From a practical point of view, Hourihane is left-footed and could add balance to the midfield. O’Neill has alternated between a midfield three with two deep player behind an attacking midfielder (usually Wes Hoolahan) and a flat midfield three.
With Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick, Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy all both right-footed, Hourihane could offer a more equal approach to games as these two sample midfield threes show.
Sample 1: 4-2-3-1 formation
Sample 2: 4-3-3 formation
Hourihane’s leadership would also be an asset to Ireland. Having virtually been a club captain since the age of 21, it would add an extra voice of calm to the dressing room. These leadership skills have been reflected in his energetic displays for Barnsley as he carried a limited team from the bottom of League 1 to the fringes of the Championship play-offs.
O’Neill appreciates leadership and character but has sometimes chosen this over quality. Hourihane has demonstrated on many occasions that he possesses both, and at only 26 could be a major cog in this side, as a leader, for many years to come.
Whether he makes Ireland’s final squad for next month’s crunch tie remains to be seen. With Ireland unbeaten and O’Neill loyal to his side it could be a stretch for the Cork man. However, despite being around for a long time, he is still young and with the season of his life only at its halfway point, he could be featuring for Ireland before the qualifiers are out.
With his move to Villa completed, Hourihane has just over a month to justify the transfer and send out some subtle reminders of what he could bring to O’Neill’s flying side.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena