Whilst groups of fans have always known Hourihane’s influence, he’s gone from a scapegoat to a significant player in the eyes of most this season.
Words by Matt Blogg | @Blogg_Matt
Since signing from Barnsley in January 2017, Conor Hourihane has experienced everything there is to experience at Villa, going from being the scapegoat of everything wrong to being the hero of the Play-Offs, and being an integral part of the promotion push.
First of all, let’s get this straight. Without Conor Hourihane, Villa would not have been promoted. The man has contributed directly to 19 goals this season, predominantly from the base of a midfield, which is just an outrageous statistic. He captained Barnsley to promotion to the Championship in 2016 and now he has been a huge part of Villa’s promotion, so people really need to start showing him more respect. On arguable the worst day of the season, February 16th, Villa lost 2-0 at home to West Brom without having a sniff at goal and were pathetic in what was probably the Baggies’ easiest away win of the season.
In the 61st minute, having struggled to get into the game, Hourihane was subbed off and young Jacob Ramsey was brought on in his place. That may have been bad enough for Hourihane, clearly not being backed by his manager to make the difference that day, but being ironically cheered by some “fans” not only shows how unforgiving and impulsive football fans can be, but also how low the season had ebbed both for him personally and for the team as a whole.
For most players, that would crush their confidence and arguably their season. Being so victimised by your own fans and being the scapegoat for the entire team must be an awful feeling for any player, let alone one who probably thought he was contributing to the season nicely and had done fantastically well since signing from Barnsley a couple of years prior. But Hourihane’s resurgence shows just the type of character that Villa should always be looking for, and the revival of his season signifies the season as a whole for Villa. When he signed, there were question marks about his ability to cope with playing for a club the size of Villa, and he could not have quashed those question marks any more emphatically.
In the very next game away at Stoke, Hourihane had a storming day in the centre of midfield, playing the full 90 and by all accounts putting in a man of the match performance. And then the next game (Derby at home) he scores two and wins us the game, kick-starting the record-breaking run that would ultimately see us finish in the play offs. Surprisingly he wasn’t being jeered any more. Those same fans were probably chanting his name without a care in the world, dreaming that he could be the catalyst for a promotion push. And while the return of Grealish will always be seen as the spark that revived our season, Hourihane’s attitude and change in fortune can never be ignored. He got the vital assist at Forest, the winner against Bristol City, the assist against Norwich, and suddenly he was a fan’s favourite again.
Then came the Play-Offs. Coming on after 67 minutes, completely changing the game and scoring one of the goals of the season eight minutes later to turn the tie on its head was typical of the man who has dealt with setback after setback in his career and has always come out the other side. He then showed his leadership skills in the second leg, stepping up to the take first penalty in the shoot-put and tucking it away giving us a vital early lead. Again, it won’t be him who gets the plaudits after Jed Steer’s heroics, but he cannot be overlooked. And finally, in the final he had a fantastic game as the defensive midfielder, dictating the game, pinging all sorts of balls and not giving the Derby midfield a look in, highlighting his worth to this Villa side.
It was a fantastic moment as ‘This Girl’ (the Conor Hourihane song) came on over the Wembley speakers as Villa players were passing the trophy between themselves on the balcony, and I think that was the moment that the Irishman’s worth was finally appreciated. 40,000 Villa fans singing his name in a party atmosphere as he held the trophy and had a winner’s medal around his neck. It does not get any better than that.
So Hourihane has gone from zero to hero in just three months, from being jeered to being cheered to being worshipped. The man absolutely has what it takes to play for Villa in the Premier League and his name is firmly in Villa folklore.
Without him, we would not be in the Premier League. Fact.