Conor Hourihane has joined Sheffield United on loan, with his appearance against Barrow likely to be his last for Aston Villa.
Words: Andrew Maddox | @Maddox_Journo
Conor Hourihane has joined Championship outfit Sheffield United on loan for the season.
As the Irish midfielder has just one year left on his contract however, it is unlikely that he will ever play for Villa again. The now 30-year-old joined Villa from Barnsley in 2017 for a bargain £3 million and went on to make 151 appearances in claret and blue. He also found himself on the scoresheet 29 times and assisted 23 goals.
Hourihane arrived at a club that had hit rock bottom. Following their relegation from the Premier League seven months earlier, Villa had seen a rocky start to life in the second tier. They had already been forced to sack one manager, with Roberto Di Matteo leaving in October 2016. The Italian made expensive transfer mistakes and won just one of his 11 games in charge.
New boss Steve Bruce set about a full rebuild of the squad in January, making Hourihane a central part to that. He came in alongside fellow Barnsley star James Bree as well as Henri Lansbury, Scott Hogan, Birkir Bjarnason and a host of other players. They all took time to gel, with Hourihane only managing to score once before the end of the season.
He really took flight in the 2017/18 season, however. He made 41 appearances in the Championship, forming a deadly midfield partnership with Jack Grealish. Hourihane finished the season as Villa’s second top scorer with 11 goals, three behind the ever-popular Albert Adomah. His highlight for the season was undoubtedly his masterclass against Norwich City in August. He shredded the Canaries defence apart as he struck a hat-trick to kick-start Villa’s season.
The Irishman played a key role in catapulting Villa into the Play-Offs, with his goalscoring and set-piece ability shining through. However, the club fell at the final hurdle and lost the Play-Off final to Fulham. Villa were then hit by a financial crisis, seeing the club on the brink of administration. Despite much of the team leaving, Hourihane chose to stay and fight for the club.
It proved to be a shrewd decision by the Irishman as he hit his most productive season at the club. His seven goals and 12 assists helped Villa ride through a difficult midseason period and fire them back into the promised land. He started putting in work immediately, grabbing assists in both of Villa’s first two games of the new season.
His first goal of the season was a memorable one. Away to Blackburn, Villa were staring defeat in the face. The Villa fans were furious following a 76th minute Bradley Dack goal and a flat performance from Villa. However, Hourihane came to the rescue with a sublime free kick into David Raya’s bottom corner to salvage a point.
Steve Bruce was sacked four games later, but Hourihane kept putting up the numbers under new boss Dean Smith. He didn’t miss a single minute in any of the 16 matches between 2 November 2018 and 8 February 2019. Despite contributing seven goals in that time, nearly one every other game, certain sections of the fanbase grew frustrated with his performances.
It is important to note that the arrival of John McGinn that summer had forced Hourihane to play in a deeper role. This somewhat limited his ability to run forward and affect play further up the pitch, with McGinn and later Jack Grealish taking that responsibility. To some, this looked as if Hourihane simply wasn’t as effective as before. This began to shift when the club embarked upon its record-breaking winning streak.
Hourihane shot back against the doubters by notching a brace in Villa’s 4-0 demolition of Derby County in March. He also scored in the win against Bristol City while also assisting a further goal. He drew the admiration of fans once again once the run came to an end however by quite literally showing his willingness to fight for the shirt in the infamous draw to Leeds United.
When Mateusz Klich wheeled away in celebration following a controversial goal, it was Hourihane that dragged him back to begin the brawl. This reaction permanently put him in Villa fans’ good graces as it showed that his desire to fight for the club had never faded away. However, the best was yet to come.
Villa kicked off their Play-Off campaign in 2019 by hosting local rivals West Bromwich Albion. The Baggies took the lead following a defensive error from Glenn Whelan and the home crowd was growing nervous. Hourihane came onto the pitch with 23 minutes left and it took just eight minutes for him to leave his mark.
The visitors were penned inside their own box as Grealish received the ball on the right flank. Hourihane had held his position around 30 yards from goal and screamed for a pass. Villa’s new captain played a perfectly weighted ball into Hourihane’s path, and he arrowed a perfect first time shot into the net. The Villa fans went into raptures as they went on to win the match and eventually promotion back to the top-flight.
He had some bright moments following promotion, including stunners against Norwich and Newcastle United, but he gradually began to fade out of the side. He made 25 appearances in the 2019/20 season, but was only given four appearances in 2020/21. In January 2021 he departed on loan to Swansea City, but could not force his way back into the Villa line-up.
He made what will likely be his final Villa appearance in the 6-0 win over Barrow last week. He leaves Villa an incredibly popular figure, but one that needed to leave for the sake of his own career.