Conor Hourihane’s free kick in the 60th minute of Saturday’s match against Nottingham Forrest was very uncharacteristic of Aston Villa in recent years. Everything besides that moment was trademark Villa: an impressive first half resulted in only a one goal cushion and was soon squandered shortly into the second half with the concession of a cheap equalizer. On another day, it would have been another frustrating draw at home to a sub-par opponent, and would have prompted more widespread protests against Steve Bruce. Hourihane, however, saved us all from that misery with a goal out of thin air, a goal from nothing, a goal against the run of play. It was an ugly victory as the minutes dripped on towards the final whistle, but 3 points are 3 points and the Irishman unquestionably bailed out Steve Bruce and his teammates.
Hourihane’s efforts on Saturday were vital, but he is often overlooked as one of Villa’s best players. In my opinion, Hourihane stands out as our most dynamic and entertaining midfielder. He plays with a level head, never loses his temper and never puts his teammates in unnecessarily difficult position to succeed. He is a willing defender, and while his defensive abilities fall short of Jedinak and Whelan’s, his well-rounded skill set is unparalleled in Villa’s midfield. Hourihane never pouts if he doesn't receive the ball, never tries to make the match about himself or to steal the spotlight, which has paradoxically resulted in the spotlight already shining on him multiple times this season. It is always a treat to see the ball fall to Hourihane’s left foot in or around the box, knowing that he, more than most in a Villa shirt, is more than capable of pinging the top corner. The season is still very young, but without Hourihane’s 5 goals Villa would be several places down the table and Steve Bruce likely sacked.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement of Hourihane was Villa’s last away match against Barnsley, Hourihane’s former club, in which the Barnsley fans applauded him, a display of respect and gratitude that has become rare in today’s game. Hourihane’s non-toxic attitude on the pitch and in the dressing room is undoubtedly precious to Steve Bruce and Villa’s promotion chances. Inflated egos have infected many Villa squads in recent memory, but Hourihane shows no signs of falling into that trap anytime soon.
Despite all this, Hourihane is still often under-appreciated. He should be one of the first names on the team sheet every week and should be one of the first names to the lips of Villa fans when asked what is still exciting about Aston Villa these days. Here’s to you, Conor. Keep the good times, and the goals, rolling.