Rewind back a week or so ago, to Villa's frustrating 2-2 draw with Burnley:
“Other than that free kick you wouldn’t have known he was playing today. Wasted his chance. All he did in theory was push Jack wide which was a waste.”
This was a tweet that I received in response to my answer to a question on how I thought Conor Hourihane had performed in that match. I feel that unless he scores or assists, then people don’t notice the rest of his game. He did get an assist against Burnley, however VAR ruled it out because the drawstrings on his shorts were offside when he played the ball to John McGinn.
Now, in that game I thought he and the slight adjustment in personnel had shown promise. He like many others faded in the second half. At the time I felt that the first half display was the most promising forty-five minutes of football that I had seen from us.
I felt we were close to something. In all honesty I’d felt like that in the first half against Arsenal at the Emirates as well, but I’d just felt that ultimately something wasn’t right and that there was something missing.
I believe we were missing Hourihane.
It was frightening that it took so long for him to come off that bench against Arsenal. We also should've had a penalty from his shot - handballed - as soon as he entered the pitch as well. A small window of opportunity, but he made an impact.
I’m going to say straight off the bat here; I love Conor Hourihane. He is one of, if not my favourite players at Aston Villa.
If you follow The Villa View Podcast, you will be more than aware that whenever myself, or my co-presenter Tom Julian can, we talk about how much we like him and how much we rate him as a footballer. His strong suits, like his set-piece ability, seem to be used against him in some quarters, how can that be? Set pieces are part of the game, as are Conor’s famed long shots. It’s like saying that Sergio Aguero offers nothing but finishing ability and movement! Even if that’s ‘all he can do’ - it’s certainly an asset.
I find it bizarre. Now, I’ve always been quite niche when it comes to having a favourite player, I tend to go against the grain. Another one of my former favourites was Ashley Westwood...
One second, I'm just putting the tin hat on.
Granted, he was not universally popular. In fact, I imagine not many people shared my opinion at all. I like players who are neat and tidy on the ball and the former Crewe man was just that. Westwood was a player's player. Those that played further forward appreciated what he brought to the table. A chat with a Villa player who played alongside him confirmed what I had always thought. He was an asset to the team.
I’m the kind of supporter that gets invested in our players as people and although I’d never met Westwood, everything I’d heard about him from the people who played by his side at the Villa was top class and I respected his rise up the footballing pyramid.
Does Westwood's story sound familiar?
Ironically Hourihane brings all of the above attributes to the table. He also brings the things that Westwood was derided for. His productivity is there for everyone to see. Countless assists and he now has twenty five goals all in for Villa. The delivery man.
Maybe I like him because he has succeeded as a footballer in a way that I would like to succeed in any future career that I aspire for.
He’s dealt with rejection, he’s had times where he has questioned himself. He has grafted continuously to get to where he wants to be. Conor Hourihane is an Ireland International and a Premier League player. It wasn’t always this way.
The Bandon native reached an unreal milestone on Saturday. His goal against Norwich (they must be sick of him - that's five against them now) meant that he has scored at every professional level from League Two upwards as well as bagging for his country. Some feat, that.
I talk of Conor being my favourite, but his time at Villa shows a man that hasn’t always been the managers’ favourite, in spite of his numbers and abilities.
The 2017-18 season started with Hourihane warming the bench. It seems ridiculous to think that Leandro Bacuna started that season ahead of him in central midfield, but he did. Conor responded. He didn’t start the next game either. Villa didn’t win. He made the starting line up a week later for the third game of the season against Reading and scored in a 2-1 away defeat. The next game he bagged a hat trick as Villa won their first game of the season against Norwich City at Villa Park. There were a handful of other times that Hourihane found himself outside of the team that season, but we didn’t win, he was reinstated and we won the game in which he returned.
Last season the arrival of John McGinn pushed the Irishman down the pecking order once again, but Conor did what Conor does. He worked hard and made an impact from the bench and got back in the team.
Then Steve Bruce was sacked.
Hourihane found himself on the bench (again) at the start of Smith’s tenure. Realising he may need another string to his bow he proved himself able to play as the deepest lying midfielder in Smith’s 4-3-3 system. The playmaker at the heart.
Jack Grealish then succumbed to an injury in late 2018 and the whole team suffered, Conor perhaps suffered his lowest moment in Claret and Blue and suffered abuse from the Holte End when substituted against West Brom. Villa were losing and on a wretched run of form.
This would have shaken lesser men, Conor started the next game away at Stoke, making a superb last ditch challenge to preserve a depleted Villa’s point in the 1-1 draw in Staffordshire. The game that arguably turned our season around.
A return to Villa Park beckoned, the scene of the abuse a just a home game prior and Hourihane summed up his career at Villa so far. Two goals and proving the doubters wrong against Derby. Grealish’s return from injury and the form of Glenn Whelan meant that Hourihane was in-and-out of the side for the back end of the season. When he was in, he was scoring the winner in the crucial 2-1 win at home to play off rivals Bristol City. When he was out he will have been grafting in training and making an impact from the bench.
The Play Off games were where Hourihane showed his mettle and that he was the man for the big occasion.
He came on as a substitute for Whelan after the former Stoke man had made a costly mistake and Villa were toiling. That trusty left foot popped up and put Villa back in the game. You could sense the frustration in both the strike and the celebration from he Villa number fourteen. This man hates not playing, and he stole the momentum from the Baggies.
For me this moment turned the Play Off campaign around. Villa won promotion.
This season has been more of the same for Hourihane. He started the season against Spurs in his first game in the Premier League, then found himself on the bench having not really done anything wrong.
After the League Cup tie against Brighton where Hourihane scored another trademark goal, he spoke of wanting to be in the team and doing everything he could to give the manager a decision to make. He’d done it again.
When Hourihane gets back in the team it isn’t forced because of injuries, it’s done on merit. This is a man that knows how to work hard, he’s someone who has been doing it his whole career. If you doubt him, he will prove you wrong.
If he’s outside of that Aston Villa first-team, he will get back in and show, again, that they’re a better team with him in it. He’s done it time and time again in his nearly three years at the club.
On Saturday he scored a goal, created an assist, won a penalty and all-in-all caused Norwich countless issues with his tireless running off-the-ball and his habit of getting into dangerous areas. Most ‘Team of the Week’ awards that I saw had Hourihane in the midfield.
Our talisman Grealish, who moved out wide to accommodate him, also had his best outing of the season. Villa simply look balanced with Hourihane in the side. Villa get results with Hourihane in the side.
Funnily enough, I didn’t get any negative tweets about him this weekend!
The last international break saw Hourihane asking Head Coach Mick McCarthy for a run out at left back just to get some more minutes under his belt, again the measure of the man. He joins his country this time round in a much better place, an almost guaranteed starter for club and country.
There may be other times this season when the twenty-eight year old finds himself out of the team.
Would you bet against him getting back in?