THE POST-MATCH TWITTER timeline of your average Barnsley supporter has followed a predictable pattern this season.
Since he joined the club in 2014, the fans of the South Yorkshire outfit have believed that Conor Hourihane is no ordinary footballer. But this season they’ve taken their adoration for the Corkonian to new heights.
After his spectacular winning goal in Monday’s 1-0 win away to Nottingham Forest — which leaves Barnsley just four points off the play-off places in the Championship — several supporters suggested the erection of a statue of Hourihane in the town. One tweeter wanted the town hall to be sold to fund a new and improved contract for the midfielder.
Those supporters may jest, but such praise for Hourihane has continued throughout the current campaign, Barnsley’s first back in English football’s second tier following a two-season spell in League One.
Hourihane might be the most coveted player in the Championship at the moment, with Aston Villa said to be particularly keen. Reluctant to lose their talisman, Barnsley supporters have taken to Change.org with a petition to make it illegal for the club to sell Hourihane. In summary, they’re quite fond of their captain at Oakwell.
“It would be an unbelievable blow but it would be understandable. He’s basically irreplaceable for our budget so we’d be back to square one and I’d expect our play-off push to be completely smashed,” admits Liam Dyson — who runs Barnsley FC fanzine West Stand Bogs — when asked about the prospect of losing Hourihane in this month’s transfer window.
Being one of the most talked-about players in the Championship this season is a good indication of the extent to which Hourihane has progressed as a player. Five and a half seasons ago he was discarded by another Championship club, Ipswich Town, and forced to drop down to League Two in search of first-team football with Plymouth Argyle.
Having finally been given the opportunity to play regularly, it was in Devon where Hourihane launched his career. Less than 18 months after getting his first taste of senior football, 21-year-old Hourihane was made club captain at Plymouth by manager Peter Reid in January 2013.
After playing just shy of 150 times for Plymouth, Hourihane made the step-up to League One for the 2014-15 season when Barnsley — who had just been relegated from the Championship — paid €250,000 to bring him to Oakwell on a three-year deal, which expires at the end of the current season.
Hourihane began life in League One by earning the player of the month award for August 2014. He repeated that feat when he entered the Championship two years later. Barnsley were promoted at the end of the 2015-16 season, during which Hourihane — who was given the captain’s armband midway through the campaign — guided them to Wembley success in the finals of the League One play-offs and the Football League Trophy.
Substantial interest in Hourihane from other clubs has been generated in recent months by his offensive attributes. The Bandon native leads the Championship in assists and he has a penchant for the type of stunning strike he produced at the City Ground three days ago. The goal was his fifth of the season and 30th in total for Barnsley. However, often overlooked is his combativeness and calibre as a leader. Hourihane also comes in second for the number of successful tackles in the division this season.
“He’s the most complete midfielder I’ve ever seen at Oakwell,” explains Liam Dyson, who’s been watching Barnsley for over 20 years. “When he joined us he was very much an attacking midfielder, looking to get forward all the time. Both Danny Wilson and Lee Johnson [previous Barnsley managers] weren’t sure what his best position was. In fact, Lee Johnson openly said he ‘couldn’t play in a 4-4-2.’
“But in the last year he has added a bit of steel to his game which has completely transformed him. He’s now much more comfortable doing the dirty stuff and playing it simple. His only weakness for me is that I think he could score even more than he does. He doesn’t seem to get into the box enough, but it’s not a criticism considering goals like he scored the other night.
“He’s now a genuine captain and the leader of a side that he has dragged from the bottom of League One to within touching distance of the play-offs in the Championship. There’s no player I can remember ever improving at such a rate at Barnsley and it has been a pleasure to watch.”
Many Irish fans of English football will still associate Barnsley with their one ill-fated season in the Premier League in 1997-98. A Tykes side led by the likes of Neil Redfearn and Jan Åge Fjørtoft finished five points short of preserving their top-flight status. Supporters hope that Hourihane can help to steer the club back to the Premier League for next season for the first time in 20 years.
“He’s well up there [among the club's all-time greats], in my view,” Dyson says of Hourihane. “No player has had a bigger impact in a shorter period of time and you have to consider the journey; captaining us to two Wembley victories and to dizzy heights in the Championship, which means that whatever happens next, he’ll always be well thought of. But if he manages to get us promoted we’ll probably have to rename the town after him.”
Despite his success at club level, international recognition remains relatively elusive for Hourihane, who turns 26 next month. He has represented the Republic of Ireland up as far as U21, and although a call-up to a provisional senior panel came in September, he was among the casualties when Martin O’Neill trimmed his squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Moldova.
“I’m genuinely astounded by that,” Dyson says. “I expected him to get a shot last year but the fact that he has not even made the matchday squad yet and has been dropped before each game blows my mind. Ireland must have a few players like [Lionel] Messi in that team if Conor Hourihane is not good enough to even get on the bench.”
With less than five months remaining on his current contract and no shortage of clubs willing to take him away from Oakwell, Hourihane’s future remains uncertain. Even if he does see out his current deal, supporters seem resigned to losing the man who seemingly carries their hopes of promotion on his shoulders.
Dyson: “I wouldn’t hold it against him leaving. He’s still on a League One contract so if a club comes in offering him daft money he has to consider it.
“The ideal scenario for me is that we tie him down to a new contract but agree to let him go for a decent fee in the summer, rather than for free, and he leads us to the promised land of the Premier League. He might get an international cap then too.”