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Coveted Conor Hourihane set for home Villa debut against the club that let him leave for free

The Corkman made a £3million move during the transfer window.

Conor Hourihane will face his former club Ipswich Town when he makes his first appearance at Villa Park this afternoon.
Conor Hourihane will face his former club Ipswich Town when he makes his first appearance at Villa Park this afternoon.
Image: EMPICS Sport

IT HAS BEEN a difficult season for Ipswich Town and their manager Mick McCarthy.

Supporters of the Tractor Boys hoped to be in contention for promotion from the Championship this season. With 16 games remaining in the campaign, a relegation battle is more likely than a play-off push.

With just one victory in eight outings in 2017, a failure to win back-to-back games all season and an FA Cup exit at the hands of non-league Lincoln City, McCarthy is under pressure ahead of this afternoon’s visit to Villa Park.

For the hosts, however, the outlook hasn’t been any brighter. Playing outside the English top flight for the first time in 29 years, Aston Villa are currently in 14th place, level on 36 points with Ipswich — which means both sides are eight points above the drop zone.

In an attempt to restrict the amount of time they spend in the second tier to the bare minimum, Villa were busy during the January transfer window. Funded by wealthy Chinese owner Dr Tony Xia, manager Steve Bruce added seven players to his squad. One of them is a former Ipswich Town man who Mick McCarthy could certainly do with now.

Although he would have been available on a free transfer in the summer, Villa parted with £3million to bring in Conor Hourihane from Barnsley last month. Today’s game against Ipswich marks the midfielder’s home debut for his new club. This isn’t his first spell playing under Steve Bruce either.

When Hourihane left Cork schoolboy side Douglas Hall at the age of 16, the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Celtic had all expressed their interest. But the Bandon native rejected those advances in order to join his hero and fellow Corkonian Roy Keane at Sunderland.

Barnsley v Scunthorpe United - Sky Bet League One - Oakwell Hourihane in possession for Barnsley. Source: Anna Gowthorpe

Keane’s tenure as manager at the Stadium of Light was over by the time Hourihane — despite not making a first-team breakthrough — was offered a new contract in 2010 by the Black Cats, who were then managed by Bruce. Instead, Hourihane followed Keane to Ipswich on a one-year deal.

Halfway through the 2010/11 season, the former Republic of Ireland captain was replaced at the Portman Road helm by Paul Jewell. Then 20 and still waiting on his first-team debut in England, Hourihane came to a crossroads in the summer of 2011. Ipswich offered him a short-term extension but there were options elsewhere.

“He never really made much of an impression here,” explains Phil Ham, editor of independent Ipswich Town website TWTD. “When he signed he was viewed as one for the future, a fellow Corkman who Roy Keane had rated highly at Sunderland. He was on the bench four times early on in the 2010/11 season but without making his debut.”

Despite having the option of an extra six months in the Championship with Ipswich, Hourihane chose to sign a two-year-deal with Plymouth Argyle after impressing during a trial with the League Two club, who were managed at the time by Peter Reid.

“We gave Conor a six-month contract and he came back in really good nick, but he was probably not close to our first team,” Ipswich boss Paul Jewell said in August 2011 following Hourihane’s departure.

“So when the opportunity came for him to go and play at Plymouth, we had great pleasure in seeing a young player like that getting himself a two-year contract and hopefully going and playing football for Plymouth, which in itself is a big club. He’ll learn more about himself and about how good he is playing for them than he would on the periphery of our first team.”

Soccer - Capital One Cup - First Round - Birmingham City v Plymouth Argyle - St Andrew's Hourihane was made Plymouth captain when he was 21. Source: Joe Giddens

The trajectory of Hourihane’s career may have appeared ominous at that point. Deemed surplus to requirements in the Championship before dropping down the divisions, it’s a familiar tale which culminates with an unhappy ending more often than not. If he failed in League Two, there would have been a scarcity of options for his next move.

But Hourihane bucked the trend, and in quite emphatic fashion. At the age of 21, he was appointed captain (by former Ireland midfielder John Sheridan) during his second of three seasons with Plymouth. He graduated to League One in 2014 when Barnsley paid £200,000 to add him to their midfield. At Oakwell, the underage international’s rate of progress accelerated.

“I suppose [joining Plymouth] was a risky move at the time but one I needed to start playing games,” Hourihane told the Irish Examiner in August 2015. “We had a great youth team with Ireland, with the likes of Conor Clifford and Conor Henderson in midfield too. Of that side, only Robbie Brady is playing in the Premier League. Some lads aren’t even playing football anymore after falling by the wayside.

“I’m one of the fortunate ones then. Playing regularly for the past four seasons has improved me as a player and I still strive to be better. It’s very tough to make it to the top level nowadays but I’m hoping a few avenues can still open up for me.

“There’s plenty of players who get to the Premier League and senior international level at around 26 or 27. Of course, playing for Ireland is a big ambition but it depends on your club form and I know getting picked won’t happen while I’m playing in League One.”

In 2015/16, with Hourihane as captain, Barnsley won the Football League Trophy and were promoted to the Championship via the play-offs. Back in the second tier of English football but this time as a starter instead of an unused substitute, Hourihane established himself as the division’s most coveted player by leading the way for assists and scoring some spectacular goals.

Conor Hourihane and Michal Kucharczyk Hourihane puts in a tackle on Michal Kucharczyk of Poland during a game for the Ireland U19s in 2010. Source: Cathal Noonan

It’s why Villa have paid a substantial fee for him, and why Ipswich supporters now know that Hourihane is the kind of player who could transform their fortunes. Having said that, they’re mostly realistic enough to accept that even with the benefit of hindsight, leaving Portman Road was essential for Hourihane to become the player he is now.

Phil Ham says: “It’s always frustrating to see a player who has been at your club move on and do well elsewhere — Roy Keane’s decision to sell Jordan Rhodes immediately springs to mind — although I’m not sure there were too many saying ‘I told you so’ in Hourihane’s case.

“Moving to Plymouth rather than hanging around in our reserves appears to have been the best decision he made. He needed first-team football to push on and he wasn’t going to get it here.”

Ham adds: “Midfield has been a problem all year so we could certainly have done with him. He actually scored and claimed an assist at Portman Road on the opening day of the season for Barnsley when we beat them 4-2. His performance in that game started a few ‘Why did we let him go?’ type conversations.”

Hourihane has also avoided talk of having a point to prove when it comes to facing Ipswich. Following the aforementioned defeat with Barnsley back in August, he said: “I was 19 when I came here but too young to make the step-up then. I learnt a bit here and I have taken those lessons forward. It was good to come back and put in a decent performance.”

The midfielder’s motivation is likely to come from elsewhere this afternoon too. He hasn’t had much to celebrate during his short stint with Villa so far. Steve Bruce’s side have been beaten by Brentford and Nottingham Forest in their two games since Hourihane arrived, while supporters have complained that the playmaker is being deployed out of position.

Leeds United v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship - Elland Road Hourihane scored six goals and provided 12 assists for Barnsley this season before moving to Aston Villa. Source: Dave Howarth

Having excelled as a central midfielder for Barnsley, Hourihane was used as a right winger in a 3-4-3 by Bruce in the defeat to Forest. If that has lessened his impact, he’ll hope it won’t detrimentally affect his chances of playing his way into contention for a senior international debut in next month’s games against Wales and Iceland.

Since he left Ipswich, Hourihane has progressed — step by step — through each tier of English football. There’s still one to go before he tastes Premier League action. Having not won a game since St Stephen’s Day, Aston Villa are 13 points adrift of the play-offs. Hourihane believes promotion is possible, but the margin for error is slim.

“We’re going to have to go on a fantastic run,” he told Villa’s official website. “That has to be the aim until it’s mathematically impossible. But instead of making it a project from pre-season next season, maybe we should make it a project for now. We can maybe gain some months on teams going into it next season if we don’t do it this year. The club have spent a lot of money on good players for a reason.”

As for this afternoon’s home debut against one of his former clubs, Hourihane said: “It’s going to be a fantastic experience. It’s one I can’t wait to experience. Villa Park is an iconic stadium, one of the biggest and best in the country.

“Just think of the top-class players to have played there over the years — it makes you appreciate the huge history and heritage of the place and the club. To be able to call Villa Park your football home is a very special feeling.”

Villa are keen to ensure that it’s not the home of a Championship club again next season. If Hourihane can reproduce the form he showed at Barnsley, it may not be mission impossible after all. The man who left Ipswich for free will hope to cost them a result this afternoon.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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