Hourihane out to dash the Premier League hopes of a club that still adores him

Barnsley have finally recovered from losing their talismanic captain to Aston Villa in 2017.


THE INEVITABILITY OF the break-up didn’t numb Barnsley’s pain. That they knew it was coming was a matter of little consolation.

Conor Hourihane was the most-wanted player in the Championship. The level of adoration the club’s supporters had for their captain was validated by what became of their Premier League promotion bid after he left.

When Aston Villa prised him away in January 2017, Barnsley were in eighth place, within four points of a play-off place. By the campaign’s end, they were 22 points adrift in 14th, having won just one of their last 14 games.

The sales of defender James Bree and striker Sam Winnall – who moved to Villa and Sheffield Wednesday respectively – also impaired Barnsley, but the sting of Hourihane’s loss was more severe.

A petition launched by Barnsley fans, which called for the club to rebuff any bids for their coveted midfielder, had been futile.

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“He’s well up there [among the club's all-time greats], in my view,” Liam Dyson – editor of Barnsley FC fanzine ‘West Stand Bogs’ – said before Hourihane completed his transfer.

“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.”

aston-villa-v-newcastle-united-premier-league-villa-park Hourihane scores a free-kick for Aston Villa against Newcastle United. Source: Nick Potts

Hourihane moved on before Barnsley could be christened in honour of the man from Bandon in West Cork. Four years later, he’s aiming to bring about an unhappy ending to a season that has already been the club’s best in 21 years.

Since January, Hourihane has been on loan to Swansea City, who travel to Barnsley tomorrow night for the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final (the second leg is scheduled for Saturday). The winners will advance to play Bournemouth or Brentford in a Wembley final on 29 May, when a place in the Premier League will be at stake.

In the club’s 134-year existence, only once have Barnsley competed in the top-flight of English football. Their promotion to the Premier League in 1997 was overseen by Danny Wilson, who was unable to prevent their relegation from the Championship when he returned for a second spell as manager in December 2013.

By the following summer, Hourihane had accumulated 142 appearances in three seasons with Plymouth Argyle, where he had been appointed captain by manager Peter Reid at the age of 21.

For a League One club, £200,000 was a considerable sum to spend on a player from League Two. Nevertheless, it was a reflection of what the Barnsley boss reckoned Hourihane could bring to his team.

“I’ve followed Conor’s progress over the last few years with great interest,” Wilson tells The42. “He was a cracking boy and a very good signing from my perspective at Barnsley.

“I went to see him a few times at Plymouth. He was the type of player that I felt we needed at Barnsley – a talented, young guy who was playing regularly. It says a lot about him that he was entrusted with their captaincy at such a young age.

“We could see his quality when we first watched him and he had the creativity that we needed. The club itself and the owner, Patrick Cryne, did very, very well to get hold of him because he didn’t come cheap for a club like Barnsley.”

barnsley-manager-2 Danny Wilson celebrates after steering Barnsley to promotion to the Premier League in 1997. Source: PA

After Hourihane’s switch to Barnsley was announced in June 2014, Wilson mentioned leadership and an ability to provide goals from midfield when briefing the press on his main attributes. From the outset, the Tykes’ new number 8 provided an abundance of both.

He picked up the first League One Player of the Month award of the 2014-15 season, scoring six times in his first eight appearances for the club. He marked his first game as captain by scoring in a 2-0 win over Yeovil Town and finished the season with 14 goals and 16 assists.

In his second year at Oakwell, Hourihane skippered Barnsley to two Wembley final victories. They claimed the EFL Trophy at the expense of Oxford United, but of much greater significance was the win over Millwall in the play-off decider that secured the club’s return to the Championship. He again contributed directly to the scoring of 30 goals, his personal tally of 11 supplemented by 19 assists.

Hourihane’s impact on the Barnsley team was in no way diminished by the higher quality of opposition he encountered in 2016-17. Having seen him produce six goals and 12 assists in 25 games, Aston Villa were convinced to pay £3million for a player who would have been available for free six months later. 

A stunning free-kick that sealed a 3-2 win over Leeds United was Hourihane’s parting gift to the Barnsley fans whose hearts were broken by his departure.

In a statement announcing his transfer to Villa Park, the club said: “Conor was a hugely popular figure at the club and we fully appreciate that this news will be met with disappointment from our tremendous supporters. The club firmly shares this sentiment.

“It is always difficult losing a player of Conor’s footballing and personal qualities, and allowing a player of his calibre to leave the club was never an easy decision.

“Throughout his two-and-a-half years at Oakwell, Conor has conducted himself with the utmost professionalism and respect, and has been a credit to the club, his colleagues and the fans. 

Source: Barnsley FC/YouTube

“He was a player who gave his all for the shirt, an exceptional servant to Barnsley Football Club, and a player who played a key role in the club’s rise from the League One relegation zone up to the brink of the Championship play-offs.”

Although he was an Aston Villa player when it finally came, it was his form at Barnsley that earned Hourihane his first senior cap for the Republic of Ireland in a March 2017 friendly against Iceland.

Discarded by Ipswich Town as a 20-year-old with no first-team experience, he had to work his way back up from the bottom to become an international footballer. After Villa conquered the Championship play-offs in 2019, he made it to the Premier League too.

“From the start you could see that potential in him because of the way football was beginning to change,” says Wilson. “You only have to look at the type of players now who are being pushed to the forefront of teams. There was a certain style of play that was going to take football forward and Conor came into that category.

“He’s a very creative player, very talented, terrific on the ball, fantastic left foot and a very good passer of the ball. He had all the makings of a modern-day footballer. Not only that, he had the temperament to do it as well.

“I always found him to be very mature. When he was coming to Barnsley, myself and the owner had a good sit-down with him at a hotel in Manchester, and I was very impressed with him right away.

“He understood football and what his role and responsibilities would be, and he was very prepared to take everything that was in front of him in his stride. He could sense that he was making a step forward in his career and he was very enthusiastic about that.”

Life after Conor Hourihane was initially a struggle for Barnsley. The decline that followed his exit continued into the 2017-18 season, which culminated in relegation from the Championship. However, they succeeded in engineering an immediate return by finishing second in League One. 

conor-hourihane-and-ryan-manning Hourihane has now been capped 24 times by Ireland. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Hourihane is still one of Barnsley’s most popular players of the last 20 years,” says journalist Doug O’Kane, who covers the club for the Barnsley Chronicle.

“Since the glory days of the late 1990s when Barnsley reached the Premier League, and then another play-off final in 2000, only Adam Hammill had realistically rivalled him for the fans’ affections – that is until this new crop of players started performing minor miracles.”

In the dying embers of last July’s final round of fixtures in the 2019-20 Championship campaign, Barnsley were heading for the drop again until they were saved by a 91st-minute goal from Clarke Oduor in a 2-1 win at Brentford.

Just 10 months since they came to within seconds of being condemned to another season in the third tier of English football, Barnsley are dreaming of the Premier League again. 

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Under the management of former Bayern Munich defender Valerien Ismael, they advanced to the play-offs with a fifth-place finish. A key factor in that success has been the form of the man who was signed to fill the vacancy left by Hourihane.

When the relationship between the Irish midfielder and Barnsley ended, the club dipped into their separation pay-out and swiped right on Alex Mowatt from Leeds United.

The 26-year-old Englishman overcame an ominous start to his time at Oakwell to win the club’s Player of the Year award in 2020. Currently club captain, he was also recently named in the Championship Team of the Season. 

“Mowatt was essentially signed as Hourihane’s replacement but he was sent off on his debut and was then loaned out to Oxford United the following season while Barnsley were being relegated,” O’Kane explains.

barnsley-v-nottingham-forest-carabao-cup-first-round-oakwell-stadium Alex Mowatt has become a pivotal player for Barnsley. Source: PA

“But since then he has been almost an ever-present and has taken Hourihane’s mantle as midfield maestro and talismanic captain, even replicating his spectacular long-range goals and superb set-piece ability.”

Mowatt and Hourihane look set to be on opposite sides of a midfield duel which has the potential to play a big part in determining whether it’ll be Barnsley or Swansea City heading to Wembley on Saturday week.

For Hourihane, the future beyond the play-offs is uncertain. Fuelled by the frustration of being restricted to just three Premier League starts this season, he pursued the loan move to Wales before admitting that it’s “going to be tough” to regain his place at Villa Park.

Given the prominence of the role he played in the latter stages of last season in helping Dean Smith’s side avoid relegation, he could justifiably feel aggrieved over the scarcity of opportunities. 

“Every manager will have his own way of doing things,” Danny Wilson says. “The way that Conor assisted and helped Villa to stay in the Premier League last year was no small feat, and it was fantastic what he was able to do.

“I think Dean Smith would probably tell you that he’d prefer Conor to be at the club, but as a manager you have to look at the player as well. Players like Conor don’t like being sat on the sidelines and not playing games. Conor is like that, he just wants to play all the time, so I wouldn’t have thought there was any falling-out there.

“I take my hat off to Conor for not being happy to sit around. I wish a lot more players would be like that instead of letting their careers drift away from them. Conor wants to play as many games as possible at the highest level while he can and that’s something he deserves a lot of credit for.

“He went out on loan and now he has a chance again to experience success in the play-offs. He’s already done it at Barnsley and Aston Villa, so the experience he has – even though he’s still only 30 – could stand Swansea in good stead.

swansea-city-v-brentford-sky-bet-championship-liberty-stadium Hourihane is congratulated after scoring for Swansea City against Brentford. Source: PA

“From Barnsley’s point of view, I’d expect them to have a firm eye on him. With his set-plays and his quality on the ball, he’ll be key to Swansea’s attacking play.

“Who’s going to win it? Barnsley have had a fantastic run and they’ve been brilliant under [Valerien] Ismael, but I think Swansea might just have the edge. They’re the least-fancied team in the play-offs by the bookies at the moment and that takes a bit of pressure off them.  

“That will help their chances of getting promoted, and if they do, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Conor has a big say in it.”

Earlier this week, Hourihane described Barnsley as “a club I hold very fond to my heart”. If their path to the Premier League is blocked by a player who was worshipped by the club’s supporters, is it likely to besmirch his reputation in their corner of South Yorkshire?

“Unless he does something particularly controversial,” says Doug O’Kane, “and he did have an ability to wind up opponents, which many Barnsley fans loved when he was in their team, then I think he will retain his legendary status – regardless of the result.” 

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Paul Dollery

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