THERE was something of a symmetry this week in Conor Hourihane edging closer to a major career move to Aston Villa as news broke of Conor Clifford heading home to Ireland and a restart at Dundalk.
Both players played on the same underage teams for Ireland a decade ago now and headed across to England around similar times with the usual hopes and ambitions and fanfare from here about being the next big things.
Clifford was the star-in-waiting, captained Chelsea to an FA Youth cup triumph and it was equally fascinating and scary to see him talk during the week about how easily the whole dream can just slip away with one or two misjudgements (he turned down a trial pre-season with Leicester under Nigel Pearson) or simply poor timing of a change in management/injury/loss of form.
He went down through the leagues and loan spells of varying success and after basically growing tired of battling to make it in the non-league has turned to the League of Ireland as the chance of another shot. It’s probably the most common of outcomes for any young lad who heads over to England in his teens and if nothing else it offers a really decent measurement for just how good/lucky/hard-working/mentally strong you need to be to put yourself in the position the lad from Bandon is now – one of the hottest properties at a certain level of football in England.
It’s hard to overstate just how impressive Hourihane’s been in the Championship for Barnsley this season but we’ve been following the guy for a few years now and everytime you get the feeling he’s hitting a certain plateau of how far he can go he finds another level to step up into. When he smacked a few goals and laid on a few assists in early season there was the usual talk of an Irish guy in form but there was this impression that he wouldn’t maintain that form; he’s actually gotten better and better, to the point now where it’s less of a streaky run of big goals and games and more his actual performance level.
He stood over a free-kick in a massive derby game at home to Leeds last weekend and just banged it over the wall past Rob Green in goal with the conviction of a footballer who knows his eye is in right now and that more or less everything he wants to do with the ball will come off. He’d another just as good direct freekick into the other top corner earlier in the season against QPR.
Only a few weeks back the ball popped up perfectly for him in the closing minutes away at Notts Forest and he smashed a looping volley over the keeper for the winner. Add in another top corner goal from outside the box against Norwich and that’s a fair collection of special strikes from his six league goals from midfield. Don’t forget the eleven assists – mainly from that dynamite left boot off free-kicks and corners, though there were a couple of really sweet defence-opening passes from open play too - and that’s an awfully important involvement ratio in the goals scored by his club so far this season.
He gets involved in pretty much every aspect of play. He averages over 50 passes a game which makes him the team’s playmaker and his completion percentage is over 80%.
He’s number three in the entire league for tackles made and in the top 20 for interceptions. It’s like Wes Hoolahan attacking stats only more dynamic and with a better strike of a ball mixed with a more aggressive Glenn Whelan and it's impossible to ignore how serious a midfielder he's become now.
If this makes it seem like it just happened for Hourihane across the water, well it’s not all been straight-forward and that’s why you wouldn’t back against him making yet another leap right now either. There were a few years of nothing at Sunderland and then Ipswich and if you were a betting man at the time you’d have fancied a few quid on him packing the bags for West Cork without making much of an impression in the English leagues.
He stuck with it though and there’s something in the way he’s approached it and learned lessons and constantly improved that’s particularly impressive. Hourihane went down to league two, knuckled down to the graft and different style of play necessary at that level and became club captain at just 21 years of age.
He’s followed that on to become Barnsley captain also and there’s clearly a leadership element to what he brings to a club and team. When he was red-carded twice in a short timeframe with Plymouth back in 2011/12 he targeted an improvement in his discipline; he’s not been sent off in the last four seasons.
He worked on bringing goals to his game after a fairly low strike rate early on with Plymouth.
His goal/assist chart for each season reads:
1/2 in 2011/12 in League Two; 5 /1 in 2012/13 in League two; 8/3 in 2013/14 in League Two.
Then the jump after the switch up a division:
12/13 League One with Barnsley in 2014/15; 10/13 in League One with Barnsley in 2015/16; 6/11 so far this year in the championship with Barnsley.
The sort of list that makes it pretty obvious what can be achieved by seriously targeting a particular aspect of play and actively working to make it more effective. Hourihane has spoken about the benefits of talking with sports psychologists and how important the mental side of the game has been to his breakthrough.
Aston Villa will post a different challenge now as regards expectation and the type of feeling towards the players around the club but Hourihane had definitely entered into can’t ignore territory for anyone looking for that type of skillset.
How he develops with them and potentially with Ireland over the next few years will be interesting, though as Conor Clifford’s story shows, he’s done a remarkable job to get where he has already.