I don’t expect the forthcoming season to be particularly enjoyable. Hopes of a playoff push at best are difficult to see. I believe that no matter the talent on the pitch, a poorly run club rarely prospers. However, in the face of adversity, opportunities do become available to those who have the will to force change. And one of those people could be Conor Hourihane.
I am a big fan of Hourihane. When Villa signed him from Barnsley, it seemed a fantastic bit of business. The transfer fee was respectable at just around £2.5 million and he was creating goals left right and centre, with 12 assists for the season by mid-January when he joined. I was genuinely excited.
The remainder of that 2016-17 season saw Hourihane become a regular in the Villa midfield but clearly still feeling his way into things. Looking anonymous in some games, there were fears that the weight of playing for a big club like Villa had struck yet again as it had for so many others.
However, the Irishman began the 2017-18 season on fire with four goals in the first four games, including a memorable hat-trick in a 4-2 victory over Norwich City. That feat saw him become the first midfielder in a Villa shirt to net a treble since David Platt in 1990. He would go onto to emulate Platt again by becoming our first midfielder since to score ten league goals in a season.
Detractors may point to the fact that, despite a total of eleven goals last year, his assists tally dried up with just two all season. However, this can be attributed to Bruce’s insistence on using Hourihane is a deeper lying role, negating his creative threat somewhat.
And that is probably the crux of the matter. Hourihane is clearly a player with class, yet he isn’t being utilised as effectively as he should be. At Oakwell, he was deployed in an advanced playmaker role, able to pull the strings and create chances with his excellent passing ability. At Villa, he has only played that role a handful of times. Noticeably, one of which was that match against Norwich.
With Jack Grealish’s departure simply inevitable, there is an opening for Hourihane to push further forward. There is a clamour for the Grealish-esque Callum O’Hare to step up as a replacement, but with the youngster out injured for another couple of months, that idea is on the backburner for a start. Plus, we have to remember that it took Grealish a few years to reach a consistent level; expecting O’Hare to simply come in and play at that sort of standard is unrealistic. Hourihane is a much more ready-made option.
This has to be a huge season for him. At 27 years of age, this is the stage of his career where there has to be certain expectations and demands of him. He can no longer be viewed as just a name on the teamsheet, and in fact, has to be looking to take on the responsibility to emerge as one of the leaders of this team.
With the spine of the team already in the process of being ripped apart, players like Hourihane are going to be crucial. The focus is all on Grealish, yet Hourihane is massively underrated in my opinion and has to be looking to build on what was a very promising season last year from his own point of view.
He has plenty of reason to do so. Hourihane is battling to break into the Ireland national team. Despite being called-up on several occasions by Martin O’Neill, there are currently just three caps to his name. Playing Premier League football would undoubtedly have helped his cause, but Hourihane will be encouraged knowing he is on the radar and on the cusp.
Of course, a huge stumbling block to all this is Bruce’s lack of willing to play Hourihane further forward. However, his hand may be forced with Grealish’s departure; There aren’t many other options. Henri Lansbury is a possibility, but I think he would more suit Hourihane’s deeper role from last season.
We’re lucky that Hourihane is currently under the radar somewhat and there isn’t more interest in him from other clubs. He’s a fantastic player and one I believed would be able to make the step up to Premier League football had we made it. His left foot is sublime and with Robert Snodgrass‘ departure, he should be firmly on dead ball duties; expect a few goals similar to his strike last season at Villa Park against Nottingham Forest.
He’s demonstrated that he can score and create. He also loves getting stuck into a tackle, although perhaps needs to watch his disciplinary record slightly. His defensive work was crucial to us at times last season. He doesn’t stop running and is always looking to make himself available.
He’s only ever improved since joining us. Whereas he’s been able to perhaps be slightly more comfortable in the shadow of others such as Grealish and Snodgrass, he will no longer have that barrier or, indeed the burden. I fully expect him to be one of our most important players this season and I’m confident he is up to the task.