Last weekend, Conor Hourihane wrote himself into the history books, as well as becoming part of some fabled football trivia; name the, now eight, players to have scored in each of England’s top 4 divisions.
For those of you playing along, here comes the big reveal.
Incredibly, for such a select group of players, Hourihane has become the third man to join this list already during this season. Sheffield United duo Billy Sharp and John Lundstram both notched during the opening week back in August.
Journeyman Steve Claridge is, of course, present, as are fellow strikers Robert Earnshaw and Gary Hooper. Impressively, defender Steve Finnan also makes the list. And so does Jimmy Willis. Nope, I have absolutely zero recollection of Jimmy Willis playing for Leicester in the 1990s either. But it’s an impressive feat.
It is certainly something Hourihane can be proud of. I love this stat in particular because I think it says a great deal about the character of the player.
It’s a completion of a journey. From slogging it out in the depths of winter on the muddy and threadbare pitches of League Two to reach the riches of the promised land of the best league in the world. All through hard work and determination.
Villa fans have, quite often it has to be said, written Hourihane off. Being absolutely truthful, I’ve never understood that.
When we signed him from Barnsley back in January 2017, I had genuine excitement at having recruited both a creator and scorer of goals for just £2.5 million. It was peanuts for someone proven at Championship level. After all the money we had splurged on the likes of Ross McCormack, we had finally conducted a sensible bit of business.
Since his arrival, he’s hit patches of real form which have been punctuated by periods where he has, unfairly in my opinion, become a scapegoat for some poor results.
The criticism levelled towards Hourihane has ranged from a suggestion that he doesn’t put in enough effort to the idea that he shies away from a tackle, all the way through to the ridiculous notion that he ‘only’ scores or assists. I mean, how dare he.
I can’t say I’ve ever felt the Irishman not putting in a shift. And from his yellow cards record, currently standing at 62 in 352 career league appearances, I think he more than gets stuck into a challenge.
What we can say is that Hourihane is not a defensive midfielder. And occasionally, despite his efforts, there have been games which have passed him by where he hasn’t been able to influence things from that position.
So thank the lord we finally seem to be using him in a way that gets the best out of him. And whilst Dean Smith must take huge credit for that, Hourihane has kind of forced his hand by taking the chances that he’s been given.
Impressive showings in this season’s Carabao Cup have seen Hourihane really stake his claim for a starting place. As well as grabbing three goals in the first two rounds we’ve played in, his threatening play from a more advanced role has tied in perfectly with Smith’s requirement to tinker with his team selection.
Our midfield on paper looked good but something wasn’t quite right. Of course, both Jack Grealish and John McGinn were irreplaceable. And the availability of both Marvelous Nakamba or Douglas Luiz at the base of the trio made it tricky to work out the solution without changing formation
Hourihane’s presence has allowed a restructuring of Smith’s tactics and over the last couple of weeks though, and the balance of the team suddenly looks spot on. His involvement has so many positives that there is a real argument for Hourihane becoming the most important cog in this team.
Hourihane’s emergence has allowed Grealish to have a kind of free role on the left-hand side; a position where his heat map statistics suggested he was naturally drifting towards anyway. Our talisman is now playing further forward, which is something every Villa supporter has wanted to see all season so far.
This, in turn, has resulted in Wesley looking less isolated upfront. Grealish is now able to play much closer to him.
But Hourihane’s fitness is an underrated aspect of his game and he is also acting as another supporting feature for our Brazilian striker. This was highlighted by his willingness to get into the box and provide a pinpoint cross for Wesley’s second goal against Norwich.
Another benefit of Hourihane being on the pitch is that our options on the bench suddenly look more diverse. For our match against West Ham a few weeks ago, we had three centre midfielders as options to come on. That was a match that was crying out for an injection of creativity.
Trezeguet‘s suspension didn’t help that night. But with Grealish now occupying one of those wide positions, thanks to Hourihane’s involvement on the pitch, it means there is currently only room for one of Jota, Trezeguet or Anwar El Ghazi to play on the right. And that leaves two of them on the bench as options for a boost of flair if needed.
Personally, I couldn’t be happier for Hourihane right now. He has stepped up for us massively on several occasions with beautiful free kicks, screamers, and that absolute rocket in the first leg playoff against West Bromwich Albion was perhaps most important of all.
I also think there is much more to his game than just being a threat from set-pieces or rifling in ‘worldies’. He creates goals and his passing range is superb. But he works incredibly hard too. Maybe that goes under the radar playing alongside someone like John McGinn. But Hourihane’s work rate, for me, is undeniable.
Hopefully, we’ve seen the end of him being stifled in a defensive-minded position – again, well done Dean Smith for rectifying that before it was too late. And if he is allowed to continue to play his natural game, I believe he will really grow into his role and we’ll see his presence becoming more and more influential.
After battling his way through all four divisions, we should’ve known that Hourihane wasn’t going to settle for a place on the bench. The man is on a mission. And to be honest, we’re extremely lucky to have him.