It’s a summer of uncertainty for Conor Hourihane as he looks set for an Aston Villa exit but his options are not as wide as you would expect for a player who arrived earlier this year in Swansea as the man to make a difference and left as a huge disappointment for us.
He has been linked with a move to Sheffield United but nothing is concrete and there are a few rumblings but nothing more it seems than the usual “try and drum up interest” in a player who is in the last year of a contract and facing an uncertain future.
It was so different twelve months ago as he started both of Villa’s opening Premier League games last season but they signed Ross Barkley, beat Liverpool 7-2 at Villa Park and it was never the same for the Irish international again.
“We’d played two, won two, and Conor had come off in both games. We signed Ross (Barkley), and I felt we needed to go a different way against Liverpool, given who we were playing against,” said manager Dean Smith
“I explained that to Conor, and, yes, he was disappointed because he had been involved in the first two games, but we felt we’d brought in a real, high-calibre, different type of player.”
With his time on the pitch at Villa limited at best a January move was welcomed and when the chance to join Swansea came around, Hourihane jumped on it and signed up at the Liberty as we looked to push on for a place in the Premier League.
The signing, for us, was designed to be a pivotal point in the season. In fairness, that is what it proved to be but possibly not in the way that any of us envisaged back in January when he put pen to paper. Quite simply, he was a man who never lived up to expectation and certainly never gave us what we hoped.
The words he delivered shortly after signing excited everyone “I am desperate to play, I could have sat around at Villa for the rest of the season, but I want to play. I hope I can bring some experience as I have had a couple of promotions in my career,” he told the official site after one of his early training sessions.
“But I want to add quality too, in terms of goals and assists my numbers have been pretty good in seasons where I have played, so I hope I can bring that here.
“The lads have put themselves in a great position, it’s going to be a fantastic run-in and I hope I can help them along over the second half of the season and achieve what we all want to achieve.
“I am excited by the challenge, and I want to come down here and achieve.
“I wanted to get out there and have another challenge, I want to be part of something. I want to cement the side high up the table and try and provide a bit extra over the rest of the season.”
It all sounded good and the early signs were even better as Hourihane added goals, assists and a dead ball option that we didn’t have available. Even Matt Grimes was back amongst the goals as Hourihane’s presence gave him extra space in the midfield and it looked as if this could be the signing that propelled us towards the Premier League.
But that was as good as it got in those early weeks. I maintain a belief that Hourihane would have been better in a Sigurdsson type role but that role simply didn’t have a place in a Steve Cooper side. He took up a spot in midfield where he was no better than the other options we had available. In fact you could argue he was worse as his work rate was not there and the midfield was becoming lightweight and this was exposing the backline.
Cooper was in a dilemma. He simply couldn’t – or at least didn’t want to – drop Hourihane. He had signed him for the club on good money and whether he wasn’t allowed to or maybe he didn’t want to lose face but he persisted in picking him. And every time he picked him he seemed to try and make changes around the rest of the team to see if he could get the lucky solution he stumbled across last season when he tried a wing back formation.
It didn’t happen though. Hourihane’s performances were going backwards, the assists, the goals and even the set plays had dried up and the Swans were weaker for it. We could all see that he needed dropping bit it wasn’t happening. There were players on the sidelines and the bench who deserved a chance but they weren’t getting it, Cooper was reluctant to drop the man he pinned his hopes on and that meant he was fast running out of options. Given he was always playing Lowe, Ayew and Grimes as well there wasn’t much rotation and the likes of Routledge, Smith, Cullen and others were sidelined and left with the occasional performance.
Through no fault of his own Hourihane had upset the balance of the team and the man signed to drive us onto promotion was having the opposite effect as Cooper tried to shoehorn him into a side that simply he didn’t fit into.
Hourihane is a better player than Swansea City saw. I have little doubt of that. However he needs to be a player in the right team playing the right style where he can be in the right position. At Swansea City that wasn’t for him, wrong style, wrong position and wrong formation. In hindsight maybe we could have seen it in January before he signed but we didn’t.
It was a shame given the investment in him but whilst Morgan Gibbs-White was an example of Cooper finding the right player, Hourihane was an example of him finding the completely wrong one but seemingly too stubborn to accept it.
In the play off semi finals against Barnsley a glance at the Barnsley forums and social media accounts told you what you needed to know – Hourihane was a shadow of the player they had seen on loan and it is always sad to see a good player become the player mentioned with statements like that.
At 30 years old there is time left in his career. He remains an international footballer and there could be a major finals in him but a move from Villa is essential and he has to get back the form that I think he is more than capable of. The move to Swansea was not good for him or us but with the right move to the right club, there could be some good things to come from Conor just yet. Maybe.