Last Thursday, Steve Bruce celebrated one year in charge of Aston Villa. It's been an exhausting, bewildering but somewhat promising year for a club that has endured so many dark days in the last three years.
After being relegated from the Premier League in 2016 having accrued a paltry 17 points over 38 games, the Villa squad required major surgery amid a period of turbulence, uncertainty and deep soul-searching.
It quickly became evident, however, that their decision to task new coach Robert Di Matteo with rebuilding and putting the club on an upward trajectory once more was a grave error.
He was sacked after just one win in 12 games and replaced by Bruce. As a battle-hardened Championship warhorse, Bruce was much more adequately equipped to achieve the club's ambitions.
After avoiding what would have been a disastrous relegation to League One, Bruce has steadily gone about improving the squad, getting rid of deadwood and sharpening up their act.
Villa are seventh in the Championship and fans are tentatively harbouring hopes of seeing a genuine push for the play-off places. Key to that success will be Villa's triumvirate of Irishmen in midfield: Scott Hogan, Glenn Whelan and Conor Hourihane.
And while the contributions of Hogan and Whelan are not to be discredited – although Hogan has struggled with form lately – it's Hourihane who has captured the imagination most this season.
WHELAN HAS FREED HOURIHANE
After playing a critical role in Barnsley's remarkable turnaround from League One strugglers to being promoted to the Championship, the south Yorkshire side's captain continued to impress and was signed by Villa in January.
However, arriving alongside Henri Lansbury in an eye-catching double swoop by Villa, Hourihane struggled to harness the heightened expectations, scoring only once in 17 appearances. Bruce admitted that the Republic of Ireland international had found it difficult replicating his superb form for Barnsley on a consistent basis for his new employers.
Deployed alongside the hard-tackling Mile Jedinak behind the more advanced Lansbury in midfield, Hourihane struggled to influence the game high up the pitch, which is his natural game.
However, the signing of his compatriot Whelan was key in unleashing a newfound confidence and freedom. With Whelan sitting in front of the defence as a dedicated, deep-lying ball-winner, Hourihane was freed up.
Hourihane himself acknowledged that Whelan, 33, is the archetypal team player who excels in the more gritty and tenacious midfield departments. With the former Stoke City man there to shield the defence, Hourihane felt unshackled and ready to make an impression.
“He sits in there, does the dog work for lads like myself, and goes under the radar,” Hourihane said via the Birmingham Mail. “Over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a bit of joy from it. So Glenn bringing that bit of stability has been good for me personally.”
It has worked wonderfully well. Hourihane has five goals already this season, including a superb hat-trick against Norwich City in August. The second of his treble against the Canaries showed the effects of having Whelan as the deeper operator.
In the screenshots below, you can see, at the start of a Villa attack, Whelan is parked in the centre circle and has no intention of making a foray forward.
Because of this, Hourihane moves into space in front of the Norwich penalty area and calls for Ahmed Elmohamady to pass. The Egyptian finds Hourihane in a pocket of space in which he hurts the Canaries, shifting the ball onto his left foot and firing a low drive into the corner.
Hourihane's third came from an almost identical position outside the box, scoring via a deflection.
His first was slightly different, attacking space in the penalty area during a counter like a centre-forward. As you can see, with Keinan Davis doing fine work on the right, Hourihane slips in behind the Norwich defender to give himself an easy goalscoring opportunity. Such attacking intent, drive and instinct must have delighted his manager.
As well as the hat-trick, Hourihane scored a few days earlier in the defeat to Reading and also struck the winner against Nottingham Forest, a brilliant 25-yard free-kick to clinch three huge points.
The 26-year-old's form has seen him emerge as a Brighton & Hove Albion transfer target in recent weeks. With his creativity and attacking threat, it's not hard to see why Seagulls boss Chris Hughton would be keen to add him to his squad.
He boasts an 82 per cent passing success rate while averaging 1.5 key passes per game, so it's not hard to identify Hourihane's influence on this Villa team. Of Bruce's regular starters, only the excellent Elmohamady has a higher WhoScored rating, edging Hourihane's 7.25 with 7.29.
Hourihane is a metronomic presence in the middle, though, averaging 46 passes per game. Whelan has slightly more with 50 per game, but Hourihane's tend to be more progressive and penetrative, creating 17 chances overall.
Below is Hourihane's pass map against Norwich, as per Squawka, illustrating a range of passing all over the pitch.
Hourihane is an honest, hard-working professional. Although his hat-trick has been used a springboard to brighter times in a Villa shirt, he is keeping his feet firmly on the ground as he focuses on continuing his improvement.
“I like to score goals and influence the game so the way it has gone so far is quietly pleasing,” he said.
“To have five this early in the season is good. But I feel I could probably have had a couple more if I am being hard on myself but five, for now, is not bad.”
Villa fans would have been heartened to hear Bruce rubbish rumours of a potential Hourihane move to the Premier League. The coach said he is keen to keep his team intact as they jostle for the promotion places, and you get the sense that Hourihane is going to be essential in the claret-and-blue charge this season.