Barnsley v Wigan Athletic: Conor Hourihane aims to crack coded message from Keane

Leading by example: Barnsleys Conor Hourihane celebrating scoring against Derby County and aiming to get back to his best form today. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
Leading by example: Barnsleys Conor Hourihane celebrating scoring against Derby County and aiming to get back to his best form today. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
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WHEN it comes to overcoming challenges, Conor Hourihane has shown himself to be rather proficient over the past year.

Few counterparts have had the measure of Barnsley’s talismanic captain in the middle of the park in a glorious past 12 months and even accounting for the fact that one of the greatest Premier League midfield operators has now stepped into the arena, do not expect Hourihane to shy away.

The unexpected test has arrived from someone whom Hourihane knows fairly well in Ireland No 2 Roy Keane.

The former Manchester United’s comments on a range of topics are box-office to some, while they make others bristle with indignation.

But rarely can they be ignored.

His typically forthright view in explaining that Hourihane failed to make the cut for the last provisional Ireland squad because he “needs to do more” may have raised the ire of many Barnsley supporters who have watched Hourihane hold court in a pretty exemplary 2016-17 thus far.

Never one to miss anything, Keane cited a couple of below-par performances by Hourihane for Barnsley as the reason behind Ireland’s thinking.

It was clearly done in the hope of drawing a positive reaction down the line from the Reds’ leader – while equally reminding him that he has not cracked it yet.

For Hourihane, who worked under fellow Cork man Keane in the early days of his career at Sunderland and Ipswich, it is a case of taking the comments on board, but not taking the bait and bleating.

Perhaps, if anything, it is just a reminder that nothing comes easy, even in the light of Hourihane’s stellar year.

Hourihane, watched by Keane and Ireland officials in games in losing causes against Brighton and Reading, said: “I have been disappointed not to get in the final squad, but I am sure it will come.

“I have spoken to players in the squad now and they went through a similar stage. I will take a few ‘baby steps’ to take a bigger step into the future.

“It would be a pinnacle for me to represent my country. There is a long stretch to the next international break and it is up to me to keep playing well for Barnsley and it is my bread and butter.

“I am sure they (Ireland) will be at a couple of games and keeping an eye on me.

“He (Keane) remembers me as a 16- to 19-year-old boy when I was not ready to play (Championship) football and he has watched me in one or two games over the last however many years and you cannot perform to your peak in every single game.

“Unluckily for me, it was those games where it did not go to plan for me and the team.

“It is one of those things. I am sure he will come to a game where I play well to my potential. You just need that little bit of luck.”

Keane’s coded message to Hourihane to maintain standards and not let them slip could easily apply to the Barnsley side per se, with an impressive opening third to the season being just a start, by definition and time parameters.

The main bulk of the campaign is still ahead and plenty can happen as Barnsley can vouch from their dramatic experiences last term.

In that tone, it will not be lost on some – and definitely not head coach Paul Heckingbottom – that the club are without a win in five home games since thumping Rotherham United 4-0 on August 27.

With back-to-back home matches with two away strugglers in Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest, it represents an opportune time to break the sequence.

Hourihane added: “We had a couple of good results at the start of the season at home and maybe the international break has come at a good time, so that we are refreshed and ready to go for the two home games.

“We beat QPR and Derby, who are good sides and maybe they did not show us a great deal of respect, but we have earned that now and it has probably made it tougher for us going into games as other teams are saying, ‘these actually aren’t half bad’.

“We must keep playing to the best of our ability and I am sure we will pick up more points.”

New Wigan manager and former Hull City player Warren Joyce, who recently replaced the axed Gary Caldwell, took advantage of the absence of a fixture last weekend to conduct extra training sessions to get to know his players and improve their fitness levels.