Conor Hourihane interview: 'Carabao Cup final was big but there is no comparison to the play-offs'

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Conor Hourihane interview: 'Carabao Cup final was big but there is no comparison to the play-offs' - PA
Conor Hourihane interview: 'Carabao Cup final was big but there is no comparison to the play-offs' - PA

Conor Hourihane knows all about the pressure of the play-offs and, in his opinion, nothing beats it - not even a Carabao Cup final appearance against Manchester City.

Sheffield United will hope Hourihane can be their lucky charm over the two legs of their play-off semi-final against Nottingham Forest, given the midfielder’s record of reaching Wembley.

Hourihane has played in four play-off semi-finals for three different clubs to date and has reached the final on each occasion. He also got to Wembley for the Carabao Cup final with Aston Villa and he is in no doubt where the most pressure lies.

“You have to enjoy it as much as you can, but the whole thing’s just a pressure cooker,” said Hourihane. “You’ve got two legs, home and away, and they are always bouncing.

“I got to the Carabao Cup final with Villa, but that was no comparison to a play-off final or a semi-final because there’s so much on the line, on that one given day.

“I know the Carabao Cup is a major trophy, but you’ve got players in the Championship, or when I was in League One and got promoted, you’re trying to get to that next level that you may never have got to before. Money-wise, for your career, for your club, everything. There’s just always so much riding on it.”

Hourihane has reached the play-off final with Barnsley, twice with Villa, and while on loan at Swansea City, where he played under Steve Cooper, now in charge of Forest who Sheffield United entertain in Saturday’s semi-final first leg.

One man who does not need reminding of Hourihane’s impressive play-off record is his Blades manager Paul Heckingbottom, who was manager of the Barnsley team the 31-year-old Irishman captained in the 2016 League One final success against Millwall.

“The manager actually mentioned it (Hourihane’s play-off record) to me today because I’ve known Hecky since Barnsley, we actually got promoted together from League One,” said Hourihane.

“He let me go to Villa, so we’ve always kept in contact over the years and the lads here always tell me that he’s my old man and all that kind of stuff. So the manager’s well aware of it because we started together in the play-offs back in League One. I’m sure the players know as we all know each other’s history too.”

Hourihane offers Paul Heckingbottom experience and expert set-piece delivery - PA
Hourihane offers Paul Heckingbottom experience and expert set-piece delivery - PA

Having been promoted twice from his four play-off experiences, Hourihane is aiming to tip the balance in his direction this year.

“I know what it’s like to win and lose play-off finals,” said Hourihane. “The first target is obviously to get to the final, which won’t be easy, but obviously I’d love to get my record to 3-2 in my favour and, more importantly, it would be massive for the club and the fans.

“I don’t know what the secret is, but I’ve always had good players around me for one. A little bit of luck, we had the West Brom one with Villa that went to penalties, so it can be fine margins.”

Hourihane is on loan at Sheffield United until the end of the season, when his Villa deal will expire and he will be out of contract, and he and his family have already picked up the Yorkshire dialect from the club’s famous ‘chip butty’ song.

“My daughter loves it actually. It’s pretty catchy and she kept asking for a butty all of a sudden because of that song. I had to explain to her what a butty was,” said Hourihane. “It definitely gives you a good boost and a little tingle before a game because it’s really loud and the fans are really passionate, so it’s great.”

Hourihane scored a superb goal in the play-off semi-finals against West Bromwich Albion three years ago and would relish another crack at the Premier League, having made 30 top-flight appearances for Villa.

“That goal is definitely up there with my all-time favourites,” said Hourihane. “I didn’t start which I was disappointed about and Jack (Grealish) laid the ball off and a lot of frustration went into that shot. Whether it was going into the top corner, or the Holte End, I was just putting my foot through it and luckily enough it went in, and people still talk about it, which is great.

“That one’s up there, one against the Blues (Birmingham City) at home is always a nice one and probably my first Premier League goal as well which is something I always wanted to tick off, against Norwich away. Hopefully, I can add another big one to the collection.

“I always wanted to get to the Premier League and going up with Villa was so, so good. Special times, fond memories. Would I like to get back to the Premier League? Of course.”

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