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Eamonn Sweeney: Respect any pro who makes it in England

Barnsley's Conor Hourihane lifts the Johnstone's Paint Trophy at Wembley Stadium Photo: PA
Barnsley's Conor Hourihane lifts the Johnstone's Paint Trophy at Wembley Stadium Photo: PA

Eamonn Sweeney

Not many Irish sportsmen have raised a trophy on foreign soil in front of almost 60,000 fans but that's what Conor Hourihane did this day last week when captaining Barnsley to a 3-2 victory over Oxford United in the final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy at Wembley.

The Bandon midfielder has gone from strength to strength since joining the Tykes from Plymouth Argyle in 2014: he won a League One Player of the Month award and was Barnsley's Player of the Year last term. He's followed up last season's impressive 14-goal haul from midfield with nine league goals so far this season. Only one midfielder has scored more, and Hourihane's ten assists rank him second in that category also.

Hourihane has shown considerable strength of character since being released by Ipswich Town without playing a first-team game four years ago. He bounced back to such effect at League Two Plymouth that it earned him a £250,000 move to Barnsley, and at only 25 it's probable that the Corkman will end up playing at a higher level.

I still think we underestimate how difficult it is to make it in the pro game in England. The reaction to Stephen Hunt's comments on the relative difficulty of professional soccer vis a vis Gaelic games suggested that some GAA players regard playing for their county as putting them on the same level as a player for Arsenal or Manchester United.

The reality is that, with players from all over the world trying to make it in England, carving out a niche in the professional game there is one of the most difficult things an Irish sportsman can strive to do. Hourihane's day in the limelight was a welcome reminder of not just his own achievement but the achievement of other Irish players shining in the English lower divisions. Former Bohemians striker Paddy Madden, who's been a prolific scorer in the past few seasons, has hit 18 league goals for Scunthorpe United in League One and Brendan Maloney, from the Kerry village of Beaufort, has been a regular at right-back for Northampton Town as they've walked away with the Division Two title.

Belittling the achievements of players like these doesn't reflect well on anyone. It's all sport in the end, something captured perfectly by Hourihane's, and my own, local paper The Southern Star, whose consistently excellent sports section illustrated its preview of the player's big day out with a photo of him holding the Sciath na Scol trophy he'd helped the Gaelscoil in Bandon win as an eight-year-old in 1999. It also included a generous contribution from Brian Hurley, who reckoned the Rebels might have won a couple of All-Ireland titles at underage level had Hourihane plumped for Gaelic football rather than soccer. "He'd dummy on his left or right and he'd be gone before you knew it, leaving you flat on your arse on the grass," said Hurley.

Now that's the true ecumenical sporting spirit.

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