After 27 rounds of Championship fixtures, Brighton and Hove Albion are sitting on top of the log, with usual suspects Newcastle 2 points adrift in 2nd place.
The Magpies remain one of the favourites for the title in what seems like a 2-team race already and had led the pack for a while, but a slip in form towards the end of 2016 and at the beginning of the year saw them drop to 2nd place.
That was to a large extent caused by the 5-match ban of the division’s inarguably best midfielder Jonjo Shelvey. The 24-year-old has been Newcastle’s most integral player this season, and the team struggled in his absence, winning just 2 games and drawing 1, and it underlined a lack of quality depth within the midfield department of the Magpies.
None of Hayden and Colback were able to produce Shelvey-esque performances all through those trying times for Newcastle’s midfield, but a reported winter target of the club, Barnsley’s skipper Conor Hourihane, would have had no troubles filling in the England’s international shoes or excelling right alongside with him in deep midfield.
The Irish defensive midfielder helped lead his side to the Championship after they ran out League One winners last term, and he has called the shots ever since, with the Yorkshire team currently in a respectable 8th position and 4 points away from the playoff zone.
Newcastle looked like favourites to steal a march on many rivals for Hourihane’s services, but they didn’t quite pursue the interest as time went on, and Aston Villa have now signed the midfielder on a three-and-a-half-year deal as Steve Bruce plans to relaunch the club’s flagging promotion ambitions.
This has sure dealt a big blow on Newcastle, and they could likely regret not going all out for the signature of a player whose quality definitely ranks him in top 3 midfielders in the Championship. The dearth of such top quality available and willing to play at such a club has also been well highlighted, especially considering that Rafa Benitez is yet to make a single signing in the transfer window.
In 25 league appearances for Barnsley this season, Hourihane scored 6 goals and provided 11 assists – more than any other player in the league. Not even Shelvey comes close, and that is despite the Irish also playing in deep midfield and excelling in his defensive duties like the English midfielder.
In the Championship thus far, no midfielder has made more tackles and interceptions combined (140) than Conor Hourihane, and his offensive and defensive abilities could help inspire Villa to a spot in the playoff zone at the end of the season, but how much better would such a player be able to make Newcastle if a move for him were to be completed?
Despite the identical role he plays with Jonjo, there is no reason as to how both wouldn’t have been able to fit perfectly into Benitez’s starting XI if he was signed up.
He is definitely a Premier League material considering his standout qualities that include making key passes, playing long shots, lethal direct free-kicks, delivering dangerous set-pieces, tackling, blocking and intercepting the ball.
Newcastle would probably win the league at the end of the campaign, and thoughts of missing out on the former Plymouth Argyle midfielder would be quickly discarded, however, the squad would need someone of his calibre who is able to help them weather the storm and keep their Premier League status, finding another might just be hard, or it would cost “£89million”.