CONOR Hourihane has returned to Barnsley FC in a player/coach role.

The 33-year-old Irish midfielder has signed a multi-year contract, and is due to end his playing career at Oakwell in two years.

Hourihane played 135 Reds games between 2014 and 2017 and captained them to promotion in 2016, before moving on to Aston Villa, Swansea City, Sheffield United and Derby County.

He will be a first team coach, working under head coach Darrell Clarke and assistant Martin Devaney, with Jon Stead – assistant to previous head coach Neill Collins – also contracted to the club.

A free agent this summer after leaving promoted Derby, Hourihane and his agent – another popular former Barnsley midfielder in Brian Howard – have been discussing the move with the Reds for weeks, with Hourihane having several meetings with new boss Clarke.

Hourihane has been working part-time in the Reds academy for the last year with the under 14s and under 15s, while doing the same role at Villa.

He started 32 of Derby’s 46 league games last season, with five goals and eight assists.

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Hourihane told the club website: “To start the next phase of my career here, at a club I have such a history with is special to me and my family. I can’t wait to join Darrell’s coaching staff and to get back to playing on Oakwell too. It feels like I am home”

Clarke added: “This is an exciting day for all of us, having Conor’s experience around the building is going to be vitally important. With over 600 games under his belt at every level including the Premier League and internationally with Ireland, there is nothing that Conor has not seen in the game and this will make him a top coach and someone our young

squad can look to for guidance. The fact that he is also still going to be a player I can call upon makes this deal even sweeter. As soon we met last week, I knew this is someone who I would be delighted to welcome into my staff and onto my team, the hard work planning for pre- season is now firmly underway.”

Hourihane first joined the Reds almost exactly a decade ago in June 2014 after they had been relegated out of the Championship under Danny Wilson.

He arrived from Plymouth Argyle – then in League Two – where had played regularly, following short spells at Sunderland and Ipswich, and made an immediate impression.

The midfielder netted 14 goals in his first season then 11 in his second, which saw them go from bottom in December to winning both the EFL Trophy and League One play-offs.

Hourihane lifted the two trophies at Wembley, having taken over the captaincy from Alfie Mawson midway through the season.

He also impressed in the Championship before being sold to Aston Villa in January 2017, signing off for the Reds with a stunning long-range strike in a 3-2 home win over Leeds United.

He played in two Championship play-off finals for Villa, losing the first but winning the second in 2019 to reach the Premier League in which he played regularly the following season as well as the EFL Cup final loss to Manchester City.

But he was loaned back to the Championship for the next two campaigns to Swansea City – sending in the free-kick for the winning goal against Barnsley in the play-off semi-final, then losing in the final – and Sheffield United who were defeated in the play-off semis.

Hourihane then dropped down to League One with Derby County in 2022 and, after missing out on the play-offs on the final day a year ago, captained them to automatic promotion in April this year.

He made his international debut for the Republic of Ireland weeks after leaving the Reds in 2017 and made 36 appearances, scoring once, up until 2022. He never reached a major tournament, playing in play-offs for the 2018 World Cup and following Euros – scoring a penalty in a shoot-out loss to Slovakia in the latter.

After leaving Oakwell, he played against the Reds 11 times, scoring once against them for Villa in 2018.

He lost the first meeting at Villa Park weeks after the move from Barnsley but then won seven times, including in the Championship play-offs with Swansea.

His last two returns to Oakwell have brought losses with Derby County in the last two seasons.