By Alex Stevens

Aston Villa have been given “massive hope” in signing free-scoring Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane, according to a report.

The Sun claim that the Midlands giants are in the race to sign the central midfielder, who is out of contract next summer.

It is said that Villa and Hourihane’s other principal suitors Celtic and Rangers have been given considerable encouragement as the player has decided to reject contract talks with Barnsley at any point this season.

This raises the possibility that Barnsley could be forced to cash in on the former Republic of Ireland Under-21 international during the January window.

The Sun report that Villa have been keeping close tabs on Hourihane, 25, who has been the driving force behind Barnsley’s against-the-odds promotion bid.

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He has supplied a hugely impressive 10 assists and four goals in 20 Championship matches for Paul Heckingbottom’s side, who sit in 12th position, just six points behind the play-off spots.

The Tykes captain was also an integral figure in the Yorkshire club winning promotion via the play-offs last season.

Hourihane can move for nothing when his contract expires at the end of the season or sign a pre-contract deal with a foreign club such as the two Scottish giants in the upcoming winter window.

The central midfielder began his career at Sunderland before he made a name for himself at Plymouth Argyle in League Two, where he scored 16 goals and provided seven assists in 141 games.

The Cork-born midfielder then moved to Barnsley, where he has so far scored 29 goals and provided 43 assists in 127 appearances in all competitions and won promotion to the second tier in the process.

In other Aston Villa transfer news, the club have agreed a transfer that is set to be completed on 1 January.