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Saturday 7 December 2019

Hourihane Premier class but is yet to show such ability in green jersey

Conor Hourihane. Photo: PA
Conor Hourihane. Photo: PA

The fact that the words came from a confidant, and not a critic, of Mick McCarthy, gave the comment even more weight.

You know the Conor Hourihane who strolls through Premier League games, scores goals and wins games for his club: where was that Conor Hourihane in Tbilisi?

The theory that there are two sides to the Cork-born player, a footballer who can influence games in the Premier League but who dons a cloak of anonymity on the international stage, emerged again in recent days.

Hourihane's ears were buzzing with praise after he delivered a superb performance, with a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win, for Aston Villa in Monday's defeat of Newcastle United.

The vanquished manager, Steve Bruce, praised "Conor and his two pieces of magic," while Hourihane's current boss mentioned his "wand of a left foot".

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But apart from the home win over Georgia in the qualifiers, where he scored the only goal of the game from a set-piece against a backdrop of tennis balls thrown from the stands, Hourihane has not scored, or really influenced a game, for Ireland.

The man who played in every minute of three of the first four games in the Euro 2020 qualifiers has become more withdrawn: replaced after 73 minutes in the 0-0 draw away to Georgia, left on the bench for the defeat in Switzerland, subbed off with 22 minutes to play at home to Denmark, a game Ireland needed to win.

Hourihane admits that he "froze" on the occasion of his senior Ireland debut, a grim 1-0 loss at home to Iceland in a 2017 friendly ("maybe it was a little bit big for me"), but feels that, over time, he got to grips with senior international football.

"It's still quite new to me, I am still finding my feet. I feel like I have done well in some games, ok in other games but overall I am making my way in it, slowly," Hourihane said before the key game in Tbilisi, where failure to win effectively doomed Ireland to a play-off.

Hourihane was (by far) not the only Irish player to struggle that day but he was so off-colour in Georgia that McCarthy dumped him to the bench for the game in Geneva. And left him there.

UEFA's stats make grim reading for Hourihane. Using a vast amount of data, their FedEx Performance Zone ranks players based on how they contribute, in their specific position, to the national team.

UEFA's algorithm puts Hourihane in 662nd place on the list of players who appeared in the Euro qualifiers: way, way behind group stage rivals like Granit Xhaka (20) and Christian Eriksen (65) and even future opponent Marek Hamsik (90).

Based on his passing, crosses, assists and goals scored, Hourihane got 261 points from the UEFA system, Eriksen had 968 points. The little-known Slovak midfielder Albert Rusnak, likely to do battle with Hourihane (if selected) next March, had 651 points, more than twice Hourihane's tally. Hourihane is clearly able to play at Premier League level but cannot impose himself on the game as much when the green shirt is donned.

It's a feeling which Matt Doherty also had, as it took until the 1-1 draw at home to Denmark last week for Doherty to look truly at home in an Ireland shirt, though his cause was not helped by a personality clash with McCarthy's predecessor. (Doherty revealed that Martin O'Neill called him a "tosser" in a heated phone conversation after O'Neill's exit.)

Hourihane has shown resilience in being where he is, as his career in England was close to an end, when he was released by Ipswich in 2011, and he had to start at the bottom: in England's fourth tier, with Plymouth Argyle, before earning a passage to the Premier League.

He has also faced hurdles at Villa: despite playing well in a league win at home to Brighton he was dropped the following week.

"Conor wasn't happy when I left him out of the game against Manchester City away and I understand why, and he's answered me back in the best way," Villa manager Smith said after Monday's game.

Mick McCarthy is still awaiting a similar response from Hourihane.

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