Thursday 12 December 2019

Hungry Hourihane does all he can to impress and get Villa game time

Conor Hourihane in action during Aston Villa training at Bodymoor Heath training ground, Birmingham, England. Photo: Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images
Conor Hourihane in action during Aston Villa training at Bodymoor Heath training ground, Birmingham, England. Photo: Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

There is an intensity about Conor Hourihane that is interwoven with his story.

The 28-year-old battled long and hard for his Premier League opportunity. He waited until his top-flight debut with Aston Villa last month to respond to a stranger on Twitter who had cast doubt on his ability to ever reach that level.

There would be nothing unusual about that apart from the fact the individual had mocked Hourihane all the way back in January 2014 when he was with Plymouth.

"Can I not dream?" was Hourihane's response at the time.

He had to sit on that for five-and-a-half years before being able to remind the individual in question that he'd got there.

Placed in that context, this arrival at the elite end of the game hasn't really gone to plan.

After playing 82 minutes of the season opener at Tottenham, he has dropped to the bench and Dean Smith has only turned to him twice in their subsequent five games.

It's clearly bothering Hourihane, yet he has responded impressively in a pair of EFL Cup outings.

After bagging two at Crewe in the previous round, he grabbed another and delivered a crucial assist in Wednesday's 3-1 win at Brighton. His tone afterwards suggested he felt he had made his point.

"It's been frustrating for myself from the start of the season," he said.

"Opportunities have come my way and it feels like I have been taking them. I can't really do too much more. At Spurs, I felt I played well. I came on at Palace and did well for 20 minutes. At Crewe, I scored a couple.

"At the weekend (he made a cameo against Arsenal), I could have won a penalty and could have changed the game. I don't really feel I could do too much more."

Hourihane operated in an advanced role against Brighton, and his CV shows he is comfortable breaking from midfield and adding an attacking threat.

The problem at Villa is they are well stocked in that department. In the charge to promotion from the Championship, Hourihane had to modify his game slightly when selected in a midfield with Jack Grealish and John McGinn.

It asked more of him defensively, and that wouldn't be his primary strength. Ireland boss Mick McCarthy has challenged him to press on too.

Villa spent big over the summer, with a £15m spend on Douglas Luiz and £11m on defensively minded Marvelous Nakamba.

Hourihane has been squeezed out, and it's in his nature to fight against it. He suggests that Smith is aware of his feelings.

"When I'm not playing then whoever is the manager I will go and knock on his door, don't worry about that," he says assuredly. "We have conversations.

"We got promoted and we always knew players would come into the squad. But I feel like I have been holding my own, whatever opportunity I have been getting.

"You have to work hard every single day because if you don't, people will pass you out so when you're not in the team, I do everything I can to improve and be ready."

Club matters are consuming the mind, but Hourihane did go out of the way to have a word with Shane Duffy as he left the pitch at the Amex Stadium.

He was also impressed by Aaron Connolly's contribution for Brighton, without going overboard.

"A good little player," said Hourihane, who has climbed the ladder to gain his Irish shirt and points out that senior results shouldn't be forgotten in the clamour around the U-21 team.

"We are doing alright ourselves at the minute, we're unbeaten," he said. "We've got some important games coming up."

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