CONOR Hourihane has the potential to become a regular starter for the Republic of Ireland, insists Kevin Kilbane.
After a shaky start when he initially joined Aston Villa in January 2017, Hourihane – who turned 27 last Friday – has found his feet and become a central figure in Villa’s push for Premier League promotion this season.
Steve Bruce’s side are one point off the automatic promotion spots and former Ireland international Kilbane, who amassed 110 caps, feels Hourihane has the ability and eye for goal to build on his four Ireland caps from last year.
With seven goals and two assists this season, on top of his 29 goals during his spell at Barnsley previously, Hourihane guarantees goals from central midfield. He was also the most creative player in last season’s Championship, setting up 14 goals.
‘Ireland are crying out for a midfielder that can score goals,’ Kilbane pointed out.
‘We haven’t had one for a long time, we’ve had midfielders who can chip in now and again, but that’s largely down to how we played too, don’t forget. Under Trapattoni we essentially had two holding midfielders who weren’t prepared to get forward.
‘Under Martin O’Neill I think he does give one of the midfielders licence to get forward and support the forwards. That’s a position that Conor could fill and for him now, it’s about impressing.’
Bandon man Hourihane made four appearances for the Republic of Ireland last year, the last two in World Cup qualifiers against Serbia and Denmark, but to move from a sub to a starter takes time and consistency, Kilbane explains.
‘He needs to perform consistently over a period of time,’ he said.
‘He stepped up to League 1 with Barnsley, he has stepped up to the Championship with Villa – and every step up is difficult. You need to adjust to training and to the standard of players you are up against every weekend. It has taken him a relatively short period of time to adjust and now he is performing.
‘He is in the Irish squad now and he has to keep having an influence on games and scoring goals when Martin O’Neill or Roy Keane go to watch him – because then they will have to trust to put him into the starting 11.
‘Sometimes, you have to impress straightaway. It didn’t happen that way with me, when I first played it took me another year before I got a cap at competitive level.
‘Without wanting to put too much pressure on him, he has to show that he is good enough to make that step-up and when he does he has to perform; that’s basically how it goes.
‘Villa are in a position that they are almost primed to get back in the Premier League and for Conor, that’s the next step-up he wants. If it goes well he might be playing 30, 35 games at Premier League level.’
Kilbane has followed Hourihane’s career closely, watching him come up from League 2 with Plymouth, then League 1 with Barnsley and now Villa in the Championship, and he
likes what he sees.
‘Conor is a player that I admire more than most,’ he said.
‘He could have come home after it didn’t work out with Sunderland and Ipswich – but he had the balls to stay there and went to Plymouth instead.
‘He has worked his up way and the next step for him is to start playing Premier League football. It took time for him to adjust to playing for a big club like Aston Villa but now we are seeing him score goals and having an influence on games as well.
‘He is close now to a starting berth with the Irish squad. He has been around the squad, played in matches and the next step for him now is to get in the team and make the position his own.’