CONOR Hourihane is three games away from becoming a Premier League footballer – but he is refusing to take his eye off the ball.
The Bandon man and Aston Villa, who finished fourth in the Championship, take on Middlesborough over two legs in the play-offs in the coming week, the first game away on Saturday evening and then home at Villa Park next Tuesday night.
Advance from this semi-final and Villa will compete in the Championship play-off final in Wembley on May 26th with the winner earning a spot in next season’s Premier League.
Hourihane has never made a secret of his desire to play at the top level and he is closer now than ever before to realising that dream.
‘I haven’t thought about how close we are to the Premier League, to be honest,’ Hourihane told The Southern Star.
‘There are such fine margins in this sport. One goal can turn it all.
‘Ultimately I want to play in the Premier League. I have worked tirelessly for it, the amount of hours that I put in that people don’t see, I’m never satisfied with where I am, I am always striving for more.
‘I am a true believer that hard work pays off, and whether that’s in the, hopefully, three games left in the season, we’ll have to wait and see. If we have to wait another little bit of time, we’ll wait and see. But I’m sure the hard work will pay off eventually.’
The West Cork man has hit double figures in the league again this season, scoring 11 goals in the Championship from midfield, including two in the last six games.
‘Goals are a big part of my game and 11 goals is a nice number for a midfielder to get,’ the 27-year-old Irish international said
‘I feel like I have left two or three after me throughout the course of the season so I could and should be on 13 or 14 goals.
‘Hopefully we’ll have three more games this season and I’ll be able to get a couple of more – because scoring goals is a big strength of mine.
‘I have always done it in the different leagues over the years. Goals make me stand out. I’ve hit double figures in another season with a good team in a good league.’
What’s helped Hourihane is Villa’s switch to a 4-3-3 and that allows him more freedom to get forward. Earlier in the season he was used more as a sitting midfielder alongside Glenn Whelan in a 4-4-2 but the change in formation allows him to be more of an attacking threat, and the goals have followed. What will also work in Hourihane’s favour is that he has experience of the play-offs from his time with Barnsley; he helped the Tykes win promotion from League 1 in 2016 through the play-offs, beating Millwall in the final at Wembley.
‘Going into this, it’s a benefit for me that I have experienced the play-offs before.
‘Obviously the difference is that this is a higher level and there are bigger clubs involved but the target is the same – promotion and winning at Wembley.
‘I know what the play-offs are about, the feel of them, what’s expected, so from that point of view I am at ease because the occasion won’t get to me.’
Any secret ingredient needed to negotiate the play-offs successfully?
‘You need a bit of luck, definitely,’ the former Bandon AFC and Douglas Hall starlet said.
‘If you go through the history of the play-offs, for some reason more often than not the team that finishes third don’t go up. Sometimes it’s the team that gets the momentum that goes all the way, the team that finishes sixth can have the wind at their backs – and that’s how it happened when I was at Barnsley. We finished sixth on the last day of the season and that momentum helped us all the way through then.
‘A lot of things need to go our way – we need to perform, we need to be clinical, we need to be defensively strong and we need a bit of luck too.
‘I have to say that we have the players that have been there and done it. We have experience, fellas who have played in the big games, that will work in our favour.’
Villa have lots of experience in the ranks from manager Steve Bruce to John Terry, Glenn Whelan, both Robert Snodgrass and James Chester won promotion through the play-offs with Hull City before, and they also have a goal-scoring midfielder in Hourihane.