IT’S no surprise that Conor Hourihane isn’t content to make up the numbers in his first season as a Premier League footballer.
He’s determined to make an impact as Aston Villa return to the big time. Again, that’s not a shock to those who have followed the Bandon man’s rise from League 2 to the Premier League. His story is one of ups and downs. More lows than highs, he interjects. Hopefully more highs to come, with Hourihane and Villa kicking off their Premier League campaign away to Champions League runners-up Tottenham Hotspur this Saturday evening.
‘This is the chance to showcase myself against the best players in the world and in the best league in the world,’ the 28-year-old told The Southern Star.
‘Playing at this level is always something that I wanted to do, I’ve made no secret of that.
‘Now that I have got here, it’s not just about enjoying it, I want to make an impact as well and really test myself to see where I am at.’
Hourihane is West Cork’s first-ever Premier League footballer. He left these shores, and home in Bandon, when he was 16 years old. It’s been a hard slog at times. He dropped down to League 2 and Plymouth Argyle in 2011 to get games – and that’s where his rise through the leagues began.
After impressing with Plymouth where he was made captain, Barnsley in League 1 snapped him up in the summer of 2014. Hourihane shone there too, was made captain and led the Tykes to promotion to the Championship via the play-offs. Then Aston Villa came calling in January 2017. Each move was a step forward and a step closer to the Premier League. Now, after Villa’s Championship play-off final win in May, Hourihane’s there – he’s a Premier League footballer.
The hard work doesn’t stop now, he insists.
‘There have been some highs and lows – more lows than highs – along the way and you have to cherish the highs when they come along,’ explains Hourihane who picked up the Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star of the Month Award for May when he was home in Bandon recently.
‘It’s not about just taking part in the Premier League, I want to try and make an impact. This is something I have always wanted to do and I’m confident I’ll be able to do and hopefully it will go well over the season.
‘It’s a huge challenge. I’m not naïve going into this season thinking it will be easy, I know it’s going to be tough and that there will be really tough games against teams that will dominate the ball against us and the games will fly by. I’m looking forward to testing myself against these top teams.
‘It’s something I have always wanted to do. I really want to grab this opportunity with both hands like I have done at all the levels and really make the most of it.’
Hourihane’s made a big impact at Villa in two and a half seasons. He was rewarded with a new contract over the summer. Since he joined the midfielder has scored 21 times and has 16 assists in 111 appearances. Last season as Villa won promotion to the Premier League he proved his worth again, scoring seven goals and providing 11 assists. The secret to his success: hard work. More of the same is needed, he says.
‘Definitely, the Championship to the Premier League is a big, big leap,’ Hourihane admits.
‘I have always had that self-confidence and self-belief that I can play at the levels that I have played at and going into the Premier League it will be no different. I will go in there thinking that I can do it. I will work hard like I have over the years and I’m sure I’ll be alright.’
Villa spent big in the summer transfer market, splashing out well over £100 million on new recruits. Villa boss Dean Smith has also brought in new central midfielders including Douglas Luiz from Manchester City and Marvelous Nakamba. The battle to earn a starting spot has never been greater. Another challenge for Hourihane – but that’s what he likes.
Former Villa striker Darren Bent has backed the Bandon man to hold his own in the Villa midfield: ‘I believe he’ll probably start the season, I think he’s a bit more battle-tested. I don’t think it’s the end for Conor Hourihane because he was good last season. I just feel now there’s competition for places.’
Again, Hourihane won’t shirk the challenge. After signing his contract extension, he said: ‘I have worked tirelessly. I am one of those lads who is first in and last out every single day. I take huge pride in working hard every day and making the most of every day. That’s my secret – I always think that hard work gets you the rewards. Over the last five years I have left no stone unturned and done everything possible to reach a point like this.’
Now that he is a Premier League footballer, Hourihane wants to stay there.
‘It’s going to be a tough season, to stay up will be the ultimate goal and it would be great to get a solid season and kick on then next year. But first we have to earn the right to stay in the league,’ he says.
Given what we know about Hourihane and what we have seen from him in recent seasons, expect him to play an important role in Villa’s first campaign back in the Premier League.