CONOR Hourihane's quest to become a Premier League footballer begins this Saturday evening when Aston Villa kick off their Championship campaign at home to Hull City (live on Sky Sports).
The Bandon soccer star (26) has made no secret of his desire to play in the Premier League and he feels his decision to join Aston Villa last January moved him one step closer to realising that dream.
Villa, he believes, are his ticket to the top, and the bookies tend to agree, with Steve Bruce's side joint-favourites along with Middlesborough to win this season's Championship, even though the Villa finished 13th last time out.
Anything other than promotion, as Hourihane told The Southern Star last week, will be deemed a failure so the pressure is on to deliver in the new campaign.
In the summer transfer window Villa have opted to recruit experience with John Terry (36), Christopher Samba (33), Glenn Whelan (33) and Ahmed Elmohanady (29) all joining; astute business by Bruce as he bolsters his ranks and loads up on older and wiser heads ahead of the 46-game marathon.
For Hourihane, his first battle is to force his way into the starting 11. He's acknowledged that himself: âIt's going to be a bit different because Villa have a very big squad compared to some of the teams that I have been involved with before, so I need to put myself in a position where I'm in the team, or I might be in and out of the team, and ultimately I want to be involved in a successful side.'
Looking through Villa's midfield options highlights that Hourihane will need to bring his Barnsley form if he wants to get into this team.
The addition of his Republic of Ireland team-mate Glenn Whelan will strengthen the Villa midfield but it will also mean more competition for Hourihane, who is also battling with Henri Lansbury, Birkir Bjarnason, Mile Jedinak and Leandro Bacuna for a starting spot â but given the number of games in the season ahead, Hourihane will get his chance. It's up to him then to take it and show Bruce the form that saw him swoop for the former Barnsley captain back in the January transfer window.
After moving to Birmingham Hourihane feels more settled now with Villa and the spell from February to May has helped him adjust to life as a Villa player and we should see the best of him this season.
Hourihane has risen to all the challenges he has faced in the last few years, at Plymouth and Barnsley, and there's enough there to suggest he will do the same with a Villa team that is shaping up as genuine Championship contenders.
Solid at the back with the new pairing of John Terry and James Chester impressing in pre-season, and former Manchester United keeper Sam Johnstone in goal, Villa have plenty of midfield and attacking options, so a promotion-chasing team is in place.
And if Hourihane, a regular in the goals and assists columns and with that lethal left foot, can show the form that saw him singled out as one of the Championship's top players last season, Villa fans are in for a treat.