From signing for Aston Villa to making four appearances for the Republic of Ireland, 2017 was another year of progress for Bandon’s Conor Hourihane
CONOR Hourihane admits that he is never satisfied.
Even after the 12 months that he’s enjoyed, he wants more.
He is a perfectionist.
He uses words like ‘okay’ and ‘quietly pleased’ to describe the progress he has made at international and club level this past year.
Perhaps he is too hard on himself at times, but then again his mindset and determination is exactly why his career has been on a constant upward trajectory since he joined Plymouth in 2011.
That continued in 2017 when he swapped Barnsley for Aston Villa, the latest step-up in his career, with Villa, he feels, his ticket to the Premier League, while at international level he made his debut for the Republic of Ireland and added another three appearances after that to end the year with four caps.
Never satisfied, he wants more.
‘I have made okay progress with Ireland,’ he says.
‘This time last year I was just breaking into the squad and a year on I have four caps, which I can’t really complain about.
‘It was always going to be tough to break in halfway through a campaign with a settled team and a settled squad, so to get four caps is pleasing but unfortunately for us we didn’t qualify for the World Cup which is very disappointing still.
‘There will probably be a few lads retiring now so I feel the next campaign could be the one where I get to show what I can do.’
He made his international debut against Iceland in a friendly at the Aviva, played against Mexico in June, and then was a sub in the World Cup qualifiers against Serbia and Denmark, the latter being the 0-0 play-off stalemate in Copenhagen in November. That’s a total of 139 international minutes; he wants more in 2018.
‘At the very least I want to earn more minutes and show what I can do,’ the Bandon man said.
‘I feel I have my foot in the door and that I have done okay since I got in there.
‘Go back to the clubs I have been at, I’ve backed myself in every club I have been at and I will back myself at international level as well.
‘The caps I have are something to build on, my club form is my bread and butter and I want to keep improving from here to March and hopefully when the next international break comes I will look to get more minutes and more caps for Ireland.’
His club form with Villa this season has been steadily improving after a shaky start following his switch in January.
He didn’t have the confidence and the swagger he had at Barnsley, explained Villa boss Steve Bruce at the time.
At the end of the 2016/17 season he was in and out of the team, living in a hotel and a bit in awe of his new surroundings – but this midfielder with a sweet left foot soon acclimatised and, like he has always done at his recent clubs (Plymouth and Barnsley) he won everyone over.
‘It was a big step forward in my career moving to a club like Aston Villa,’ the 26-year-old explains.
‘Obviously they are in the same league as Barnsley but from a club point of view and an ambition point of view, it’s a different level altogether.
‘I started okay, I was in and out of the team, trying to find my feet, it was a big step for me moving to a big club.
‘When I first singed you’d notice that everything is bigger and better – the size of the stadium, the size of the training ground, the fan base. It took me a bit of time to soak it all in.
‘There were bigger names in the dressing-room to get to know. Now I see them as friends rather than just big names. When you get more comfortable with people and more comfortable with your surroundings, you feel at home and that brings the best out of you as a player.
‘Over the summer I worked hard, I wanted to come back and have a good pre-season and really cement my place in the team. Since I’ve come back I felt I have done that. It’s going well at the minute and I’m enjoying my football.’
What helped is that Hourihane hit a rich vein of form early in the season, scoring a hat-trick against Norwich that followed on from a goal against Reading and there was a brilliant free against Nottingham Forest too.
‘I felt I have done a lot of things well,’ he says.
‘Getting the right balance to my game early on in the season when we were playing 4-3-3 so I could push on up the field more and get into the box a bit more; that’s probably where my goals came from.
‘Now we are playing 4-4-1-1 so I can’t get into the box as much but it’s having the right balance, knowing when you are able to make that run into the box and also knowing when you shouldn’t.
‘I feel like my all-round game is okay but I am never satisfied.
‘I am always looking to improve, to get better, I work hard every day and I’m always looking for that extra inch, and I feel that more will come.
‘I want to get better, I want to improve and every single day and in every single game I try to do better. And I am sure that will come, too.’
Again, Hourihane is a perfectionist but he was like that too in his Douglas Hall days in the Cork Schoolboys League over a decade ago, leading by example back then as he still does today.
He wants to challenge himself to see how he reacts and, as he says, he backs himself to come out on top every time.
He was top man at Barnsley, a Wembley-winning hero at Oakwell, but he stepped out of his comfort zone to join Villa, a switch that could just as easily have sent him back down the ladder; he knows that.
‘Moving clubs is always a risk,’ he admits.
‘I felt I had reached my pinnacle at Barnsley, we won promotion from League One, we were doing okay in the Championship, I always work hard to improve myself and never be comfortable at the level that I am at.
‘When a club likes Aston Villa comes calling you can’t turn them down and I always back myself to be successful wherever I am. That’s been the case at the last three clubs I have been at. Even though I started off slowly it’s all coming together now and I feel that the only way is up.’
The next level above the Championship is the Premier League and Hourihane has his sights set on that, confident that Villa will be in the promotion mix next May, and he wants more international minutes and caps, too.
He’s never satisfied – and that’s exactly why he will move to the next level in the next 12 months.