Conor Hourihane chats to KIERAN McCARTHY about a challenging year
CONOR Hourihane has not had it all his own way these past few months.
It’s been a mixed bag.
He’s been in and out of the Aston Villa team since the start of the season. Yet, he’s still managed to keep his goals and assists tally edging upwards. Hourihane’s not made much of an impression at international level with the Republic of Ireland either. But he’s still an ever-present in the squad.
Like we said, it’s been mixed.
The Bandon man (27) is the first to acknowledge that his second half of 2018 hasn’t hit the heights of the first half.
The 1-0 Championship play-off final loss against Fulham at Wembley was a massive body-blow to Villa and Hourihane, who has never hid his desire to strut his stuff in the Premier League. That dream is on ice.
‘It’s been an up and down year and I’ve been in and out of the team,’ the Villa midfielder says.
‘Getting so close to the Premier League and missing out was a big disappointment for me personally. It’s where I have always wanted to go. Still do. To be honest, I didn’t see a stage like this coming where I’d be in and out of the team after the highs of last year, but this is part and parcel of it.
‘I hadn’t had a stage in my career yet where I’ve been in and out of a team and the results have been poor. Being in one game but losing and being out for the next one. I have been fortunate to play almost every single week for the last three, four years, but this is one of those stages where I just have to get back on the straight and narrow.’
Last season (2017/18), Hourihane hit double figures in league goals from midfield, 11 in total, started 43 games and was a sub in one. By mid-November this season, he was already a used sub on seven occasions. In and out of the side. It’s been hard to find his stride.
In previous seasons with Plymouth, Barnsley and his first full season with Villa, he was one of the first names on the team-sheet. That’s not the case this season, even though the last few weeks have seen him feature more regularly.
‘It’s been challenging alright,’ Hourihane agrees.
‘Over the last five years I’d probably have known that I’d be playing every single week.
‘I’ve been hugely fortunate with injuries; touch wood that will continue. I had a knee injury coming up to the play-off final but I didn’t miss a game. I got that sorted over the summer and was back for the pre-season.
‘I’d never had a patch like it before, it’s something new, but I am a true believer if you work hard and train hard then things will work out for you.’
Then in early October, the man who brought him to Villa, Steve Bruce, was sacked as manager after a dismal run of one win in ten games. In his place came former Brentford manager Dean Smith with John Terry (who played for Villa last season) as his assistant manager. A new manager with new ideas. Time to impress.
‘I’ve had a few changes in managers over the last five, six, seven years. It’s part of the job,’ Hourihane explains.
‘Bruce brought me to the club, he took us to the play-off final and we were so close to getting where everyone wanted to go. There are such fine margins in sport, and suddenly a few months after the play-off final, the manager is gone and another manager comes in.
‘Everyone has to prove themselves again, show what they can do. It’s a clean slate. But you have to train and work hard every single day no matter who the manager is. It’s up to yourself to work hard regardless.
‘You just have to get used to what the new manager wants too. Some managers will like you, some won’t. I think so far Dean Smith has been very good, he’s had an impact, he plays a good style of football too which is enjoyable.’
Smith’s style, in theory, should suit Hourihane. The Bandon man agrees.
‘They (Smith and Bruce) play the same formation but their managerial styles are completely different,’ he points out.
‘Dean just wants to dominate the ball, which is music to my ears. I just want to get on the ball and pass it about, and play that style of football. I’m looking forward to getting in the team and enjoying a run of games because when I’ve been on the bench, I’m watching on as the lads enjoy the style.’
Becoming a regular again in the Villa midfield, and scoring goals like his trademark free kicks against Blackburn and Derby County, should also help him in the international set-up, even though the Republic of Ireland have endured a terrible year with one win in 11 games. That awful run was enough to see the FAI part company with Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane in November, with Mick McCarthy slipping back into the hot-seat for a second stint.
Hourihane is looking to build on the eight senior caps he has to his name, having started four games and coming on as sub in the other four, but he’s yet to catch fire with the boys in green. To be fair, very few Irish players come out of 2018 looking good.
‘I always think that I got into the Ireland set-up through my club form – getting to the play-off final last season, finishing fourth in the league,’ Hourihane explains.
‘This past year, I have had a couple of run-outs for Ireland but not as many as I would have liked because I have been in and out of the Villa team and my form hasn’t been great. That’s the reason I haven’t got as a many minutes for Ireland as I would have liked to.
‘I have to take care of my club form first. Do that, Ireland will take care of itself and I should get more opportunities. I need to play regularly and show that the Villa team is better with me in it. I need to get in there for ten, 15, 20 games.’
So, as 2018 comes to a close, Hourihane is looking ahead to an improved 2019. ‘I have had lots of ups and downs in my career – but I have always had the drive and determination to get to the Premier League. I’ve had a setback in that regard, losing that play-off final last May, but I am still hungry to get there. Even more hungry. I am enjoying playing for Villa and hopefully we get to where we want to go,’ he said.