Big Interview: Don’t go writing Conor Hourihane off – he's proved the doubters wrong before

Villa have proven themselves dangerous to write off in recent times and the same could easily be said of Conor Hourihane.

Conor Hourihane
Conor Hourihane

The Republic of Ireland international is now among the club’s longest-serving players and since he first arrived in January 2017 things have rarely been dull.

“It’s funny, I was saying to my old man the other day this place adds years to your career,” he smiles. “It is endless with this club.

“The amount of important games I have played in, play-off finals, semi-finals, a Carabao Cup final and matches to stay up in the Premier League. There is always an important thing around the corner.

“It’s been an interesting three-and-a-half years to put it mildly, but it has been great.”

The focus for Hourihane and his team-mates, currently in south Wales on a pre-season training camp, is very much ahead toward a new Premier League season already on the horizon.

Yet memories of a dramatic final day at West Ham less than a month ago still linger and the 29-year-old can be content in the knowledge he played a major role in helping Villa pull off the most remarkable of escapes.

Seven points adrift with just four matches left to play, Dean Smith’s team took eight from a possible 12 to survive by the skin of their teeth and while the headlines might have gone to others, it isn’t hard to make the argument that without Hourihane’s contribution, the club would now be preparing for a campaign in the Championship.

In a team struggling for attacking impetus, his expertise at set piece delivery proved pivotal. Of the seven goals Villa scored after the top flight restarted, Hourihane directly set-up four, while only the deftest of touches off the top of Tyrone Mings’ head denied him being credited with the assist for Trezeguet’s strike in the crucial 1-0 win over Arsenal.

The four consecutive matches he started at the end of the season was his best run of a debut Premier League campaign which he admits, from a personal perspective, was something of a disappointment. Yet not for the first time, when the heat was on, Hourihane found a way to deliver.

Aston Villa's Conor Hourihane scores

“There is always pressure playing for this club,” he says. “People demand so much from you all of the time because they are never satisfied.

“They always want more and that is a natural thing because it is such a big club. Some lads can handle that and some can’t.

“Since I’ve signed there have been a lot of lads who have just found it too big, if I am being honest with you.”

Former Villa boss Steve Bruce used to make a similar point and it is fair to say he found a strong-minded character in Hourihane.

A return of 28 goals in 128 appearances has ensured that, whatever happens now, the £1million Villa paid Barnsley for his services has long been proven money well spent.

There have been points along the journey, however, when it felt fair to wonder whether things would work out quite so well.

Hourihane found himself out of favour early in the 2017/18 season, before making his point in emphatic fashion with a hat-trick against Norwich.

Even more impressive was the reaction to the lowest point in his Villa career, a 2-0 derby defeat to Albion in which his substitution was sarcastically cheered by a section of supporters. Little more than three months later Hourihane was many observers’ pick for man-of-the-match as Villa won promotion to the Premier League at Wembley.

Perhaps the ability to bounce back stronger from disappointment should be no surprise. For a player who cut his teeth in the depths of League Two with Plymouth, the doubters have always been a driving force.

“People have written me off at all the levels I’ve played at, even at League Two and League One and then stepping up to the Championship,” he says. “There are always people who have looked and thought: ‘I’m not so sure about him’.

“Proving people wrong is just something I have liked to do over the course of my career. I always find it gives you great satisfaction and it certainly fires me up, privately.

“But I always want more. Was I happy with my season? No. Did I want to play more? Yes.

“Towards the end of the season I proved to myself and maybe others I was capable of playing in a run of games in the Premier League, so that was pleasing.

“It wasn’t until those last four games of the season I felt I was starting to get a bit of momentum.

“It was probably when I was at my most relaxed and fluid because I knew I was playing OK and I knew I was contributing. Prior to that I was struggling to get going.

“I am a firm believer in hard work paying off and that has been my motto throughout my career.

“After lockdown, I just wanted to go back as fit as possible and give myself the best chance of performing.

Aston Villa's Conor Hourihane celebrate

“I trained well and probably got the nod for the Sheffield United match from the way I came back and how fit I was. I just went from there, really.”

Hourihane turns 30 in February and with the Republic of Ireland still in with a chance of qualifying for next summer’s European Championships, he knows the next couple of years have the potential to be the biggest of his career.

For Villa the immediate aim is one of consolidation and having once more forced his way back into the team, Hourihane is in no mood to let things slip now.

The celebrations which greeted the club’s last day survival were warranted in the context of a campaign where many had already dismissed their chances, but a repeat next May would be unacceptable and Hourihane is not afraid to say it.

With Villa certain to strengthen again in the current window, the prospect of increased competition for places is not something which fazes Hourihane. Quite the opposite.

“We need more quality in the squad and there is no hiding away from that,” he says. “The club needs to take strides forward, there can be no looking back, 17th is not good enough for Aston Villa.

“We need to move forward because the club and the fans and everyone is craving that. There is an opportunity now in front of us and we need to take it.

“The club needs to keep moving forward, add quality and have a good solid season in the Premier League without being down and around the relegation battle.

“Anything after that is a bonus. I am not saying I would be satisfied with three or four places higher because I always want more, both for an individual and the team. I don’t think it is acceptable to be anywhere near the relegation zone this year.

“More quality is great to see coming through the door. It gives everyone a lift and it is down to people like myself, who have been here a while, to keep proving themselves, even though sometimes I think I don’t have much more proving to do because I always come back. Whatever happens, I’m sure I will be right in the mix.”

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