The story of Conor Hourihane’s football career to date is one of mixed emotions. One that began with anguish and uncertainty, that has since flourished as the Irishman proved himself in the English Football League’s basement division, rather than returning home.
One that has seen the central midfielder rise up the footballing pyramid and now ply his trade in the top-flight, all while cementing his place in the national side. Much like a story, it has a happy ending – although of course, it hasn’t ended yet and at 28-years-old, you have to wonder if the best is yet to come. Premiership betting odds don’t favour his current club, Aston Villa, to do well this season, but as Hourihane can attest, who knows what’s around the corner.
You could say that Conor Hourihane is a late flourisher and to some extent, there are similarities between him and former Republic of Ireland international and attacking midfielder, Wes Hoolahan. While Hoolahan began his career in his native Dublin, he rose from the depths of obscurity with Shelbourne and Livingston, before transferring to the English Football League, surging from League One and the Championship to play Premier League football for Norwich City. The midfielder was 26-years-old when he signed for the Canaries and it was two years later that he saw his debut season in the top-flight.Embed from Getty Images
It’s almost as if Hourihane’s career mirrors that of Hoolahan and although Hourihane has always plied his trade in English Football, he too, made his Premier League debut in his late 20s at the age of 28.
After advancing through the youth system at Sunderland, but failing to make a first team appearance, Hourihane followed manager Roy Keane (who coincidentally is his idol) to Ipswich Town. It was a step-down in divisions, but still, Hourihane was unable to make his breakthrough and found himself released by the Suffolk club at the end of that season.
At the age of 20, he was a free agent, and without a first team appearance to his name, it could have been so different for Hourihane who could have quite easily dove into the depths of obscurity, or even packed football in for good. But thankfully there was someone willing to take a chance on him – Peter Reid, manager of Plymouth Argyle. The club were playing League Two football, following their points deduction for entering administration and consequential relegation – but Hourihane very quickly cemented his place in the side. It would be from the very basement of the Football League that Hourihane’s rise would begin. A firm favourite with fans, he was made Argyle’s captain for the 2012-13 season and the following campaign, featured in every single game in all competitions bar one, when he was suspended.
From here, his stock rose and League One’s Barnsley were fastest for his signature, signing the midfielder for £250,000. In his second season for the Tykes, Hourihane was made captain and was instrumental in the side that not only won the Football League Trophy, but also won the play-off final against Millwall to gain promotion to the Championship. Two-and-a-half seasons and 126 appearances later, Hourihane joined Aston Villa for a reported £3.15m.
Two months into his time at Villa Park and it appeared that Hourihane’s hard-work and determination to rise up the rankings had paid off – he was called up to the Republic of Ireland’s squad and made his international debut in a friendly against Iceland. From here, the Corkman has gone from strength-to-strength.
2019 has to be the highlight of Hourihane’s career to date. He was a key member of the Villa squad that gained promotion to the Premier League, chipping in with seven league goals and was recently rewarded with a three-year contract for his efforts. Despite netting a brace in Villa’s League Cup second round match against Crewe Alexandra, Hourihane’s only made two Premier League appearances for Dean Smith’s side this season, the latter resulting in just 19 minutes game time. With several matches consigned to the bench, there’s no doubt, he’ll push to make the starting XI. He has also earned his place in Ireland’s squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers, most recently featuring in the 1-1 draw against Switzerland.
Not bad for a man who wasn’t fancied 11 years age.