Conor Hourihane’s first taste of competitive English football was a League Two draw between Plymouth Argyle and Shrewsbury Town at the compact New Meadow Stadium just shy of eight years ago. The attendance was 6,421.
The Cork midfielder had cut his ties with Premier League Sunderland, and with Ipswich Town, in an effort to kickstart his career in the lowest of the professional tiers. A tidy, clever ball player, it was his willingness to play that long game that finally paid off.
Hourihane was part of an Aston Villa team that secured promotion to the Premier League with a 2-1 defeat of Derby County at a packed Wembley on Monday and Keith Andrews is confident he has the tools to prosper at the very top.
“It’s great. I’m delighted for him,” said Andrews who was speaking at a Virgin Media event. “I’ve watched his career a lot, going to Plymouth and then I watched him closely at Barnsley. I felt he was a Roy of the Rovers type player, a Match of the Day type player, whereas now he’s becoming a complete player. The move to Villa has matured him so much as a player.
“Even playing the type of role he’s had to play. It was a toss of a coin between him and Glenn (Whelan) as to who would play the role because (John) McGinn and (Jack) Grealish like to play a little bit higher up.”
Andrews was impressed with how Hourihane curbed his instincts to play higher up the field in favour of a more responsible, deep-lying role against the Rams in one of English football’s most pressurised games.
The ability to score stunning goals from distance and from dead balls remains a potent weapon in his arsenal but added structure and positional sense has been wedded to an increased presence on the defensive side.
Andrews believes that the Cork man’s best position remains higher up the park, where he operated to good effect with Ireland back in March, with Jeff Hendrick and Whelan in behind. The next step for Hourihane will make for the greatest leap. Can he make it?
“Without a shadow of a doubt as in-possession is not a problem,” said Andrews who also had to bide his time and move clubs before earning regular top-flight football with Blackburn Rovers. “He’s so comfortable in possession, he finds passes, a different range of passes. The area of concern would be the defensive aspect because in that position you need to be tactically switched on, because a lot of teams counter attack in the Premier League and have serious pace. That’s something he will have to learn. I had a great angle at the game (on Monday).
At 28, Hourihane should be in his prime. Whelan, at 35, is past his but Andrews believes the former Stoke City player could still have a role to play next season, especially if Villa fail to bring in new personnel in that department.
“It depends on their financial power. They haven’t got someone in the squad like him and given his age, I presume he is great around the place.”
Andrews’ own focus turns now towards the upcoming Toulon tournament, where he will act as assistant manager to Stephen Kenny and his U21s as they face into games against Bahrain, China, and Mexico.
Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley criticised the decision to pick seven League of Ireland players for the event, given it has caused postponements to six SSE Airtricity League games as a result.
“You can’t have it both ways. You have players playing at that level ... it’s been a very open mind. Is League of Ireland, where is that in terms of League One, League Two, or Under 23? We’ve cast the net far and wide and people are in it on merit.
“You can’t have it both ways,” added Andrews. “You can’t have players playing (U21) football when you want. It’s a privilege for the players to play.
“It shows the good work that is going on at League of Ireland because it certainly wasn’t happening in the past.”