Conor Hourihane is long used to the constant comparisons to Roy Keane and he has no hesitation in sharing his fellow Corkman’s view that he had to break the Dublin monopoly to find his way up the Irish ladder.
“I’ll be brutally honest by saying there were a lot of Dublin lads in the Irish squads growing up,” he said.
“It was tough going. The training was always held in Dublin and it wasn’t easy getting there all the time.
“At the time I was thinking ‘there is a lot of Dublin lads here’ but they were probably strong at that point in the underage ranks.
“There are a couple still going around like Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady but a lot of them probably aren’t playing football anymore.
“Maybe they peaked at that time and we peaked at a different time. I’d prefer to be peaking now rather than back then.”
The self-imposed exile of Harry Arter and Declan Rice, coupled with the absence of injured James McCarthy, creates spaces in midfield for O’Neill to fill against Wales tonight. Hourihane is one of the main contenders for a first competitive start.
“I was very nervous making my debut in the friendly last year against Iceland, especially when the national anthem was played at the start,” he said.
“I thought ‘wow, I have finally got here’ and the game did pass me by. I learned from it, have five caps now, but want to make my mark to repay the faith Martin has showed in me over the last year or so.
“Having been on the bench in Cardiff last October when we beat Wales, I was close to the action so being involved in this one would be brilliant. The Welsh will be difficult opposition, however, because our captain at Villa, James Chester, will be leading them.”
Hourihane, 27, turned down Liverpool for Sunderland as a teenager, then found himself operating in the depths of the fourth division with Plymouth on his rocky road to the top.
All of his five caps have come in the past 18 months, his switch to Aston Villa finally triggering international honours.
The Bandon man didn’t play a minute of league football at either the Black Cats or Ipswich, where he worked under Keane both times.
His struggles led to him losing his place in the Ireland U21 squad. A proportion of the players who edged him out for places at international level have drifted to the margins, while he has dusted himself down to get back to the promised land of senior caps and the Premier League.
Last season, he almost achieved both, his competitive debut coming a year ago against Serbia before Villa were denied promotion by Fulham in the play-off final.
Hourihane says he’s delighted to see fellow Cork players David Meyler, John Egan, Alan Browne and Colin Doyle as colleagues in O’Neill’s fold. “Our squad spread all across the country,” he says.
“It’s great to see lads from other counties coming up. There are a lot of Cork lads in or around the squad now which is good. This is probably the first time there hasn’t been too many Dubs in the squad.”