Hourihane was willing to go back to the bottom. Now he's one step from the top

Wembley no longer holds any mystery for Conor Hourihane. There is no room for romance in this story.

Hourihane was willing to go back to the bottom. Now he's one step from the top

Wembley no longer holds any mystery for Conor Hourihane. There is no room for romance in this story.

The Premier League may once again be so tantalisingly close, but his journey to back-to-back Championship play-off finals with Aston Villa is no fairytale.

It is a long time since the Bandon ace was the sort to believe in such fantasies. Professional football can make a mockery of those who do.

Hourihane has been hardened by the game. He is 28 years old and in the prime of his life, so rather than allow himself be beaten down by knockbacks along the way, he has chiselled out a career through sheer force of will. And self-belief.

“You could see it from those early days in training,” his former Ipswich Town teammate Colin Healy begins. “What always stuck with me is that he was at the very top of the line with the fitness stuff and just as comfortable on the pitch with the ball.

“He didn’t seem to panic and I am not surprised at all with the way his way career has gone because of the kind of person he is. He was prepared to go down the levels to play, and it has worked out fantastically well for him.

"He was willing to stick with it, he backed his own ability and the way he plays sums him up as a person. He is honest, hard-working and talented.

“Even at a young age he was confident, things didn’t faze him. He had a lot going for him at that age but still, sometimes that isn’t enough.

"He had the professionalism. He’s a clever boy, he knows what he wants and how to do it, and it’s showing now.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s a Cork lad,” Healy laughs.

Hourihane still holds a love and passion for the game, but his joy is no longer innocent.

Andy Reid remembers the “young lad who was a very nice kid” at Sunderland, who then rejected the offer of a new deal to follow manager Roy Keane to Ipswich in the search of first-team football.

He wanted things fast, maybe a little too quickly.

“It’s great to see him show the strength of character after it didn’t work out for him and to come back stronger,” Reid continues.

“He’s turned into a smashing player and I always kept an eye on him when he went to Plymouth and Barnsley.”

Plymouth Argyle, where he became club captain at 22, was the making of the man. It is a place that can, and has, broken others.

It was there Hourihane ended up after deciding to quit Ipswich due to a lack of opportunity.

Others were ahead of him in the queue at Portman Road so, rather than wait patiently in line, he had no qualms about going to the very bottom to work his way up.

Quite literally.

Plymouth is the most southerly, and westerly, club in the English Football League. “We were living in a cocoon,” Ronan Murray, one of Hourihane’s close friends in the game, adds.

It was not the sort of place he imagined they would end up when they began their paths to becoming professionals as Ireland youth internationals at 14, wearing green side by side under the tutelage of the legendary figure of Vincent Butler, who worked with over 700 players during a 12-year spell in charge of the Under-15s and 16s.

“But I can still remember Conor, he had a lovely left foot, he stood out and was really gifted,” Butler adds.

At Plymouth, where Murray arrived on loan from Ipswich and lived next door in the same apartment complex, Hourihane was hardened.

Now with Sligo Rovers, the striker shudders at the memories of trips to places such as Accrington, Rochdale, Fleetwood, Morecambe and Scunthorpe.

“You could be seven hours on that bus for away games. It was torture,” he sighs, and not a hint of wistfulness.

“It could be a massive test of mental endurance. We could be away a Tuesday night, then by the time you get back it’s bright out, you’re then in training a few hours later and on the Saturday you have another game.

“People just see what’s on the field, sometimes people don’t make it even with that right attitude but Conor has and it’s great to see. Hopefully he’s playing Premier League next year because he will rise to the level again.

He is dedicated to his job, he realised what it took to make a career and was determined to be successful.

That even means putting his love of hurling, golf and, gasp, Club Orange, to one side during the season in order to maintain his peak physical condition.

“He never switches off from the football side of things, he has his head down for the whole season… that’s how you have to be if you want to make it,” says Murray.

“He is very focused in his diet and how he spends his time. You have to be boring to make it at the top level, it has to be done.”

Sentiments that former Ireland international Healy fully understands.

“They are sacrifices you have to make to play at the top level. Some people do it, some won’t. You have to be obsessed with the game.

The game has to come first because if it doesn’t then you get distracted and you fall away.

They are just some of the experiences that have shaped Hourihane to this point, and why he will not be blinded by the mystique of yet another appearance at the grand old home of English football.

Today’s play-off final with Derby County will be his fourth visit there since the £800 million redevelopment was completed in 2007.

Wembley has been the scene of agony and ecstasy.

It was a home away from home in 2016, as Hourihane helped Barnsley to promotion to the Championship via the League One play-off, just a month after walking up the steps to lift the Football League Trophy.

This time last year he suffered the pain of defeat to Fulham with the Premier League beckoning.

Righting those wrongs won’t be the culmination of Hourihane’s fairytale, rather the latest milestone in a career which he has been willing to take risks for the ultimate reward.

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