Conor Hourihane: I’ve had more tough days than good days

Glancing down at his notebook, the journalist prefaces his question for Conor Hourihane with what he believes is a statement of fact.

Conor Hourihane: I’ve had more tough days than good days

Glancing down at his notebook, the journalist prefaces his question for Conor Hourihane with what he believes is a statement of fact.

“You have 13 caps for Ireland and…” He gets no further.

“Fourteen,” corrects the Corkman, “but I’ll let you off with that one.”

Turns out the Aston Villa midfielder is one of those footballers who keeps an accurate count of all his career milestones: Goals, caps and games. “I am always on that one and it’s something that I pride myself on,” he confirms.

No surprise then that he is also well aware that his impressive goal in Aston Villa’s equally impressive 5-1 win against Norwich at the weekend means he now boasts the distinction of having scored in all four divisions in England.

“It’s something I wanted to do going into this season,” he reveals, “it had been mentioned to me a couple of times. It’s one that I wanted to tick off and get out of the way. So, it was nice to get it done early in the season and hopefully there’ll be a few more.”

That Hourihane began Villa’s top-flight return as a first-choice player, only to return to the bench before then regaining his starting place, is in keeping with a career which has seen the 28-year-old take a circuitous route to the top of his profession. And the hard yards he had to put in, from the very earliest stage, have taught him never to take anything for granted.

“I’m one that never rests on my laurels, I’m never satisfied,” he asserts. “I’m always hungry to do more and to improve. I say it to the lads all the time: you have to have that hunger, goal and vision to keep you motivated.

“I had a little bit of talent, maybe, but hard work has got me through the leagues to where I am now. I’ve made the absolute most of myself and will continue to do it. That was kind of hammered into me at home. My family has done it the hard way, always worked hard, so it’s something I pride myself on. You have to work hard or people pass you out.”

He has, of course, seen the opposite happen: young players with buckets of ability but who lacked the right attitude and application to make the most of their natural talent.

“Yeah, I wasn’t the most talented player in probably all the teams I’ve played in,” he suggests, reeling in the clubs and the years. “Plymouth, probably not. Barnsley, probably not. Going back to Douglas Hall, Bandon, Cork, everything. I probably wasn’t the most talented but I definitely worked the hardest.”

And where did that motivation from? His answer is candid.

Probably the fear of failure, and not making it, and having to go back home and being that nearly man. It’s still there now, even though I’m playing international level and playing in the Premier League. Still to this day, I’m always worried about that person behind me. That’s what drives me on every day.

For any serious, aspiring footballer who has faced, or will have to face, rejection and setback, Hourihane’s words should serve to inspire.

“I’ve failed loads of times,” he says. “It defines you as a character when you fail and how you bounce back.

“Some people kind of shrink and don’t fancy failing again. I’m not scared to fail again. And if I do, I’ll come back again.

“Rejections? I’d loads. It’s probably tougher when you’re younger, but support from family and friends around you (helps). And having that little bit of drive to want to achieve something, and never saying, you know, ‘I’m not going to make it’. Always having that self-belief (is key).

“I’ve had more tough days than good days in football, that’s for sure. So (that self-belief) is just something I’ve had in my armoury over the years. And it’s probably a fantastic one to have, as a lot of people can’t overcome the failures and the setbacks.”

While Hourihane came into the senior international set-up under Martin O’Neill, it’s only since Mick McCarthy has taken over that he has become one of Ireland’s go-to midfielders, indeed the only player to have started all the current manager’s games in charge, including the one-off experiment of playing as a left-back in the friendly against Bulgaria.

But it was his match-winning, free-kick goal against Georgia in the Euro 2020 qualifier at the Aviva Stadium back in March which really announced his arrival on the international stage and, with the return game up next in Tbilisi on Saturday, he’d dearly love to be able to deliver a repeat performance.

“I have always managed to score over the years and I was desperate to get the first one (for Ireland) out of the way,” he says. “It’s something I want to do moving forward, score more goals.

It’s something I have said quietly to myself, that I’d like to score more. One in 14 isn’t great, although earlier on I was only coming on so maybe it’s one in seven or eight starts, which isn’t too bad.

The last time Ireland were in Georgia, for a World Cup qualifier in September 2017, Hourihane was an unused substitute as the visitors were held to a 1-1 draw, despite taking an early lead through Shane Duffy’s first goal for his country. “I was on the bench when Duffy scored,” he recalls. “I was quite new to the squad. I was taking it all in.”

And a key lesson he learned is that, no matter if the group table suggests otherwise, the Georgians don’t play like underdogs.

“We got off to a great start and then they took control of the game, really,” he observes. “They looked like a very good side. Even when they came to the Aviva recently we only won 1-0 so we know it’s going to be a tough game. I don’t think Georgia get the credit they deserve. They always cause teams problems. Denmark went there last trip and they drew 0-0 which shows you how good they are, at home especially.

“It’s a tough place. If we were to get a positive result, it would be a big one for us.”

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