Conor Hourihane looks to add goal threat to Ireland

We’re just seven years shy of a century since a side representing the 26 counties first played international football and in all that time, only one midfielder has broken double figures when it comes to scoring goals.

So take a bow Gerry Daly, the Cabra man whose 12-club career across almost two decades from the early 70s took in everything from a few years with Manchester United to a pair of spells with the New England Tea Men and an end note at Telford United.

Daly hit the net 13 times for his country in just 48 games. That’s even more impressive when put in context. The 16 midfielders named in Martin O’Neill’s current squad, for example, have managed 27 between them on the back of a combined 470 caps.

Of those, Robbie Brady’s percentages stand up to most scrutiny with seven in 34 games. James McClean, too. The West Bromwich Albion wide man has claimed nine in 51. And both have netted in games of serious import.

But the fact is that midfielders with a regular eye for goal have been few and far between in green. Even the greats, including Giles, Brady, and Keane, have returned modest enough totals so the elevation of Conor Hourihane to the senior squad is very much welcomed.

Let’s not put too much pressure on the lad, of course.

He’s only earned two caps, in friendlies against Iceland and Mexico, so far but his poaching abilities persuaded Aston Villa to part with a sizable, though undisclosed, wad of cash when bringing him to Birmingham from Barnsley back in January.

“There’s been a big thing about the midfielders at Villa for the last maybe five or six years not getting enough goals,” Hourihane explained. “Maybe one of the reasons I got offered the chance to go to the club was for that reason.”

Hourihane had been scoring at a rate of one every 3.8 games at Oakwell but managed just the one in 17 appearances for the Villans in the second-half of last season. Manager Steve Bruce said recently that it just took him time to come to grips with his new club’s stature.

The Bandon man doesn’t disagree.

“It took me a little while. I probably didn’t realise the size of club until I got there. Obviously I knew the history: they won the European Cup. Fantastic history, fantastic club. I’ve realised that now. Worked hard in pre-season and came back and started well.” He has that. His ratio this campaign is four in five games, three of them coming in the 4-2 defeat of Norwich City at Carrow Road earlier this month. It was a first career hat-trick and it gave Villa their first win of the Championship season.

His potential worth to his country goes without saying. Martin O’Neill spoke again yesterday about Ireland being far from the type of side to go crazy in the ‘goals for’ column and Hourihane is a player who has learned to be “a bit more selfish” from 20-30 yards out.

Brought over to Sunderland as a teenager by Roy Keane, he followed his countyman to Ipswich Town, but it took a voluntary slide down the league ladder to Plymouth Argyle before he found his feet in the English game.

Made captain despite his youth, he impressed even during the months when the club was unable to pay the player’s wages. Between that and “tough games on Tuesday nights in cold weather and in poor conditions” he learned the game the hard way.

“Obviously I had been turned away at a couple of clubs but I was determined to get back up and show people what I was all about. I didn’t want to pack my bags and head back home to Ireland. That was never in my thoughts.

“Sometimes people can be late developers and I feel that I am that a little bit. I’m looking to keep moving forward and I am at a club now that ultimately should be in the Premier League and hopefully that could be my ticket to the Premier League.”

Heaven knows Ireland could do with more of his type playing top-tier football and, if his involvement in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Serbia is a long shot, then the longer game looks positive.

Keane never forgot him after they both left Ipswich.

The Irish assistant manager texted Hourihane when he featured in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and League One play-off finals at Wembley with Barnsley in 2016, and has been a reassuring presence on international weeks.

“Roy always has little bits and pieces to say to myself,” says Hourihane who looked up to Keane as a hero figure in his youth. “Maybe he looks out for the Cork lads a little bit more. Maybe he has a soft spot for us.

“You can always have a chat with him and ask him little bits and pieces. Listen, he is one of the best midfielders to have ever played in the Premier League so if you can’t pick something up off Roy Keane, then you won’t pick something up off anyone.”


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