'Conor Hourihane will continue to improve - he will play for Ireland soon'
Cork club Douglas Hall knew Hourihane was a special talent, writes Cian Tracey
When Conor Hourihane first arrived in Douglas Hall from Bandon AFC as a 14-year old, the club immediately recognised that they were going to be a mere stepping stone on his way to a bigger stage.
It doesn't always work like that, but Hourihane had something different about him - the kind of innate skill that coaches simply cannot teach.
Hourihane's reputation had already grown during his time with Bandon but when he joined Douglas Hall, his career path really started to accelerate.
"The move to us was really so that he would go on and play for Cork and then break into the Irish squad at school level," Douglas Hall's sectary Nick Swanton recalls.
"He had a fabulous left foot. He was honest and a very unassuming, quiet kind of guy. He played in the Kennedy Cup in 2005 with Cork. Then he was capped by Ireland at U-15 and U-16."
It wasn't long before the English clubs came calling and after going on trial with several top teams, there was one main reason why Hourihane opted for Sunderland over the rest.
Swanton explains: "There were a load of clubs looking at him. There was Liverpool, Chelsea, Sunderland, Celtic, Southampton and probably a few more as well.
"The swing at the end of the day was because Roy Keane was with Sunderland, that's why he signed for them. We're delighted for him and that's what we always wanted for him.
"Every kid that plays grassroots football, it's their dream really, to be moving up the ladder like that."
Although they are different kinds of midfielders, Swanton can see the similarities between Hourihane and Keane.
"When he arrived at the club, everyone knew it," he says of Hourihane's talent. "Everybody saw that there was something that bit special about Conor.
"He has this presence on the field, in the middle of the park. He was a midfield general. His passing was unbelievable - he had the finished product then with his left leg.
"He'd score goals from midfield. He could attack, he could defend, everything about his all round game as a 15-year old was unreal.
"You can teach fellas a lot of things but certain fellas just have the natural gift and Conor had that. His balance, his movement - something that you would strive to get your whole team to do but it just came natural to him."
Hourihane yesterday ended his successful three-year stint at Barnsley when he joined Aston Villa.
It's not every day that a west Cork native gets snapped up for a €3.5m transfer fee but no-one who has charted his progress from a young age is at all surprised by his development.
While Douglas Hall were disappointed to see Hourihane leave the club, they are proud to have played a role in getting him to where he always wanted to go.
"It was a stepping stone," Swanton explains. "We would always look at that. We opened up a whole new academy on the Hall about five or six years ago.
"We'd taken in 60 players and our aim was that they would play football at the level that they are capable of and that they have a smile on their face and are having fun.
"Anyone we bring in at that age, we hope they will go on to play at the highest level they are capable of playing."
The next step for Hourihane is to break into Martin O'Neill's squad. The 25-year-old has represented Ireland all the way through the age-grades, including eight caps for the U-21s, and Swanton believes that an senior call-up and cap is not too far away.
"I would think so, definitely," he enthuses. "In my eyes, we haven't seen the best of Conor yet. The best is yet to come. The higher level that he gets, he will continue to improve.
"He proved that this year when he moved from League One to the Championship. That's a big step. He has been immense this year.
"The goal he scored against Leeds the other night, it was a cracker. And very unassuming again.
"He's not one of these fellas who goes over celebrating or anything. He just gets on with the game.
"We'll be looking forward to seeing more of him and seeing his name in the bright lights in an Ireland shirt in the not too distant future."