Wednesday 13 December 2017

Hourihane aiming to enhance Rebels' roll of honour in Irish midfield

Conor Hourihane. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Conor Hourihane. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The 'People's Republic' of Cork has produced just a handful of midfielders for the Irish soccer team, and Roy Keane has a special link to two of them - Conor Hourihane and Liam Miller.

Keane, of course, casts a long shadow. He is the benchmark by which midfielders of any generation are measured, and by which they will continue to be measured in terms of inspiration and effectiveness for the Republic.

Conor Hourihane, 26, from Bandon, joins Miller, Keane and David Meyler as Cork-born engine room players who have represented their country since 2000.

It was Keane the manager who brought Miller from Manchester United to Sunderland in the summer of 2006.

A year later, his reputation and presence persuaded Hourihane (right) to join the Black Cats.

The Bandon native was just 16 and a combination of Keane's interest and the then chairman Niall Quinn's role at Sunderland clinched the decision, although Hourihane had also attracted the attention of Manchester United.

Later, when the Sunderland dream ended, Keane signed Hourihane for Ipswich. Their reunion did not last long as Keane parted company with the Tractor Boys six months after the player had joined the club.

Ten years later, after many adventures, including a risky spell of playing for Plymouth when no wages were being paid and the club looked likely to go out of business, Hourihane is again in Keane's orbit.

Read more: Georgia the only team on mind of O'Neill

The Aston Villa midfielder - he joined from Barnsley in January - has garnered enough attention to gain a place in the Irish squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Serbia.

Hourihane got game time and two caps in the friendly defeat to Iceland last March and then the 3-1 loss to Mexico in the USA last June.

That whetted his appetite for international soccer, and now that he has started the 2017-18 season in style by netting four goals for Villa, including a hat-trick against Wes Hoolahan's Norwich, Hourihane is determined to drive on from there.

Keane, the Irish assistant manager, is always on hand to offer advice or pointers towards improvement, but Hourihane knows it is up to himself to break into Martin O'Neill's side.

He has two caps; Keane won 67, Miller 21, and Meyler has 19 to date, so there's a long way to go for Hourihane to advance Cork's midfield reputation.

"Roy has been very good to me since day one when I came to England.

"I had him as manager at Sunderland and at Ipswich. He has been very welcoming every time I have been in this squad. Being a Cork man, he was a hero of mine growing up," said Hourihane.

Hourihane would love to emulate Keane by nailing down a regular spot in the Irish midfield.

His calling card is an eye for goal, and though his style is more creative than going 'crash, bang, wallop' through the opposition in a physical sense, the Villa player is tough and resilient.

Much of that stems from his realisation that he needed to drop to a lower level to get first-team football, which he did with Plymouth, only to get a bigger challenge than anticipated.

The uncompromisingly physical nature of the football was one thing, but playing without pay for five months was definitely not living the dream of professional soccer.

"Those things make you stronger and it stood me in good stead. I have been through a lot, but I'm grateful for where I am now."

Irish Independent

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