Hard work brings Ireland's Conor Hourihane to brink of his biggest break
Corkman now just 90 minutes away from Premier League dream
It was late on Tuesday night when Conor Hourihane's mood was temporarily darkened by a query from a local reporter who asked if he had ever played at Wembley before.
"I've won there twice, I thought you might know that, no?" came the slightly snappy reply from the Corkman, who was otherwise in chirpy form after a night that represented another step forward in his career.
The 27-year-old has built himself up from the bottom and the heartbreak of rejection from Sunderland and Ipswich to a position where he is just 90 minutes away from a proper Premier League breakthrough.
He does share a Aston Villa dressing room with higher profile players. The peaks and troughs of John Terry's career are well known, while there may not be an appreciation of Hourihane's journey.
Steve Bruce has assembled a group of players with high-level experience, and it showed as they squeezed past Middlesbrough in a tense scoreless draw to set up a decider with Fulham on Saturday.
Hourihane (27) has yet to sample top-flight football, but he has tasted Wembley joy with Barnsley. He won there twice in 2016, with Johnstone's Paint Trophy success followed by a League One play-off final victory over Millwall.
That delighted his fan base back in Bandon, who took extra pride in the fact that he was the first man from West Cork to captain a side at the famous venue.
It's an experience that has prepared him for the pressure of this scenario, although the stakes have been raised higher again.
"Hopefully I can get the hat-trick," he grins. "Look, it helps. The play-off experience with Barnsley has helped me. The names here speak for themselves, the other lads, they've played in big games. This is probably one of the biggest campaigns I've been involved in. But that experience with Barnsley means I knew what was coming in the semi-final and I know what's coming in the final as well. It might give me an edge."
There was a pitch invasion at Villa Park after of the triumph over Middlesbrough, yet Bruce's savvy dressing room were guarded about getting caught up on it.
They noted Fulham players getting a chair lift off the pitch following their dramatic second leg with Derby and filed it away for motivation.
"That's been mentioned, don't worry," Hourihane says. "They celebrated like they won the league or something. All the best to them if they fancy themselves more than us because we'll be ready for it, that's for sure. We had calm celebrations in the dressing room. There's more business to do."
The influence of Terry has been significant. Hourihane feels it has served as inspiration for Jack Grealish to knuckle down and deliver on his potential.
And the £1.5m purchase is taking something from it too, even though a career total of over 300 appearances across spells at Plymouth, Barnsley and now Villa have opened his eyes to the vagaries of his trade.
What he has gleaned from Terry and other senior pros like Mile Jedinak and Glenn Whelan is the habits that keep a player in elite company consistently.
"These lads are fantastic," he stresses. "JT and Mile and people like that. You can learn so much off them. If you don't, then you're a silly, silly man. To have the opportunity to work with these lads has been fantastic, it's brought another string to my bow.
"It's how they conduct themselves every day. What they demand off people and what they demand of themselves, it drags people through. And it's brought the best out of players like Jack, being able to look up to someone like John. It's worked wonders for his game."
Hourihane has evolved too. He joined from Barnsley 18 months ago and the first six months were a difficult transition with Bruce trying to find the right characters for a dressing room that he has described as toxic. Aston Villa are a huge club - 40,000 fans were present for the Middlesbrough game - and it's a level of expectation above what Hourihane has encountered before.
He has contributed 11 goals from midfield and it's clear he has taken satisfaction from proving he is capable of making an input.
"I've probably done it the harder way to a lot of lads in that dressing room," he concedes. "I've come from the lower leagues all the way up. A lot of the others have been in the Premier League and at a high level and we've met in the middle here.
"I'm a firm believer that hard work pays off. I feel like I've had a good season, I've put in some good performances and added goals to my game as well. I feel like I'm starting to make my own way here, helping the team out in lots of ways. I'm pleased with what I'm doing.
"But we haven't achieved anything yet. You can't get too high with the highs, or too low with the lows. We're in the play-off final, but we've a lot to do. There's still 90 minutes to go. Maybe even 120 minutes and penalties, so there's a little bit to go until I get to the Premier League. Hopefully, that hard work will pay off."