Conor Hourihane: The man who always knew he could

“I used to be raving about him.” Tony O’Leary coached Conor Hourihane for nearly six years.

“There was this older gentleman who was the president of the club at the time and I’d always be telling him that he needs to come up and watch this young fella here. I said he’s very good. ‘He has a chance, like’, that’s what I told him.  

“So he came up anyway one day and I saw him at the game but, in the first half, Conor was shocking. He was shocking. He just couldn’t do anything.

“So your man comes down to me at half time and he says, ‘what are you talking to me about that fucking young fella for? He’s useless. He’s lazy. He’s everything.’

“So I go back over to the team and pull him aside and I say, ‘Conor, do you see that man up there?’ Conor looks up and he says, ‘ah yeah, yeah, I know him.’ I say to him, ‘he’s just after telling me you’re useless. Now, would ye ever go out there and prove to him that you’re not useless?’

“Anyway. We won 5-0. Conor scored five goals in the second half.”

The last thing Tony O’Leary remembers was the sight of that same gentleman ducking out the gate before the end of the match.

Over the next 15 years, there might’ve been other opportunities to reason that Conor Hourihane wouldn’t ‘make it’. Maybe when Roy Keane left Sunderland, brought the midfielder to Ipswich with him and, still, never gave him a game there either. Maybe when he was released by Ipswich and thought he was going home to Cork before a League 2 lifeline was thrown at him by Plymouth Argyle who’d entered administration four months previously.

At Bandon AFC though, they always knew he had the stuff. And it didn’t take Peter Reid long to spot it.

The story goes that it was a chance trial that rescued Hourihane’s professional career in England.

After being let go by Ipswich without a competitive appearance to match his Sunderland record, he was 20 years of age without a reference. All he had was the memory of Roy Keane visiting his house four years before, “falling in love with him” – as Tony O’Leary would tell you – but no professional debut to couple the talk. Twice he was courted by Keane but neither time was he actually taken to the dance.

So Peter Reid is down on his luck. Plymouth Argyle were deducted 10 points and eventually consigned to relegation to the Football League’s fourth tier despite Reid’s best efforts. And, Jesus, he did everything he could, he even paid the club’s heating bill along the way.

They need to start again in League 2 and that means a change of approach. It means they’re not above any player. No-one is off the table. And it happens that a man from west Cork is one of a batch of free agents brought along to a trial at Plymouth Argyle in the summer of 2011. After one training session, Reid has seen enough.

“Get that man into my office.” Those were said to be the six simple Peter Reid words that led to his sixth signing in that window. And, sure enough, after training, the manager’s door was darkened. 

The rise of Conor Hourihane would start right there in the south of England at the bottom of the Football League.

“He didn’t panic.”

One of his closest friends from back home, Richie O’Regan, hasn’t been surprised by his bounce-back-ability.

O’Regan played in the age group above at Bandon AFC but that team made use of him too, of course. The club might’ve been blessed with goalscorers down through the years – Cobh Ramblers’ Denzil Fernandes notoriously holds a stupid record of 85 goals from 15 games – but the left foot of Conor Hourihane was banging them in and it was as a striker that he earned his first international call-up.

So his steady rebuild, to go from a free agent to Plymouth, to captaining them the very next year, to go from there to Barnsley and captain them through League 1 to the Championship, it’s nearly what Bandon expected of its favourite son.

Slowly but surely, the cream began to rise again and no-one around that neck of the woods in the Rebel county was one bit surprised.

And, eight years after he was let go by Ipswich and was actually fortunate to drop two floors out of the Championship, Hourihane became the man a club the size of Aston Villa turned to to save their bacon. And he loves it.

He stands over a penalty in a playoff semi-final shootout away to the local rivals and you can just tell by his body language, by his face, by the absolute reliability of that left foot of his that there’s no doubt it’s going to be tucked away. 

Coolness is what has always defined him as a player but he’s needed an awful lot of it over the last decade to deal with the blows and to climb and keep climbing from the bottom again.

“That’s the way he always was as a player, just cool as you like,” O’Regan says. 

“It doesn’t really faze him, really. Look at that free kick he got for Ireland there against Georgia. That was so important, and we know now just how important it turned out to get the three points. And the pressure on him at that stage. 

“But, Christ almighty, he buried it, like.

“I see so many players who used to play with Cork City going over to the Championship and it doesn’t work out for them and they end up coming back. Conor took a different path. He went to League 2 and he worked his way back up. 

“He didn’t panic. He never does.”

And there is something different about Conor Hourihane’s story.

One thing that underpins the lives of professional footballers, without fail, is their uncompromising determination to get to where they are. They work harder than everyone else and whilst it’s not as simple as just that, none of them would get near to where they are if they didn't cover the bare necessity of being the one who wants it more. They practice more, they play harder, they train longer, they eat better and when you add talent and coaching and good luck on top of those things, then you just might have a chance. 

But a lot of these stories like to only tell the part of that hard work and those hours spent training when everyone else was sleeping and most of them like to, with good reason, highlight the guys who were never the best in their underage team and suddenly sprang to the very top of the game.

Hourihane is different to that. He's a man who was always hot property. In fact, he was the most prime bit of real estate in Munster. His is a story of a man who always had it. And a man who wouldn’t let anyone else or anything else tell him he didn’t have it.

Even when contracts and doubters and circumstance said otherwise, Hourihane never believed that he couldn't do it. Why would he?

“Conor is the type of guy that no matter what sport you’re playing – whether it’s a game of bloody table tennis or it’s a game of pitch ‘n’ putt – he comes to the top,” O’Regan explained.

“In our group of friends, he was always the top guy. He was just one of those guys where everything comes naturally.

“When he was underage, he was a very good Gaelic footballer, a very good hurler.

"He played for Cork in the Post-Primary Games. And, genuinely, a lot of people in Bandon would say that if he didn’t go down the soccer route, he would be wearing the Cork GAA jersey – in football or hurling, either of them. 

“He was just absolute quality, really.”

That’s why it didn’t matter that he was the quietest young fella his old coach Tony O’Leary had ever met.

Before he moved to Douglas Hall in Cork City, he was just a boy at Bandon who got on with his job and just so happened to do that job better than everyone else. 

He has aggression in his game now. Bite. On the ball and off it, he's a force, but, even a decade and a half ago, he always had a viciousness in his strike.

“The thing that stood out for me was his attitude. He had a fierce desire,” O’Leary recalled another story with pure wonderment.

“And he had the most beautiful left foot I ever saw. Ah yeah.

“I remember one time we were training and there was a fella called Andy Nolan, he was helping. We were short a goalkeeper and Andy went into goal. Conor was about 12 or 13 at this stage, now, right? 

“Conor took a shot and Andy saved it but, unfortunately, it broke his wrist. His shot broke Andy’s wrist. With the power of it, like.”

From the Gaelscoil to St. Brogan’s to Bandon Grammar School, Hourihane had one sole focus in his life and that was to play football. He left Cork at 16 and, whilst it looked like he might at one stage, he hasn’t come back – not to live there anyway. His mother, a teacher, and his father a retired factory worker are what they call ‘very gentle people’ down that way and there’s a soundness and normality about the midfielder that reflects that.

It’d be the easiest thing in the world for a teenager to get caught up in all of it. Every Monday morning, they’d gather in Bandon Grammar and ask how many goals Conor scored at the weekend. Every coach was pulling him in different directions – different age groups, different sports, they all wanted his services. But as he got better and bigger, he maintained that level head.

“We’d have a phone call once a week and one of the first things he’ll talk about is, ‘Cork City lost again at the weekend’. He’s always keeping an eye,” O’Regan sums up how little his friend has lost touch with his roots.

“The people of Bandon would have so much respect for him because he’s just such a sound, normal guy and if you talk to a man of 90 or 30 or a woman of 50, they’ll all tell you that he’s just a lovely guy. He’s just a total professional. He’d never let himself down in any way because all he wanted to do was do well in his career.

“He wanted to pull on that Ireland jersey and he did. That was one of his proudest moments.

"And his dream was that he always wanted to get to the Premier League."

And he did.

Outside Wembley, amidst the chorus of noise reverberating from the tubes and the pubs and all around the fan zone to the tune of ‘Paul McGrath, My Lord’, there’s an older man and his son walking at their own pace towards the stadium. The son is well dressed, jeans, Villa polo shirt and ankles showing for whatever reason that’s necessary these days, and his father has last season’s away kit on him. At the back of it?

Hourihane. 14.

“The best left foot we ever had,” he says. He’s almost defensive uttering the words too. Risen. Nearly daring you to have a problem with it as if he’s had the argument before.

“Even better than Hitzlsperger.” 

You can tell he didn’t reach that conclusion easily but he’s there now and, by God, he’s repeating it with such conviction and what must be courage for a man from Birmingham following Villa his whole life.

It’s the sort of thing Hourihane would take in his stride though because inside the arena, come 3pm, legs are heavy and minds are frenzied as the reality sets in that one mistake will cost either team in what they call the most expensive game in football. A loss here last year threatened to send Villa into administration and a loss here this season would break up what has become one of the most likable and effective teams in English football. The Villa crowd have met the occasion with colour and song and an atmosphere that has the biggest ground in the country nearly rocking on its hinges. There’s an expectation with a club like Villa and, because of that, too many have come and gone and shrunk for whatever time they managed to stay.

Hourihane’s not one for hiding. He isn’t long in stamping his authority on the occasion with a stretching interception and a last-ditch sliding tackle stopping a Derby breakaway. You’re dealing with a leader here – not one who has been selected but one who has risen. One who has emerged through the ranks time and time again as he’s come through the divisions, tier after tier.

And it’s his pass that sets Villa away for their opener. It would be so easy, so safe to disappear in a congested middle third and not be the one to blame for anything that goes wrong but it’s not in his nature to focus on what he shouldn’t do. It never has been. You can never tell him what he can't do.

Even here, in front of nearly 86,000 ravenous supporters, his passes are hit with purpose, they’re hit forward and, even though he has Harry Wilson man-marking him - Derby both terrified of another screamer from the best left foot Villa ever had and tactically targeting the fulcrum of a dynamic midfield three that is set up to attack and win – he has Villa on top because he shields with athleticism, aggression, brains, and he plays out without fear in a way that puts the opposition scrambling on the back foot.

In a midfield with Jack Grealish and John McGinn, Hourihane still needs watching and Liverpool man Harry Wilson is doing it as best he can. Ha, it isn’t that long since Martin O’Neill was playing Cyrus Christie in the middle for Ireland – the best option he had, apparently. Wilson didn’t bother man-marking Christie when Wales were ramming goals down the Irish throats but he can’t afford to let Hourihane out of his sights in the final game of the season.

But the Cork man isn’t dissuaded too often. 

In November, Hourihane was an unused sub watching a right back play full games in central midfield for Ireland. By March, he was taking a standing ovation from Lansdowne Road after scoring a winner that will forever be played in the nation’s highlight reels.

In 2011, he was 20, without a club and heading back for the south of Ireland. Eight years later and he’s going to the Premier League and he’s carved out his own way.

Let go by Ipswich, taking his one chance - his last chance -at Plymouth and League 2. Captaining Barnsely through League 1 and leading Aston Villa back to the top flight, shouldering their demands, the pressure and the step up.

When international managers reasoned there was no-one out there, when the teenager who left school at 16 never got his break and clubs had nothing to go on when it came to offering him a contract, Hourihane knew like he always knew that he could make it to where he wanted to. All he needed was time on the pitch.

When the ol’ man at Bandon AFC was calling him fucking useless after watching 45 minutes of him, Hourihane has spent the next 15 years showing him and everyone else what he’s really about. 

From Cork to Sunderland from League 2 to the Premier League, it's been a complete journey from a complete football and it’s been a journey that’s required patience, hard work and unshakable self-belief. And, do you know what? It’s a journey that’s only gathering momentum.

But, please, don’t be surprised. Conor Hourihane isn’t.