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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019

Conor Hourihane to start at left-back for Ireland against Bulgaria

The Aston Villa man is normally used as a central midfielder for club and country.

Conor Hourihane (file pic).
Conor Hourihane (file pic).
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IRELAND BOSS MICK McCarthy has confirmed that Conor Hourihane will be tried out at left-back as part of a flat back four for Tuesday night’s friendly against Bulgaria.

The 28-year-old has started every match of the Euros campaign so far under McCarthy, though he has always played in his favoured central midfield role until now.

Ireland will be without regular left-back Enda Stevens in their crucial qualifier against Georgia next month, after the Sheffield United player picked up a suspension owing to his yellow card in the Swiss match on Friday.

McCarthy will consequently be forced to make an alteration to the backline that has played every minute of the campaign thus far.

James McClean, Matt Doherty, Cyrus Christie, Greg Cunningham and Stephen Ward (who is currently retired from international football) have all been cited as potential candidates to fill the left-back slot in Stevens’ absence, though McCarthy could yet opt for a less obvious solution for the Georgia encounter if the Corkonian performs well against Bulgaria.

“It would be amazing if he played really well tomorrow. If he doesn’t, nothing ventured, nothing gained,” McCarthy said.

“He’s one of those who’s not been playing [at club level]. I’d like him to have some more minutes. He wants to have more minutes, so he’ll be playing.

“He’s a very intelligent player, that’s for sure. He has a wand of a left foot. If we can get him further up the pitch, get him to deliver crosses, then we should get a bit of joy out of that.

“We’ll see who he’s up against then. If it’s a flying winger, it’s not ideal for him. But he’s going to get 90 minutes — he might not get that many more [games] between now and next month. So I’ll have a look at him and see — there might be another string to his bow.

“I know about the others — I know they can play there. Playing against Bulgaria will not convince me one bit more if Stephen Ward’s any better, or if Greg Cunningham can do it.

What happens if [Hourihane] ends up being amazing? He’s got all the tools to play there. What is he? Six foot? Defending the far post. He’s competitive enough, he has a great left foot. You try to play out the back. If we do, he can certainly play from there. He’s a central midfield player. He has to track runners. He has to defend from that position.

“It’s one if those chances, isn’t it, where I get to have a look at somebody. If it turns out he plays wonderfully well, everybody will be saying: ‘Fantastic.’ If he plays badly, they’ll be saying: ‘I can’t believe you even thought about him playing there.’ That’s the chance I have to take.”

Though not available for the Bulgaria game due to injury, McCarthy hinted Matt Doherty is another player he is considering to slot in at left-back for next month’s encounter in Tbilisi. The Dubliner is familiar with the role, having played there for two seasons at Wolves.

“I wouldn’t be concerned about him,” McCarthy added, when he was told that it was a long time since Doherty played in the position. “He’s a full-back and he can play either side. If you asked Seamus [Coleman] to play left-back, I don’t think he’d be bothered either.

“They’re good enough to come on the inside and play. If I start sitting here and saying I’m worried about him, what does that say? No chance. You’ve just got to get on with it and do it.”

McCarthy, though, seemed to play down suggestions that James McClean could be deployed at left-back, despite the 30-year-old having played there for Stoke in the Championship recently.

I don’t think that 90 minutes against Bulgaria is going to make any difference at all in terms of him performing there. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost his energy and drive [on the wing]. The ability to close down from the front, chase back, nick it off him and put a cross in [against Switzerland] — we score the equaliser. I really appreciate what he does.”

McCarthy was also understandably reticent to say too much when it was put to him that two wins from Ireland’s final three matches would be enough to see them qualify for Euro 2020.

“That should be nice and easy then, won’t it?” he joked. “Georgia away, Switzerland away, Denmark at home.

“I think I’ve shown confidence in myself and my players. Nothing will ever change that. We’ll try to win every game. 

“We tried against Switzerland to beat them. We didn’t, but we remain unbeaten. I’ve always got confidence that we can win games, yes.”

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Paul Fennessy

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