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What has Hourihane done since Keane's critical comments and could he feature against Wales?

The 25-year-old midfielder sealed a move to Aston Villa earlier today.

Image: Dave Howarth

ROY KEANE KNOWS Conor Hourihane better than most.

The Man United legend has managed his fellow Cork native twice at club level.

Having idolised Keane as a youngster, Hourihane joined Sunderland while his hero was manager there following a successful trial.

“Roy was a big influence and he was always very good to me. As a 16-year-old coming over from Ireland, he’d always chat to me and check everything was okay. He’d been through a similar experience at Nottingham Forest with Brian Clough,” Hourihane said in an interview last October.

Despite playing in midfield alongside Jack Colback at youth level with Jordan Henderson on the wing, the Irish youngster failed to make the breakthrough at the Stadium of Light ultimately.

When Hourihane’s contract at Sunderland expired, he linked up with Keane again at Ipswich, but failed to make a single senior appearance for the Tractor Boys, before being let go by the Irishman’s successor, Paul Jewell, after his year-long contract elapsed.

“To be brutally honest, I wasn’t physically ready for first-team football at Ipswich even though I thought I was at the time,” Hourihane later reflected.

The former Ireland U21 international finally got some regular game time with Plymouth in League Two, and was bought by Barnsley for £250,000 in 2014, after impressing in his three years with the Pilgrims.

Since then, Hourihane has continued to surpass every challenge in front of him. Having been one of their standout players in League One, the 25-year-old maintained this form for the Tykes following promotion last season, winning the Championship player of the month for August.

So far this season, he has been one of the standout players in the league, contributing 11 assists and six goals, including a superb free kick in their recent 3-2 win over Leeds.

Speaking to The42 earlier this month, Liam Dyson of the Barnsley FC fanzine West Stand Bogs summed up the fans’ feelings about Hourihane.

He’s the most complete midfielder I’ve ever seen at Oakwell,” he said. “When he joined us he was very much an attacking midfielder, looking to get forward all the time. Both Danny Wilson and Lee Johnson [previous Barnsley managers] weren’t sure what his best position was. In fact, Lee Johnson openly said he ‘couldn’t play in a 4-4-2.

“But in the last year he has added a bit of steel to his game which has completely transformed him. He’s now much more comfortable doing the dirty stuff and playing it simple. His only weakness for me is that I think he could score even more than he does. He doesn’t seem to get into the box enough, but it’s not a criticism considering goals like he scored the other night.

He’s now a genuine captain and the leader of a side that he has dragged from the bottom of League One to within touching distance of the play-offs in the Championship. There’s no player I can remember ever improving at such a rate at Barnsley and it has been a pleasure to watch.”

Dyson is clearly not alone in his views. A group of supporters arranged a petition via Change.org in an attempt to make it illegal for the club to sell Hourihane.

Source: Barnsley FC/YouTube

Following confirmation that his move to Villa had been completed, Barnsley even showed there were no hard feelings by releasing a heartfelt video tribute to the Corkonian.

Hourihane has certainly come far since his days simply trying to earn a living in League Two, but further challenges lay ahead of him.

One of the midfielder’s primary targets now is surely to win a regular place in the Ireland squad.

Hourihane has been included in the Boys in Green’s provisional squad in recent times, but has yet to make the final party.

Martin O’Neill has indicated in the past that anyone who he feels can improve the side will make the final squad, which suggests that — at the time of the last squad announcement at least — the Derry native believed Hourihane was not ready for inclusion.

Similarly, back in November, Keane suggested Hourihane needed to “do more” to establish himself in their plans.

Martin (O’Neill’s) gone to see him in one or two of the games where he’s probably not had his better games,” Keane said. “I saw him one or two months back where he probably didn’t have one of his better games either. I think it was against Reading.

“Not that we’re just judging him on the 90 minutes we’re watching him. But sometimes when we go watch him, particularly with the manager, you need to see him step up to the plate.

He’s been in a few provisional squads, he’s doing well. I know the situation at Barnsley where the contract’s (nearly) up, he’s probably looking to move on maybe, but Barnsley’s been a good club for him. He probably needs to do a touch more — and I mean that in all aspects of his game.

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“But I’m not surprised to see him making a living out of the game and doing really well and every time, particularly over the last year or two, the club he’s been at he affects games. He’s either involved in a goal or he’s scoring. He’s probably had a quiet month or two, a slight dip in form, but he’s definitely one we’ll continue to watch.”

Yet since those comments, Hourihane has continued to catch the eye and enhance his reputation with a number of stellar displays, so it will be interesting to see whether the Villa star features in the Ireland squad for the vital World Cup qualifier in March.

Nevertheless, perhaps the more interesting question is where Hourihane would fit into the Ireland side. The Bandon-born player could conceivably play as part of a midfield two, although his attacking qualities would also render him suitable as a potential alternative to Wes Hoolahan in the number 10 role.

Could he even feature in the vital match against Wales at the end of March? It seems unlikely that Hourihane would play from the start at least. Hoolahan, James McCarthy, Harry Arter, Glenn Whelan and David Meyler are all conceivably ahead of him in the pecking order.

But despite Martin O’Neill being regarded as conservative by some, the 64-year-old coach has been known to take the odd gamble in big games. Starting Robbie Brady at left-back against Poland, bringing Daryl Murphy in for the home qualifier against Scotland and handing Shane Duffy a competitive debut against Italy at the Euros are a few notable examples.

Yet playing Hourihane against the Welsh would be a bigger surprise than any of the other aforementioned moments, and Villa’s new signing has yet to prove himself at Premier League level, so there are others who are arguably more deserving of a place in the team at present.

However, the midfielder would certainly be a useful player to spring from the bench — his set-piece prowess and creativity would likely come in handy if Ireland need a goal. Callum O’Dowda came on in the qualifier with Moldova, and Hourihane has certainly enjoyed a better season than the Bristol City youngster.

And although many people will likely pour scorn on claims that Hourihane deserves a chance at international level, the Villa star has become accustomed to proving doubters wrong over the course of his career so far.

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