Finding players that have racked up minutes at the top level had become somewhat of a headache for Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. The players were there, the talent was there - but game-time was lacking. Until now, Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick were struggling to nail down starting positions with Aston Villa and Burnley respectively, while Irish Premier League strikers were, too, becoming an afterthought for club managers across the Irish Sea.
But the Irish manager is sure to walking around with a renewed joie de vivre this morning after the Irish contingent's performances yesterday. It was 19-year-old Aaron Connolly who grabbed most of the headlines, bagging a brace of goals for Brighton on only his first Premier League start, but that shouldn't shadow over what was near to a complete performance for Hourihane in the heart of Villa's midfield.
As well as winning a penalty, the 28-year-old produced an assist and a goal from outside the box as the Birmingham outfit inflicted a 5-1 drubbing on Norwich City. The goal was the midfielder's first in the league though it also completed a unique set as he has now scored in all of England's top four divisions - League Two, League One, Championship, Premier League.
Reflecting on his first goal in the top flight, Hourihane said:
I've always managed to score goals over the years. I think that's my 25th goal for the club today - not too bad for a lad that's come from Barnsley for a small amount of money. I'm delighted with that and hopefully it's the start of many more goals in this league.
Villa manager Dean Smith was also impressed by the Cork native's effort saying: "Conor does that for fun, doesn't he? It's a great finish."
Stan Collymore was among the high-profile names to praise the Irish player as he took to his Twitter account to pay tribute, while young Villa fan Prince George was also clearly ecstatic by the player's first goal in the top flight.
Hey @ConorHourihane, not only fantastic today but fantastic this season. Extremely unlucky not to have started every game.
Well done kid 👍🏽
— Stan Collymore (@StanCollymore) October 5, 2019
Safe to say that Prince George was a fan of Conor Hourihane's goal against Norwich 😀 pic.twitter.com/uazXr9K2Pc
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) October 5, 2019
With the Republic of Ireland missing a number of high-profile players, via either injury or suspension, ahead of their crucial qualifiers this month, Hourihane looks set to play a major role in the side's midfield, starting in Tbilisi next Saturday where McCarthy's outfit play Georgia. The country will then face a tricky test against Switzerland the following Tuesday in Geneva.
The midfielder has yet to produce his best form in an Irish shirt but on yesterday's evidence the ingredients are all there to dominate a game and indeed bend it to his will. With an ability to spray passes around the pitch with ease, to burst forward, to slot into the holding midfield role, as well as finding the net, Hourihane is a valuable commodity. Coupled with Hendrick's return to the scoresheet and the peerless Connolly up front, there are plenty of positives to take from an Irish perspective heading forward.
It's Hourihane, however, who may now hold the key to unlocking defences, an aspect of the game the Irish side have struggled with up to now. If the central midfielder maintains his form, the Republic of Ireland may be heading for Euro 2020 with unexpected zest.