Over the last two international qualifying campaigns, a talisman in green has stepped up for Ireland when they have required one most.
In 2014/2015 as Martin O’Neill’s side clamoured towards Euro 2016 it was striker Jon Walters whose goals, endeavour and work rate helped Ireland reach the tournament finals in France.
In 2016/2017, although Ireland didn’t reach the World Cup in Russia, James McClean emerged from the pack as their talisman scoring crucial goals, including the winner against Wales which sent the Boys in Green to the playoffs.
Even before that in the lead up to Euro 2012, one could look at Richard Dunne or Robbie Keane as Ireland’s key man, perhaps in 2000/2001 it was Jason McAteer.
The main theme from recent successful campaigns has been the ability of one player to take the team by the scruff of the neck and lead them to hard-fought victories over tricky opposition.
With Dunne and Keane long gone, Walters recently retired and James McClean struggling for form, the new regime must also bring about a new key man for the Boys in Green.
If the first two games are anything to go by, Ireland’s new talisman could come in the form of Conor Hourihane.
A Passenger Under O’Neill
At 28 years of age, Hourihane is in the peak of his career, but despite impressing for many years at Aston Villa and Barnsley before that, the midfielder only has ten caps for his country.
Under Martin O’Neill, Hourihane, who has shown that creativity in the middle of the park is a huge part of his game, was often deployed in a more defensive midfield position which never seemed to suit him.
The Villa man occasionally appeared off the bench to shore things up in the centre and the six times he did start he failed to impress in Ireland green.
A real disappointment when you consider over the last three seasons he has 27 goals and 30 assists for Aston Villa and Barnsley in all competitions and was vital in the Villains recent Premier League promotion.
Not a bad player to have in a side that is crying out for creativity and goals.
The Early Signs Are There
With O’Neill gone and Mick McCarthy in, the change in management represented, and to an extent still does represent, a clean slate for many who perhaps weren’t too favoured in the old regime to stake a claim in the starting XI.
Clearly a fan of his, the new Irish boss started Hourihane alongside Jeff Hendrick in his midfield two against Gibraltar. Although the game was a tricky one and very few stood out, the 28-year old looked sharp in the centre on an evening where it was almost impossible to do so.
Against Georgia though was truly when Hourihane showed how vital he can become for McCarthy’s Irish side.
Playing in a midfield three and with the comfort of Villa teammate Glenn Whelan holding behind him, Hourihane was given a licence to get forward and join McGoldrick when Ireland attacked, making strong runs with the ball and beyond the striker when he came deep.
Hourihane almost opened the scoring after a good break from the midfield in the opening 15 minutes and did eventually net his first Irish goal thanks to a sumptuous free-kick ten minutes before the interval.
The midfielder’s set-pieces could also prove a crucial part of his development into Ireland’s key man, with the likes of Duffy and Keogh partial to getting on the end of corners and free-kicks when they arrive into the box.
Against one of the tougher sides in the group like Denmark, Ireland’s set-pieces may be a tremendous chance to create an opening, something that Hourihane proved he can already take advantage of against Georgia and to a lesser extent Gibraltar.
McCarthy’s Confidence In Him Is Key
Crucially, it’s apparent that McCarthy also has tremendous confidence in Hourihane’s ability. If there was a criticism of the way O’Neill spoke in front of the media especially it was that so often he would refer to the lack of quality in the side or bemoan the missing players.
At times it must have felt very condescending to players.
Following the win against Georgia, McCarthy praised his side even singling out Hourihane revealing that he tried to sign him when he was the manager of Ipswich not so long ago.
“Obviously, I’m delighted because his performance on Saturday was excellent, tonight his deliveries his free-kicks and corners were good.
“The goal was something special, wasn’t it? I’m pleased for him because I’ve always believed in him and thought he was a good player.
“I tried to sign him, but we didn’t have any money and he went elsewhere.”
Confidence can be key to a lot of footballers and given his recent performances in green and the praise from McCarthy, Hourihane’s must be sky high.
“Hopefully, I can become a key man. I felt like I’ve done well the last couple of games. It’s great to hear when he talks it gives you confidence. I’d love to repay the confidence he has in me and keep playing well for him.”
It’s early still in the new regime but in Hourihane the signs are there that he could be the perfect player to step up and lead this team like Jon Walters and James McClean before him.
Under Mick McCarthy, Conor Hourihane can undoubtedly become Ireland’s newest talisman.