It might have ‘only’ been Crewe Alexandra and it might have ‘only’ been the Carabao Cup, but Conor Hourihane certainly arrived at Gresty Road determined to make his mark on the second round tie.
And, 90 minutes later, he could relish in a performance that surely pushes him back into Dean Smith’s first-team plans after he was left on the bench for each of the last two Premier League games.
Hourihane was restored to his favoured attacking midfield role and repaid his manager with two goals, including a thumping close-range header, as Aston Villa hit Crewe for six.
And Smith was understandably pleased to see the Republic of Ireland international respond in style, admitting that Hourihane was far from pleased to learn that he had slipped behind Douglas Luiz in the pecking order after the opening day defeat to Tottenham.
"[He didn't take it] very well [being dropped],” Smith told the Birmingham Mail after the 6-1 win. "I don't want any of the players to be happy that they're not playing and he certainly wasn't.
"I brought Douglas in for the Bournemouth game but what he's done is knuckle down in training, got on with his job. He's a great professional and an international for a reason. He'll have a big part to play this season. I've just put Douglas in front of him at the moment.
"It's not my job to keep them happy, it's their job to keep me happy. I pick 11 players who I believe can win a game and they've got to get into that team.”
Hourihane has mostly played at the base of midfield since Smith took over from Steve Bruce in October 2018 but he made his name at Plymouth Argyle and Barnsley as a goalscoring playmaker, finding the net 28 times in his final two seasons at Oakwell.
But with Luiz and Marvelous Nakamba fighting for a place in the ‘number six’ role and with Jack Grealish and John McGinn starting the season impressively, life isn’t going to get any easier for Hourihane going forward.
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