Scott Hogan strikingly confident despite his Aston Villa woes
Striker felt ‘hung out to dry’ by now-departed boss Bruce’s changing plans for his role
Scott Hogan, centre: “I’m more than confident that I’m still the same finisher.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Shane Long sat out the Irish squad’s training for a second successive day but is still expected to be fit for Saturday’s Nations League game against Denmark. The 31 year-old is nursing an ankle injury.
And Preston striker Seán Maguire, who has only seen 20 minutes of action since returning from a long lay-off with a hamstring injury, insists he would happily start this weekend if selected.
In his absence, Maguire’s clubmate Callum Robinson has hit a bit of form around goal of late, with four to show for his last seven Championship games. A couple of O’Neill’s other striking options have been getting less of a look-in of late, however, with Aiden O’Brien in and out of Millwall’s starting 11 and Scott Hogan exclusively out at Aston Villa.
It might not provide much comfort to O’Neill but Hogan shares the manager’s frustration over his failure to make more of an international impact since declaring for Ireland last year.
The 26-year-old has been in or around the squad on a handful of occasions but there has been just one game and no goals despite a clear-cut opportunity on his debut against Turkey that he might have put away had things been going better in his club career.
“I still kick myself about it now because I should have scored,” he says. “Those chances are my bread and butter, but it wasn’t to be on the night.”
There have been too many of those nights since the tail end of 2016, when Hogan’s strike rate for Brentford was attracting interest from Premier League outfits, most publicly West Ham.
He eventually went to Villa on January deadline day, persuaded by Steve Bruce that the style of football would be similar to the one he had thrived on in west London. Things, though, did not pan out as expected.
“I quickly found out I had to change my game, which was frustrating, because I was signed for playing a certain way, and the way I play is scoring goals. I was signed because I was doing that and was then asked to change, so it was difficult. It led to less chances, less touches in the box, all that sort of thing. But I did what the manager asked me to do.”
He got one goal in the latter part of that season and nine from 41 appearances, almost half of them from the bench, in his only full season to date at Villa Park. Amid interest from Sheffield United before the start of this one, he says, he went knocking on Bruce’s door.
“He was adamant that he didn’t want me to leave and that I had a future playing as a striker and we were going to change the way we were playing. So it was disappointing for me when he signed a striker and nothing changed at all.”
He says he retains great respect for the now departed manager while still characterising what transpired as being “hung out to dry”. Having had to let O’Neill know he was fit in recent weeks because he was failing to even make match-day squads for his club, he seems to be looking forward to starting off with a clean slate under someone new.
Given a few games in a side playing to his strengths, he is adamant he has what it takes to make a major impact.
“Ah yeah,” he says. “The crazy thing about good finishers is that it is all confidence, but there are certain things that you don’t forget when you get in the box. And that’s where I feel at home: in the box. I really feel at home. Everything just freezes [when I’m there], it just calms down. The game can be frantic everywhere but as soon as I get a touch in the box, it just seems to slow down.
“I think it’s instinct to know where to be, know the situation and be aware of what’s around you but it’s something that I enjoy; just being in the box with the ball at my feet, thinking: I’ve got to try to put this in the net, some part of the net. I really enjoy it. I think that’s why I think everything seems to calm down.
“I mean people, when they get old, they do lose a bit of pace or whatever, but I’m 26 and you never lose the finishing ability or instinct. So I’m more than confident that I’m still the same finisher. Obviously there’s the little confidence loss that comes with not playing football but that will come.
He hopes it might come here, in Dublin, in the games against Denmark and Wales but appreciates he might have to wait for his next international opportunity. That, though, is his sole focus until next Tuesday evening.
“I’m not coming away on international level thinking about Villa,” he says. “I’m thinking about Ireland. And I’m not thinking that if I score, it’s going to help me at Villa. That’s not what you’re here for. I’m with Ireland. Villa will look after itself when I get back.”