Midfielder Conor Hourihane can’t believe the transformation at Aston Villa since they were beaten by Fulham in the Championship play-off final at two years ago.

The sides face each other again in the Premier League on Monday and it’s Villa whose star is on the rise after a summer spending spree and 100 per cent record in all competitions this season.

Hourihane, 29, is just one of three survivors from the Villa side which fell at the final hurdle at Wembley under Steve Bruce and he’s been impressed how the club has been revived under Dean Smith, winning promotion and then staying in the top flight on the final day of last season.

This summer the club have spent £80million on Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, right back Matty Cash and forwards Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traore who played in the Champions League semi-final for Lyon last season.

‘It’s been an amazing journey,’ says Hourihane, who thought his dream of playing in the Premier League was over after Tom Cairney’s winner for Fulham in 2018.

‘We reached the play-off final and lost. Then we reached the play-off final and won. Then we stayed in the Premier League in our first season, which was hugely important because it has given us some foundation,’ he says.

‘Now we are set to take it forward again. Villa do have ambition. I think the club has shown that, and it’s a huge club.

‘It needs to move forward and it feels like we are bringing in some very, very good players and it’s somewhere closer to where the club wants to be. I know the club is on a journey.’

Hourihane admits losing to Fulham in the play-offs was ‘hard to take’. In their only meeting since, Fulham also knocked Villa out of the FA Cup at Craven Cottage, where Monday’s game will take place.

Fulham are newly-promoted themselves and finding the jump to the Premier League hard as Villa found last season.

It was only after football resumed post-lockdown they found form to keep them up and Hourihane felt his own standards were also raised.

‘It’s the toughest league in the world and it’s never going to be easy for anyone to slide into it and play their best,’ says the Irishman, who played in the lower leagues for Plymouth and Barnsley prior to his West Midlands move.

‘Coming back raring to go was important to me. A lot of players may have struggled with the break, but I just was raring to go for the last ten games and I felt like I contributed to the Great Escape.

‘I thought to myself: “Look, you need to give yourself an even better chance here” and so I knuckled down. I hadn’t come through the leagues for no reason. I am dedicated to the game. If you stand still as a player you get passed over as well.

‘I felt like I could get fitter and stronger and I think I reaped the rewards of that. I believe you’ll receive the rewards if you put in the hard work and that was something I did over the break, get myself in an even better shape.’