Socceroos midfielder Jackson Irvine says captaining Hull City through a testing relegation battle will help refine his skills as a leader at both club and international level.
Irvine was thrust into the role by Hull coach Grant McCann after club captain Eric Lichaj suffered serious ankle ligament damage in a Championship clash with Reading in February.
Lichaj’s injury preceded the January departures of key attacking duo Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicky, and Hull’s league form has suffered as a result.
The Tigers have slid from eighth position at the turn of the New Year to 21st, just one slot outside the relegation zone with nine games to play.
But Irvine, who has lead the club through its last five league fixtures, says he is the right man to guide Hull through the final stage of the Championship campaign, as he knows exactly what it takes to look relegation in the eyes and fight to escape it.
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“Football [is] a weird place with Hull at the moment,” Irvine told socceroos.com.au.
“It’s a been a strange few weeks since the end of the January transfer window where we lost a couple of our key forwards, we lost both our top goalscorers and assisters on deadline day which rocked the squad a little bit, and unfortunately we haven’t won a game since.
“We’ve had to just pull together as a squad and we’ve got nine games now for the rest of the season to make sure we secure Championship football for next season and have a chance to rebuild, because the last couple of months have put us in a precarious position in that way.
“There is definitely a lot for me to learn in terms of helping manage a squad, manage a group of players through something that is obviously a difficult time for the club and for the players that have never been in a situation like this before.
“I’ve been in a couple of relegation battles before in my career with Kilmarnock, Ross County and Burton, a couple of seasons having to secure survival late on.
“I feel like I know what it takes and my experience can help the younger players in the group and the guys that never had to deal with this kind of situation before.
“We have a number of leaders throughout the team and for myself it’s a great learning experience as something to add to my game for the rest of my career.”
Speaking in February, Hull boss McCann outlined the reasons for the Australian's promotion to become his captain in the absence of the injured Lichaj.
"[Irvine] is not afraid to voice an opinion and I like that,” McCann said.
"We don’t want people just nodding their heads all the time, we want people to have a say and demand standards on the training ground – he does that.
"The way he trains every single day is testament to him."
It’s been a tough run of results for Irvine since he took the armband at Hull in mid-February.
League losses to Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Barnsley and Stoke City have come around an entertaining 4-4 draw with Swansea City in Irvine’s second game as captain.
But the Tigers have the chance to turn it all around this weekend with a home fixture against Charlton Athletic (Sunday morning AEDT). Hull sit two points above their 22nd-placed opponents, meaning a win would build a five-point gap between the relegation rivals.
Irvine says his approach to captaincy in this testing time has been based around consistency, not changing his demeanour around the club, but instead leaning on the respect he has earned to help him lead his charges through a difficult relegation scrap.
“Generally speaking that’s the main part of it,” Irvine said.
“Some players get an armband and change their behaviour in a sense that they feel they have to then go above and beyond what they were bringing to the squad before.
“At the end of the day the players, you want to have the respect of the players either way whether you’re captain or just in the dressing room in general. I like to think I’ve built up that over my years at the club.
“For myself, I don’t try to change too much. I don’t behave in a different way, I just keep trying to do the same things and make sure the standards are always kept high as I’ve tried to do all my career.”
With Lichaj on the sidelines until at least April, Irvine looks set to guide Hull to the very end of the 2019/20 Championship campaign.
Whether the Tigers manage to stave off relegation or not remains to be seen, but one thing Irvine can bank on is gaining invaluable leadership experience which he can seamlessly translate to the national camp with the Socceroos.
After the recent international retirements of Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan, Irvine has quickly become one of the elder statesmen in Graham Arnold’s Socceroos squad.
The Green and Gold move into an exciting calendar year with the so-far seamless 2022 World Cup Qatar qualification campaign and an exciting venture into Copa America 2020 on the horizon, and they will do so with a pool of worthy captains in waiting.
Irvine says it is great to be a part of the current crop of Socceroos rising up to fill the void of those recently retired Socceroos greats, and he is ready to implement the leadership skills he has refined as captain of the Tigers when he next features in the national camp.
“I feel like I’ve built up a place within the Socceroos squad where I feel more confident and have more of a voice in the dressing room,” Irvine said.
“For the last few years being around guys like Mile [Jedinak], Timmy [Cahill] and Millsy [Mark Milligan], I’ve learned so much from those guys about how to work as a leader within a group.
“I don’t ever really change my behaviour. I try and bring the same thing to the international squad that I bring to my club football as well. This will definitely help me.
“Every time you gain more experience, at whatever level, you can implement that in some way to help you grow as a player and your place within the squad as well.
“We’re going through a period of transition within the leadership group within Australia. We’ve got guys like Maty Ryan, Trent [Sainsbury], Azza [Aaron Mooy], guys who have played in big tournaments and played at the highest level, [UEFA] Champions League and [English] Premier League football, their experience is invaluable.
“We’ve got a really good group of senior players within the squad that will bring different elements to roles within the team. It’s great to be a part of that and have another voice and try and bring my own elements to that group of players as well.”