From a foiled homecoming to training with Kewell: How Irvine rebounded from ten-month hiatus
When Jackson Irvine trudged off the pitch after a 5-1 defeat to Stoke City in March 2020, no one could have predicted what his next ten months had in store.
Fast-forward 315 days to January 2021, the Socceroos midfielder started for Scottish side Hibernian just days after announcing he had signed on a short-term deal.
The time in between saw him seriously entertain a return home to the A-League before Australian lockdown scuppered those plans and he found himself back in England, training at Harry Kewell's Oldham Athletic.
As lockdown restrictions ravaged the world, Irvine spent the majority of his ten-month hiatus training solo at local parks, pondering when the cards would fall into place for a fresh move after his sudden departure from Hull City.
The shock release came after a fruitful period where Irvine felt he was coming of age on both the domestic and international stage.
Just months earlier he had been named captain of the English club and was fresh off his most productive stint with the Socceroos to date.
But as the coronavirus saw world football grind to an abrupt halt, Irvine was left wondering, 'what next?'
Irvine told the powerful story of his difficult journey back to football in the latest episode of The Socceroos Podcast.
“It felt like a bit Murphy's Law at one point," he says. "It just felt like every decision I made in a short space of time seemed to backfire.
"Originally when the fallout happened with Hull and my contract expired at the end of June before the games restarted, I was told a couple of weeks before that that I wasn't going to be involved.
"Obviously with COVID protocols I was pushed out of the group, so at that point, I was pushed into training on my own."
You can listen to the full Jackson Irvine podcast in the player below.
With Europe enduring the grips of the pandemic before Australia, Irvine made the instinctive decision to return home after nearly a decade abroad.
"I knew the A-League teams were coming back and I had a couple of conversations with a couple of contacts back home," he recalls.
My natural thought was I'll come back to Australia, go through the quarantine process and then I'll be able to spend some time with my family and work with one of the A-League teams to keep myself moving.
"But of course I'm in my hotel quarantine in Melbourne grinding through the 14 days and I think day eight was when the first cases started to appear in Melbourne.
"I just couldn't believe in that sense, that you've flown home, you're doing your quarantine and then by the time I was ready to come out I had to go straight to my Mum's house and spend a few weeks there at home.
"I wasn't even able to go out and do anything in the end because by day 11 all of the A-League teams had relocated up to New South Wales. It was just one of those moments that I just couldn't get anything to drop for me."
The months that followed saw Irvine spend time in Australian lockdown before returning to England in the hope that a fresh move would come to fruition.
“It's difficult to explain those few months through all that time of training on my own every day and trying to keep yourself going,” he says.
“You're always thinking that the phone call will come any day and the contract offer will come so you’re constantly trying to be ready to go in a physical sense but also in your personal life.
I was never really settled because it felt like that move was just one conversation away.”
A chance Aussie connection with Socceroos legend Harry Kewell offered Irvine the long-awaited opportunity to train within a squad dynamic at English League Two outfit Oldham.
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The Melbourne-born midfielder treasured the experience on a professional and personal level.
“It was really bizarre - one of those strange moments within football that you have sometimes where the glass ceiling shatters and you end up face to face with people that you felt were on a different planet to you at one point," he reflects.
“I met Harry when I was 11 at a fan event and I got a photo with him. He was a hero for every one of my generation just because of the level he played at.
"He was fantastic with me over those few weeks. He was so welcoming and made transitioning back into being with a group really comfortable and easy, under difficult circumstances with the way of the world and the way clubs have to approach these things. It was just very generous of him to let me come in and train his group.
"Not that I need any more football to watch, but now I've got another team to follow!"
QUIZ: Can you name all 52 Australians who have appeared in the Premier League?READ: Aussies Abroad: Irvine assists Boyle in Scotland as Hrustic overcomes Leckie in Bundesliga
From his first-hand experience, Irvine believes Kewell is well poised for managerial success at Oldham and beyond.
“It was quite interesting to speak with him on a personal level, and then also work with him as a coach and see the way he operates in that environment and the players are unbelievably responsive to the way he coaches the team," he says.
"There’s some really good footballers (at Oldham) and I really liked the way that he sets up his sessions and sets up his team. I know he's going to have good success; his work rate and dedication and enthusiasm every day was so apparent, it was just a perfect environment to go into.
You can see elements of what he had as a player and those aspects of his game that he wants to implement into a team environment as well.”
While his time spent with Socceroos royalty won't be forgotten any time soon, Irvine admits there were some tough moments along the way as he sought out his next destination.
“The day to day became very mentally challenging,” he reflects. “Dealing with everything that was going on with the other side of things because as footballers, I think something we thrive under is routine.
“Some days I was running in the park and there's people walking dogs which run away with my ball and knocking over my cones and you’re standing there with your hands on your head.
Probably for the first time in my career, I've started experiencing self-doubt and things like 'why is it not happening, what's going wrong, what's the issue, why isn't everything falling together for me?"
"You just can't believe that this is where you're at in your career at this point. But the world's become a bizarre place, and I'm sure there are people in far worse situations. The support from those around me is the main reason I've been able to get myself up to sharpness as quick as I have again.”
Despite all of the challenges he has overcome along the way, Irvine has hit the ground running with Scottish Premiership club Hibernian.
He has immediately endeared himself to the Hibs faithful throughout four appearances to date, most recently registering a pair of assists, including one for international teammate Martin Boyle, during a 2-0 win over Dundee United.
His side currently sit fourth in the Scottish Premiership but are just one point shy of Aberdeen in third and six points behind Celtic in second.