Exclusive interview: Jackson Irvine backs Nigel Clough to lead Burton Albion to safety

After growing up in Australia, JACKSON IRVINE made the decision to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional footballer. Now part of the midfield at Championship outfit Burton Albion, he looks back on that choice to move away from home as a teenager with no regrets. Following a trial period at Celtic, his journey began when he was offered a contract with the Scottish champions. 

Despite the sense of achievement, he said, “I don’t think I fully grasped what was happening at the time in all honesty. Growing up in Australia we had no professional youth setups so I had just been plugging away playing for local teams and then I started playing Senior football in Victoria when I was about 15 years of age. That’s when I was handed the chance to come over and trial at Blackburn Rovers initially and then Celtic.

“I went and played a couple of games and I took part in four or five training sessions before finding out they were offering me a deal. It wasn’t something I was really expecting and it came as a shock, particularly from a family perspective.

“I was only 16 at the time so to move to the other side of the world at such a young age was incredibly daunting. The decision we had to make at the time was huge but it’s certainly one that I’m very glad about.”

Although things didn’t work out for Irvine at Celtic Park and he only made a single competitive appearance, it proved to be an important learning curve.

He said, “Celtic was a superb place for me to learn my trade and it also allowed me to go out on loan and get some games under my belt.

“Trying to break through a club with the magnitude of  Celtic was very difficult, especially with the likes of Victor Wanyama and Joe Ledley playing in my position.”

Temporary spells followed with Kilmarnock and Ross County before Irvine made the switch to the latter side permanent in the summer of 2015. The midfielder is grateful to both clubs, but County will always have a place in his heart.

“Ross County took a massive gamble on signing me and I have a great amount of gratitude towards them for how they turned my career around and reinstated some confidence, he said.

“My spell at Kilmarnock previously had been tough. I struggled quite a lot and I was playing in a handful of positions and that meant I couldn’t solidify myself as a midfielder within the side. It was frustrating but it helped me grow as a player and as a person which of course assisted my progression.”

Whilst plying his trade at Ross County, Irvine began to attract interest from English clubs and he gained plaudits due to his influential performances. In the summer of 2016, newly promoted Burton Albion acquired his services for a club record transfer fee, something he is honoured by.

Irvine in action at the Pirelli Stadium (courtesy of Richard Holmes/Burton Albion FC).

He said, “I was well aware of the rise of Burton Albion and I remember watching a documentary on Sky Sports that showed the success under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. One of my good friends Denny Johnstone was also on loan here a few seasons ago when the boys were in League Two so I had a good reference when I heard the initial interest.

“Speaking to people before making the move, they only had positive things to say about the club so it was an easy decision for me to join.”

At the time of writing, the Brewers sit just above the SkyBet Championship relegation zone and Irvine insists that Nigel Clough’s men have enough quality to retain their status in the second tier of English football.

He said, “We definitely have enough talent in the squad to stay up, it’s just whether we manage to get the best out of it or not. As a group we are striving to do that and achieve as much as we can.

“Over the last three games we have played some of the top sides in this division and more than matched them. The performances have warranted more than what we have been rewarded with and if you ask any team we have played this season, none of them will say they have had an easy game.

“We just need to keep the standards high and turn the performances into wins.”

Despite insisting that the current players have enough to pick up points, Irvine mirrors the manager’s view that some reinforcements are perhaps needed to strengthen the squad and give the club the best chance of survival. 

He stated, “Transfer windows are vital regardless of where you are in the league table, but whilst I believe in the lads here, more strength in depth would be welcomed. 

“Extra bodies in a few areas would help us out a little bit as we have one of the smallest squads in the division. The festive fixtures stretched the group and the games come thick and fast from this point onwards too so it’s important we have options in each position.”

Having scored seven goals for the Brewers so far this term, sections of the Pirelli Stadium crowd have been wanting to see Irvine utilised in a more attacking position. Recently he has operated in a more advanced role and that is something which he enjoys.

He said, “I do enjoy the freedom you get when playing that more advanced role but it’s something I am still adapting to as I’ve predominantly played as a central midfielder throughout my career.

“During the last year or so I have been encouraged to get into the box more frequently and fortunately that has led to me scoring goals. Wherever the gaffer wants me to play I am happy, whether that be further forward, in a defensive midfield berth or as a box-to-box midfielder where it’s a mixture of attacking and defending.”

Becoming a favourite amongst supporters has undoubtedly assisted Irvine in settling into the English game, but he gives the club tremendous credit for ensuring he is enjoying his football.

Fans of the Brewers have taken to the Australian since his arrival in the summer.

He said, “From a personal perspective my time here so far has been excellent.

“Everyone at the club has made it really easy for me to come in and get on with things. We have a dressing room full of experienced professionals that have helped me adapt quickly so that’s fantastic and I believe it has impacted on my form down on the pitch.

“Obviously we are not where we want to be in the table but I and the other boys are working as a collective to change that.”

A minority of the Burton Albion support are beginning to question manager Clough but Irvine believes he is the right man to lead the club away from the bottom three.

“Considering the budget Clough is working with, the achievements are phenomenal and he has been brilliant during his time in charge so far.

“This rough patch was inevitable in a way for a club competing at this level for the first time given how tough the league is. Plenty of teams go through barren spells and it’s how we react that will be critical.

“We have some really important fixtures coming up soon so if we can string a few results together I’m sure that the pressure will be alleviated sooner rather than later.”

The midfielder certainly believes in the manager and Clough seems to share that faith as he handed Irvine the captaincy ahead of the clash with Huddersfield Town, a game in which the Brewers narrowly lost. 

On donning the armband, Irvine said, “It was a pleasant surprise to be given the responsibility of leading the lads out for that game, I certainly didn’t expect it!

“We have plenty of players here who are leaders in their own right so it was a great honour for me at the age of 23. It’s an opportunity that you can’t pass by when it comes up and it’s nice to know I am trusted by the boss to skipper the side when needed.”

It isn’t just club football where Irvine is succeeding, however, as he also represents Australia’s national team. Despite that, his progression into the Socceroos’ setup wasn’t straightforward and he actually represented Scotland at youth level. He revealed that a “rough time” with the Australian Federation led to this occurring. 

“To be honest, I and the federation had a bit of a falling out during my younger years as they actually blocked my transfer going through to Celtic.

“As a result, I spent ten months in Glasgow before I could play a game for them, even at under-19 level. At that time, I jumped at the chance to play for Scotland.

“I have a massive connection to the country anyway as one side of my family are Scottish and I obviously lived there for some time so I don’t regret the decision at all.

“My Dad still has one of my Scotland shirts hanging in his office at work but when the time came to play for Australia at senior level I couldn’t say no.”

Irvine cherishes every moment spent playing in an Australia kit.

Idolising Australian greats such as Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill as a child, Irvine always had his sights set on pulling on the shirt of the Socceroos. He has now made seven appearances for his home county but he knows he can’t afford to take things for granted. 

“After earning my first cap, I have been fortunate enough to remain involved and that is something I am delighted about but I can’t afford to rest on my laurels. Every chance I get to represent my country will be taken with both hands and hopefully I can pull on the shirt a few more times.

“That first appearance was a huge honour for both me and my family and it ranks as one of my proudest achievements for sure. I was always a big supporter of the national team so to play amongst some of my childhood heroes is always very special and it feels somewhat surreal to tell the truth.”

After achieving great success in the year of 2016, Irvine is now eyeing more of the same in 2017 with both Burton Albion and Australia.

You can follow Jackson Irvine on Twitter @JIrvine36

*featured image courtesy of Richard Holmes/Burton Albion FC

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