Jackson Irvine admits competition for Australia's midfield spots has never been as intense ahead of Wednesday night’s draw for the first phase of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The Hull City man was rested along with the likes of Aaron Mooy, Mat Ryan and Massimo Luongo for last month’s 1-0 friendly loss to Korea Republic, with coach Graham Arnold giving several fringe players a bite of the cherry.
And with Mustafa Amini, James Jeggo and Brandon O’Neill all excelling in Busan, the race for places in the engine room is hotting up for September when Australia begin their qualification campaign for Qatar 2022.
Speaking ahead of the draw at AFC House in Kuala Lumpur which will determine Australia’s four group opponents on lap one of the journey, Irvine said: “The midfield over the last six years or so has been really difficult to crack.
“Mile (Jedinak) was a mainstay as was Millsy (Mark Milligan).
"The likes of Aaron (Mooy), Mass (Massimo Luongo), Tommy (Rogic) and myself have all broken through over the last three years.
“These are spots we’ve been lucky to hold onto with a lot players knocking on the door - Musti (Amini), Jeggs (Jeggo) and now Kenny Dougall stepping up to the Championship (with Barnsley).
“Brandon O’Neill has also been doing unbelievably well in the A-League, and he’s a player Arnie knows inside out.
“So it’s always tough in that area and there are no guarantees whether you will even be in the squad, let alone play.
“We’ve got an abundance of talent in that area.”
Refreshed and revitalised, Irvine, 26, will be doing his utmost to push himself back into pole position by excelling for the Tigers again on the looming season.
“You never want to miss games and camps, especially now we’re going into qualifiers in a month or so but mentally and physically some of the guys have been going for four years straight without having an extended break,” he added.
“It was welcome to have that time away. Myself included, we’ve played a lot of football in the last few seasons and to have that little breather before the start of a new cycle was a bonus.
“It’s probably the longest I’ve gone without being involved in football for a while and it was nice. But now I’m ready to get back into it.”
Irvine is looking to build on a second season with the club which brought him six goals in 38 appearances and a taste of the captaincy at the back end of the campaign.
“I think I grew a lot as a player last year and it was nice to get back to the goal ratio which I expect of myself as a minimum,” he added.
“I’ve been contributing in other ways as well and becoming part of a leadership group.
“I think I’m learning and developing all the time ... maybe off the pitch also and becoming a bit of a different character.”
Irvine admitted that Hull’s play-off prospects will hinge on new coach Grant McCann adding quality to a squad hit by departures.
“We’ll need to bring some in and I’m sure the club’s working on that,” he added.