Jackson Irvine has opened up on his long absence from professional football, stating his 10-month exile from the game was the hardest period of his life.
Irvine was cut adrift but Hull City in June, but last played for the English Championship club in March before the Coronavirus pandemic struck.
The Socceroo was without a club until this month when he signed for Scottish side Hibernian and played his first competitive game for the Edinburgh club in the 2-0 win over Kilmarnock on January 16.
The 27-year-old has joined Hibs for the rest of the 2020-2021 season and admits he is relieved to be back on the pitch.
“It’s been a long time and I would have never have dreamed being a free agent, with my experience and having played at the international level, the last thing you expect is sitting without a club for six months,” he told SBS The World Game.
“But the world’s, obviously, in a strange place and although it was difficult for me a lot of people have been far worse off than me not being able to find a football club for six months. So you’ve got to try keep that perspective I guess.
“From a personal point of view, it was the most challenging period of my life, especially professionally.
"Having gone from a professional environment where you’re working with top players and medical staff and all the things, that you maybe not take for granted, but all the things you’re used to being there for you as an athlete on the day to day to all of a sudden not just having that but being on your own totally.
“Having to manage your own career and your own fitness. I had some great help from the Socceroos’ sports science and strength and conditioning guys, and some ex-Hull people as well, just giving me programs and keeping me ticking over.
“Without that support, I would have been in real trouble as it’s very difficult to put those things together on your own.”
Irvine started against Kilmarnock and spent 74 minutes on the park being substituted. The Australian described his long-awaited return as being “amazing”.
“Such a great feeling to be out playing competitive football again after so long,” he said.
“I wasn’t probably expecting to start and play as long as I did, but I’m kind of old enough now and experienced enough now to manage myself through these periods of my career, especially through games as well. I had a chat to the manager and we both agreed that the best way is just to play games and get minutes.
“Two days training and straight into it was a bit of a baptism of fire, but it was great to get the game in and get a positive result as well. For me it was the competitive edge of football that I missed the most. I’ve always been a competitor at heart.
“I love winning and even at training, it was the competitive side I miss the most. You can run in a park and keep fit and do this and that, even in the last few weeks training with Oldham, which was great for me as well, but it was the competition.
“Wanting to go out there and win and be a part of a winning team is definitely what I missed the most.”
Hull City let Irvine’s contract run out last year, despite the midfielder captaining the club and making more than 100 appearances for them since joining from Burton Albion in 2017.
The Socceroo was linked to a number of different clubs since exiting the Tigers and concedes even he is unsure why it took him so long to find a new home.
“Listen, the last few months of my life have required a bit of reflection and a bit of analysis,” he said.
“I’m still probably asking those questions myself why this situation unfolded the way it did. That’s probably a discussion over the next few months it will probably because a little bit, in terms of the decisions I make going forward, that will become clearer.
“Obviously the state of the world didn’t help, but also I just think a bit of timing, a bit of bad luck on the way as well. But there’s no denying the situation wasn’t handled ideally to end up going from a 150-game Championship player, a starting national team player, to not having a club for that amount of time.
“There’ll probably never be another time in my career where I find it so difficult.”
Irvine has Scottish heritage through his father and spent six years in the country after joining Celtic in 2010, with spells at Kilmarnock and Ross County. He says joining Hibs was “a no-brainer”.
“There was so much that attracted me to this club and everything about it,” he said.
“I didn’t need any introduction to the football club in terms of my time in Scotland. Playing with [Martin] Boyle in the national team and I’ve played against Hibs for years and years and I knew about their amazing training facility.
“It’s a big club with a big fanbase and they’ve been unbelievably competitive for the first six months of the season. We find ourselves in the semi-final of a cup and sitting third in the league and with the chance to compete for places in Europe.
“To me, it was a no-brainer. And also there’s an element that Scotland is like a second home to me. I spent so much of my life here.
“And after a difficult period in my life, the chance to come back and play here was something that definitely had a bit of a personal side to it as well.”
Irvine and the Hibbes will take on St Johnstone in the semi-finals of the Scottish League Cup on Sunday (Saturday UK time).
“A cup semi-final is an absolutely huge occasion,” he said.
“I’ve very much looking forward to that. It’s a great time for the club being involved in these kinds of fixtures."
The midfielder’s signing for Hibernian went viral when a tweet of his tattoo of Simpsons character Moe Szyslak on his lower leg exploded online. Irvine explains there is no deeper meaning to why he got the tattoo, but he was amazed at the reaction it garnered.
“I’ve actually had it for a couple of years,” he said.
“I don’t know how it’s just become a bit of a viral sensation. I have no idea how it made it to one of the writers of the Simpsons, but it was definitely far from what I expected when I signed for the club.
“It’s always been one of my favourite shows. It was actually just a joke between and the tattoo artist who’s done a lot of my work. We always talk about the Simpsons and quote the Simpsons, and we hadn’t planned it we just thought should we do a Simpsons tattoo it would be a laugh.
“We decided on that Moe one because we thought it was funny. I wish there was a deeper meaning to it, but it was just for a joke.”