“Mate, I think it’d have to be ‘Ms Jackson’ by OutKast because I’m a massive hip-hop fan,” he says, and this sends us down a rabbit-hole, burrowing all the way back to his native Melbourne. I’m more of a Python Lee Jackson man myself - 1970s one hit-wonders with “In a Broken Dream” - but am happy to listen to Irvine enthuse about his fellow Melbournians, The Avalanches. “These guys made an album, Since I Left You, which was this insanely brilliant thing stuck together from a million samples and then didn’t release another for like a decade and a half. But it changed my life.”
Hang on, though, this is semi-final weekend in the Scottish Cup: we should talk football. If Hibs are not to be one-hit wonders forever reminiscing about 2016, or they’re to avoid The Avalanches’ fate of getting long-term lost, then they’ll need midfielder Irvine at his muscular, marauding best. I’m wondering, though, while not discounting the physical aspect of his game, if he’ll be just as useful psychologically. If ever a club could benefit from a shot of sunshiney Oz upbeatness when they’ve important business at Hampden then surely it’s the Hibees.
Atoning for past semi-final disappointment
What’s Australia’s national sport? Its countrymen like to answer: “Winning.”
How does Irvine express his enthusiastic approval for something? With words like “screamer” and “scandalous” - eg, “Since I left You” is both. He does, though, have a word for the polar opposite with a bad game being explained thus: “I had a Chernobyl today.” Despite only pitching up at Easter Road in January, the team have managed to contrive a Chernobyl that included him: the League Cup semi collapse to St Johnstone. Our man is feeling good about Dundee United today, however, and insists the mood in the camp is positive.
He says: “Aussies have the rep for sure of always being chilled but I did used to let the hype of big games get to me. If my mum ever saw me rubbing my hands together in the line-ups she’d go: ‘Ah, he’s nervous today.’ But even though football isn’t the biggest sport in my country by any means you’re still expected to compete and play in World Cups. You shouldn’t lack a competitive edge.
“Maybe I can use my experience in the crucial games coming up for Hibs to be a calming influence on those who’ve not been in those situations before but, honestly, this is a group which, despite having young players all over the pitch, is very confident and full of self-belief. Also, there are guys who’ve won things with Hibs. I think the team will have good mentality for Saturday and what might lie ahead.
“Listen, St Johnstone was incredibly disappointing. It was only my second game for Hibs, and my second anywhere for ten months, and I was gutted. We were totally dominant, hitting the post and bar, but the game turned after we lost the first goal. You can’t let opportunities like semi-finals pass you by. You can take a defeat sometimes but the way we folded in the second half that day was totally unacceptable. I haven’t seen that from the team since, though, and I think what happened is well and truly behind them.”
Talking through his multifarious tattoos
We meet after training at East Mains. The plan had been to socially distance on a bench overlooking the training pitches but it’s threatening to snow and I don’t want him catching a chill on my conscience. Re-convening indoors brings standard wind-uppery from passing team-mates, the silliest from Martin Boyle, although manager Jack Ross gives some too. (All I have to say to you, sir, is that The Avalanches beat your Ocean Colour Scene every time). Irvine, 28, is as brawny as he looks on the park - footballers up close often don’t - and this is accentuated by his virile locks and adult-film moustache, more apt for the Aussie Rules scrapper he was in his youth.
But something I hadn’t noticed before: his multifarious tattoos. He conducts a tour: “So that’s a dude from The Simpsons and here on the back of my ankle is a quote from Seinfeld: ‘Serenity now - insanity later.’ Can you read this one? ‘Once more with feeling’ - that’s from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my all-time favourite TV show. This is Lou Reed and over here’s Nick Cave.” Then he hoicks up his shorts: “A lot I did myself, like this little kangaroo. Everyone had a lockdown meltdown, didn’t they? This was mine. Me and my girlfriend Jemilla finished Netflix so we decided to tattoo each other and then I pierced my ears.”
Presumably he froze them first, maybe with an ice-packed steak from the barbie stash? “No mate, I just went for it with the needle.” This is what Hibs need heading back to Hampden: a guy who’ll brave self-inflicted pain!
Talking of his ears, the left one was rendered a bloody mess during the previous round of the Scottish Cup against Motherwell, Irvine coming off worst in an aerial clash. Already there’s been some mythology about the incident: did part of the lug remain on the Easter Road turf where once Franck Sauzee left a couple of teeth while bravely heading a goal against Hearts? Sauzee inspired Hibs to the cup final and third place. Follow that if you can, Jackson - or better it.
Celtic debut and a Neil Lennon meltdown
It is funny, he says, how Hibs and him have “aligned”. He came over from Australia to trial for Celtic, was posted into digs with a couple of chancers who beat him at cards, the loser’s punishment being ten naked star-jumps in the street, but settled well in Glasgow despite being so far from home and impressed sufficiently in the “rezzies” - reserves - to have the chance to debut from the bench in 2012 at home against the Hibees, replacing Victor Wanyama for what would be a 2-2 draw which infuriated manager Neil Lennon. “I thought I did OK but Neil said to me: ‘I was told you were a f****** good youth team player. Absolutely f****** nowhere near it!’ To be fair everyone got it that day. A whole table of sandwiches went up in the air.”
Irvine was sent out on loan to Kilmarnock where a defeat by Hibs while playing centre-half began some of the Rugby Park faithful’s grumbles with him, culminating in a fanzine front-cover of the local panto superimposing his head on the donkey.
Then at the end of 2013-14 he was part of the Killie team who won at Easter Road to send the Leith men into the play-offs and ultimately the Championship. “It was us or them that day,” he says. “I’ve never known tension like it. Guys in our dressing-room were actually praying. I was amazed, but then relegation if it had happened could have affected the lives of the senior players in a serious way. We were safe so we celebrated with our fans but back in the dressing-room Alexei [Eremenko], who had the closest skills of any player I’ve ever seen, was already in his summer shorts with his roller-bag: ‘That’s me off to Thailand, lads, see you later.’”
Two years later came the League Cup final, Hibs against Ross County where Staggies manager Jim McIntyre had removed all restrictions and granted Irvine licence to roam. Early on the player roamed right though the Hibee defence, setting up the Highlanders’ first goal and after keeping tabs on John McGinn for most of the game he was also involved in their winner. At the final whistle, with his mum, dad and sister over from Melbrourne and in the stand, the Man of the Match was in floods of tears. Then came the victory parade. Here Irvine wants to correct an impression given in a recent podcast that he might have been taking the mickey out of this modest affair: “The bus travelled the short distance along Dingwall High Street and then stopped. But that was because it’s one-way. Maybe it was the quickest open-topped procession in sporting history and I know there wasn’t a sea of people like when Hibs went on to win the Scottish - what was that, 200,000? But that made Ross County’s achievement even more of a screamer.” And of course scandalous.
The well-read footballer and wannabe guitar hero
Inevitably training centres like East Mains remove players day-to-day from the heart of the club’s community but it’s telling that Irvine has chosen to base himself in Leith and, when Covid restrictions are sufficiently eased, that he’s determined to search out “the cool, hidden bars”. He’s politically aware. “How can you not be right now? It’s important to be engaged and to have a social conscience.” So where does he stand on Indyref? “I’m for the devolution of power.” He’s an avid reader. “My last book was down the classic American route - James Baldwin’s Another Country. Before that was Milkman which won the Booker Prize. And I’ve just got hold of this year’s winner, Shuggie Bain.”
But maybe the most interesting thing about Irvine is contained in the nickname given him by Nigel Adkins, his manager at Hull City: “He called me The Traveller because any time I had a couple of days off I’d be packing up the rucksack and checking my Skyscanner. I’ve done Vienna, Budapest, Paris, loads. Copenhagen - fell properly in love with the place - was where I got my first tattoo.” Museums or red-light districts? “Oh, museums. But I always try to find a local band playing some sweaty club.”
In his teenage years back in Melbourne Irvine was that strumming wannabe. “I was playing in a band right up until I came to Celtic. We were called Take it Easy, Danny Allen after a kids’ book, which was typical of us: pretentious little music geeks trying to be as obscure as possible. We were post-hardcore, quite heavy. Our girl singer softened things a bit but I was a showman and liked to bounce around. My guitar heroes were Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Prince and, yeah, I dreamed of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. We recorded some songs for a radio station and I’d just spent all the money I had on new speaker stacks when I got news of the trial.”
Before Hull and after Ross County were Burton Albion, newbies in England’s Championship. Irvine did so well there that China were interested. As he tells it, a scribbled note was passed across the table containing lots of digits, but: “It wasn’t for me. How I was brought up - even though Dad leaves his housing estate on Aberdeen as a spray-painter to set up a successful business in Australia - there was no pressure on me to chase the money. Both my parents grafted and I’d like to think I’ve taken that from them. Maybe I could have got somewhere in Aussie Rules. I was what’s called an on-baller and I loved the madness of it. But for me, even coming from an unlikely place such as the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I was always going to try and make it at football. That was the singular aim.”
Taking on Paul Pogba at the World Cup
While Dad Steve is Scottish and his mother Danielle is Dutch-Maltese, Irvine from boy to man, fan to player, has been emotionally invested in the World Cup dreams of Australia’s Socceroos. “No one in Australia talks about 1997 when he lost in overtime to Iran and missed the next year’s tournament. Aged eight I saw us beat Uruguay in the playoffs in 2001 only to get humped in the second leg. In 2006 I was lucky enough to be in Germany for our first time in finals for 32 years. That was emotional and it’s going to be the same for you Scots this summer.”
And in the last World Cup in Russia suddenly there he was on the touchline, about to enter the fray against France armed with instructions which were a bit more elaborate than when he was a sub for Celtic against Pat Fenlon’s Hibs and the bauchly figure of Paul Cairney was his direct opponent.
Another Paul but this was Pogba. “That was bizarre and in a sense just ridiculous I was there. But we did pretty well and only lost by a late OG to the eventual champions. When you’re up against the best players in the world you’ve just got to embrace it and try and enjoy yourself.” A sound philosophy. Don’t think about it could be a Chernobyl. Aim for the scandalous.